Monday, April 18, 2011

A Missal for the Choir

Fr. Christopher Smith wrote an outstanding article about the strange way in which the Roman Rite has become Balkanized in a single town, with different understandings prevailing at each parish. It is even true within single parishes, where we find everything from a Gregorian chant Mass to a rock-bad Mass, each marketed to a separate demographic.

There is an even stranger problem that affects every single Mass, one that has little precedent in the history of the ritual. The problem is that the the printed materials for the celebrant are hardly ever seen by the choir. The choir’s materials are hardly ever seen by the celebrant. The people in the pews have a different set, and there is yet another set for readers who handle the prayers of the faithful. The patchwork comes together in the end, more or less, but there are important pieces missed along the way.

A good example comes in Holy Week this year. The Sacramentary contains many chants that the choir know nothing about. Missalettes and planning guides do not have them. They are there for the priest but the priest is not designated to sing them. As a result, they do not get sung at all. Nor is the director of music in a position to assist the celebrant with his chants. Choir leaders figure that all they need to know is in their planning guide and the Missalette. But when you actually compared the two resources, you get a picture of a different ritual.

In fact, I would venture a guess that most people involved in a conventional parish music program have never opened a Sacramentary, much less follow what is going on in there week to week. They don’t have to. Nor do most priests bother to look at the planning guides that the choir uses to provide music for the liturgy. They are pretty much in the dark as to why the choir sings what it sings. The problem is further complicated by the differences that are embedded in the Sacramentary versus the Gradual itself.

It is helpful to contrast this what the old Mass. The Roman Missal (there was no separate Letionary) contained all the words said at the Mass. The Roman Gradual had the same words insofar as they are to be sung. The Liber Usualis was a useful compendium that allowed the singers to see exactly what was being done. The customized versions for the celebrant added the detailed rubrics that pertained to the celebrant but otherwise. Laypeople could use the Liber or any handheld Missal that was the same except that it added notes that pertained to the laity.

In other words, everyone was on the same page, so to speak.

I’ve been very critical of the current Sacramentary but in the balance, it is a better musical resource for ritual music than the Missalettes. The trouble is that hardly anyone other than the priest really saw this music. A knowledgeable choir director once told me that my own parish is the only one has had ever hear of that actually used the music in the Sacramentary for ritual music for the congregation. It is not great, but it is good, and much better than you find elsewhere.

Will this strange situation change with the new translation? Certainly the Bishops and ICEL are hoping for a change. This is why they are requiring that the chants from the Missal itself be printed in all musical resources in the pew. And the chants are not to be re-rendered in a new rhythm but printed exactly as they appear in the Missal itself.

This is a huge step. The people, the priest, and the people will have all the same basic music for the Mass. This will tie together a major loose end at currently exists in the liturgical structure.

Even so, there are limits to the mandate. There Missal will contain many chants that are not likely to be printed in the pew editions or the choir editions. The danger here is that they will go unsung and unknown.

Now to the action item. Pastors should purchase an additional Missal just for the loft or the choir room. It should be there on a stand for easy access. It should be maintained so that the ribbons mark the day. Choir directors and organists should be encouraged to look at the liturgical text every day or every week so that they will know what is coming and what the options are.

Choir directors should be encourage to look critically at the material from the major publishers to make sure that their resources are not leaving out important information or critical music.

It will also help if the choir director can see what the priest sees, and thereby be in a position to encourage singing from the sanctuary. The director can point out to the pastor that such and such passage can be beautiful sung, and then demonstrate how easy it is. This will help break down the communication barriers that currently exist.

This one simple step will take us a long way to re-integrating the loft and the sanctuary, which is essential to putting the Roman ritual back together again.

Many companies are printing new Missals. The most elaborate versions can cost up to $500 but there are smaller versions with less elaborate bindings that are extremely affordable. This should be part of the parish budget. If it is not, someone in the parish should volunteer to pay the bill to make this happen.

Again, this seems like an unlikely change to advance the reform of the reform, but the small step of providing and using a new Roman Missal in the choir room can do a great deal of good.