Saturday of the Sacred Music Colloquium is the day on which the Mass occurs earlier in the schedule, at 10:30m. This year the Mass of Saturday celebrated the votive Mass for the Blessed Virgin Mary, in the extraordinary form. The music was of a very special character. It used polyphonic Mass propers written by William Byrd, creating one of the brightest and most revealing aesthetic and spiritual experiences of the entire week.
The usual structure of High Mass with a polyphonic choir is to use Gregorian chant on the Mass propers (Introit, Gradual Psalm, Alleluia, Offertory, Communion) and set the ordinary parts of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus) to a beautiful polyphonic composition whether old or new. This is the standard mix throughout history; indeed, this is the structure that, more than any other single genre of composition and performance, gave rise to Western music as we know it.
But what if the two roles are reversed? What if the propers of the Mass are sung to polyphonic settings while the ordinary of the Mass is sung in Gregorian chant? There is nothing in the rubrics to prevent it. Many Renaissance composers wrote large settings of Mass propers. To use them at Mass becomes a bit impractical for most choirs, who are not often able to learn five large works of music to sing only once in the course of a year.
But this year at the colloquium, and for the first time in history of the colloquium, this is precisely what was done at this Mass on Saturday. The choice for polyphonic propers set against chanted ordinary has a dramatic effect on the texture of the Mass itself. It’s almost like taking a picture and inverting the colors: the shapes and meaning remain the same but one sees them in a completely new way.
The Mass began with a dramatic organ prelude played by Benjamin Cornelius-Bates, an organ student at Duquesne University (and a student of Professor Ann Labounsky, who has hosted us this week). Then the introit began, Salve Sancta Parens by Byrd, as sung by Wilko Brouwers’s choir. This music at this point in the Mass was a revelation in every way.
The music of Byrd stands alongside that of Brahms or Bach for its technical brilliance and beauty. This motet in particular was written for 5 vocal parts, which equally dependent on the other for the overall effect. It is bright and sparkling music written to honor Mary with all the qualities of Marian music throughout the ages. It lifts up the heart in joy.
The Kyria and Gloria following according to the Cum Jubilo setting of Mass IX. This is a setting that is somehow less familiar to me and it was a stunning, particularly the Gloria, which I don’t recall ever hearing before. The entire congregation of singers sung it all beautifully without having rehearsed it even once. But here again, the juxtaposition of these chants with polyphonic propers made for striking contrast and an intriguing interrelationship.
These pieces by Byrd should have a very special place in the hearts of Catholics. Clearly, they constitute some of his best work. But consider the circumstances under which they were written and published. Byrd was the court composer to Queen Elizabeth, whom he delighted with settings of the English Anglican service during times when to be a practicing and faithful Catholic was to commit a crime. Byrd, a devout Catholic, was tolerated only because he had so much talent to offer the court.
His books of Gradualia were therefore written and circulated in secret, to be used in the Masses held in private estates and castles. This was politically subversive music written not for professional purposes but as pure acts of heroic piety. In some way, he was actually risking his life by doing this – part of the double life he lived as England’s most important composer of Anglican music by day and England’s most prolific Catholic composers on night’s and weekends.
The reversal of the traditional roles of propers and ordinary has an interesting consequence for the role of the people and choir. When the proper is chanted by the schola and the ordinary is sung by a specialized choir, the role of the people is to sing only the dialogues with the priest. Unlike today’s “participation” fanatics, I don’t have a problem with this: just as we gain by listening to a great sermon, we can benefit too by being attentive listeners throughout the entire Mass. The music adds nobility to our prayers.
However, when the propers are sung to polyphony, and the ordinary is chanted, there emerges a very important role of the people’s singing during the main parts of the Mass. As a singer in the pews, one feels a special sense of inspiration to sing the Mass ordinary once having heard the Byrd propers at their appointed times. Mass IX, then, was sung by the entire congregation with great enthusiasm.
The results was the brightest and most brilliant of the Masses of the colloquium (this is written before Sunday’s Mass that features Schubert’s Mass in G with orchestra). One stands in awe at the flexibility of the structure of Catholic liturgy, one day solemn and contemplative with a focus on the Cross and the next day joyful and bright with a focus on the life of Mary.
Talking with participants and what they are doing in their parishes, it turns out that the Choral Propers of Richard Rice . They are easily managed by any parish choir that has four parts. Many Catholic music directors have been using them in the ordinary form as a way of re-introducing the Mass propers to their congregations after their tragic loss in the confusion in the year’s following Vatican II. This structure that emerges from this choice has much in common with the structure given to us by the compositions of Byrd.
This is also a wonderful way to begin to foster choral singing in liturgy. And that choice has major implications for parish life. There were some fanatics around in the years following the Council who disparaged choirs and their role. With an exaggerated emphasis on the “people’s song” many choirs were left with nothing to do other than become group-based cantors singing the melody along with the congregation. It is not surprising in light of this that choirs in parishes entered a long period of decline, and musical literacy plummeted at the same time. The typical parish today, then, has no music program to speak of – an astonishing fact in a Church culture that gave us the likes of Byrd.
This is one of the problems that the Colloquium seeks to address. It is designed to give people skills of singing and develop those skill in service of the liturgy. It is also designed to show these people how these skills can be effectively used in service of the faith. Singers and musicians come to have a highly valued place in the social structure of Catholic culture.
The sermon by Fr. Robert Pasley offered special thanks to the musicians for their role in inspiring the priests to undertake the hard work and sacrifices necessary for their ministry. He said that he wished all priests could come to the colloquium so that they could see the level of dedication of the musicians and come to place a higher value on their role. Truly, people like William Byrd made monumental contributions to the faith and the world by applying their talents in he hope of lifting up the liturgy.
One participant told me that he knew that the colloquium would give him training in chant and polyphony. What he had no expected was what would happen to his own temperament and outlook by spending a week deeply immersed in such an environment of beauty. He said that he feels personally transformed by the whole experience. In some ways, it is indeed a mystical experience unlike any on earth.