New Parish Polyphony

I often find myself even more inspired by amateur performances than professional ones, but this recording is very special indeed. It is a group started by a seminarian in a tiny parish in Mississippi. They have only been together for one month. This is the third piece that they have sung at Mass. Their singing has brought new inspiration and life to the parish, with accolades pouring in. At first the pastor was reluctant but, seeing the effects, he is now fully on board with the program. It begins differently in every parish. This is one direction one can take. In most parishes today, there is no choral program at all, so this kind of effort amounts to flowers blooming in a desert. Absolutely thrilling. Have a listen.

42 Replies to “New Parish Polyphony”

  1. Thank you for your support and encouragement! It is a great joy to be able to sing this sacred music.

    It may be helpful for listeners to know that there are only six people singing in this recording, ranging in ages from 14 to 23.

  2. Fantastic news! I have a few simple new motets and Mass settings I'd be happy to send this group. Please feel free to email me.

  3. Jeffrey is right: "flowers blooming in a desert. Absolutely thrilling."

    These 6 young people have really accomplished something wonderful, and in only one month. This is not only thrilling, but also inspiring, encouraging, beautiful…you get my point.

  4. Does this have any liturgical funcion though?.

    I'd have thought the answer to be "yes – by definition", but maybe I've misunderstood the question.

  5. It doesn't have a direct ritual function, but it has a liturgical one insofar as it assists in prayer. I can't imagine that anyone would pettifog over such a thing.

  6. John,

    It might help if you were to enlarge on what you mean by 'liturgical function', and the sense in which you suspect the work or the schola doesn't conform to your definition.



  7. Hi Ian

    I suppose by liturgical function, I am thinking about how the text relates to the readings of the day, or uses the texts of the Missal / Graduale antiphons as its basis.

    If it is the Hail Mary, then its place is outside the Mass.

    Further to this, if we are going to to 'New parish polyphony', should we be looking, in addition to Byrd & Tallis, to Arvo Part or Bob Chilcott?

    -Any ideas?


  8. John, this kind of commentary is a perfect way to discourage anyone from doing anything worthy. Have you been to a conventional Catholic parish recently and seen the problem that is going on out there? Must I rehearse this yet again? Ave Maria is a wonderful start. Finally, by new, of course I mean a new group, not new music. Are you being deliberately obtuse?

  9. Jeffrey

    I am being perfectly serious. Yes, Ave Maria is indeed a wonderful start.(To be sung outside of Mass, of course). But why not, for example, also try Bob Chilcott's haunting 'God so loved the world' – this could be used as a communion antiphon. It is not difficult, and could be tackled by six people.

    In my view, the main problem at Catholic parishes is the over-use of one style.

    Arvo Part is of course rather more ambitious – but this is magnificent modern polyphony – and obviously with a larger choir, this would be possible.

    Why not have new music (while not forgetting masterpieces from tradition)?

    The young choir we are talking about might also like to try Elgar's 'Ave Verum' – although this is choral rather than polyphonic.

    I hope that these are useful suggestions and are encouraging worthy liturgical celebrations.

  10. John,

    You are right to suggest the communion antiphon should be sung, but wrong to go on from this to contend that devotional prayers – such as the Ave Maria – should not be said or sung as well.

    I'd like you to consider the proposition that the function of the liturgy is to bring us closer to God, through prayer, sacrament, scripture and symbol. To the extent that words and music like this help us focus on our prayer, so they have a liturgical function.

  11. Ian,

    I am not saying that devotional prayers should not be sung! (God forbid!).

    But, they need to take their rightful place outside of the Mass.

    As far a I know 'devotions may not be admitted into the liturgy'. (Please coreect me if I am wrong)

    What can be very effective, is to have a Marian anthem after Sunday evening prayer (we have done this in my parish) – as recommended by the BCEW.

  12. John,

    I don't think anyone here is suggesting that Catholic choirs should only sing rennaisance polyphony, though the Second Vatican Council greatly encouraged its use, naming it as second only to plainsong in importance. You are clearly not aware that Jeffrey and the CMAA actively encourage the composition of new liturgical music. The criticism is, rather, of the quantities of music we've suffered from in the years since the council that doesn't sit well with the prayerful, God-focused ethos of our liturgy, and that often uses texts that substitute for the given propers, rather than supplementing and supporting them.

  13. John,

    A prayer such as the Ave Maria is not the kind of 'devotional practice' that the Directory on Popular Piety excludes from the Mass. That is why it is customary in England and Wales for it to be recited at the end of the General Intercesions.

  14. You must understand that we are working under certain restrictions from the pastor, and we are fortunate that he has allowed this to continue for as long as it has. He does not personally like the music we are singing, nor does he like Gregorian chant. Our schola is small and is very limited in what we can do. Even as a seminarian, I have no chant instruction from the seminary and so I have no real skill to pass on to our schola other than what I have picked up on my own. I would be wary of attempting to do chant. But what we can do are these very small pieces like Ave Maria. We are trying to foster a greater sense of devotion in the liturgy and reintroduce sacred music to the parish. What we have sung thus far is familiar and so it is place to start with the parishioners. Even if I had permission, I would not land Propers on the parishioners until they had been gradually introduced to this type of music. It could potentially be disastrous. So I think gradualism is much more practical. You must also understand that we are essentially learning how to do this as we go along, as none of us have any training in Sacred Music or how to execute it properly. So your constructive suggestions are welcome.

  15. Ian,

    The BCEW has asked for us not to use devotional prayers after the intercessions in a recent publication.

    But perhaps we are getting off-topic.

  16. Ian,

    I will supply a ref. tomorrow.

    When I talk about the over-use of one style, in my view, very many parishes only use the guitar and the folk / P & W style.

    Good music (in any style) is, in my view, rather scarce in the RC Church – but there are some gems here and there, if you are prepared to sift thru' and do your homework!

  17. Whatever style is used – Folk, Contemporary liturgical, Choral, Chant, Rock, Jazz, or Reggae – should foster prayer at Mass for the congregation, and 'break open' and re-inforce scripture.

    'Music in divine worship' gives us the options of using choir-only items at various points in the Mass.

    If the congregation can use what we have chosen / written as prayer – then we have succeeded!

  18. Ian,
    Here is your reference:

    'The Roman Rite does not envisage the inclusion of devotional prayers in the Prayer of the Faithful. As is traditional with liturgical prayer, the Prayer of the Faithful is addressed to the Father, through the Son and in the Spirit.' – Celebrating the Mass (BCEW)

  19. So your constructive suggestions are welcome.

    O.K. – a constructive suggestion. Why not look at what already works – the music of Bob Hurd, Fr John Foley, and Marty Haugen, for example – and use these works as models for new music.

    If your congregation sing, then you have succeeded.

  20. Both the Arvo Pärt Masses (Berliner Messe and Missa Syllabica) are VERY straightforward (for organist AND choir) and are very liturgical. The Flor Peeters Missa IH St Josephi is also pretty easy for a 'modern' setting. Langlais Missa in Simplicitate (unison) is a good starting point and again, very straightforward. For polyphony, the Viadana Missa L'Hora Passa is dead easy, if not a little dreary. The William Lloyd Webber (father of Andrew – yuck!) Missa Princeps Pacis is pretty easy too and, if you like that sort of thing, very useful!

  21. The Arcadelt Ave Maria is extremely approachable and the Kyrie from Byrd 3 (though only 3-fold) makes an excellent polyphonic miniature for a newly-formed and developing choir. The Lajos Bardos Missa Quarta is also reasonably hassle-free and is a little more rewarding – like the other suggestions, however, it is very 'easy' on the ear!

  22. Nick,

    I am on the lookout for easy, short motets to sing at the gifts, preferably with psalm-based texts – any ideas?

    As for the above Mass settings – are they suitable for congregations?


  23. John,

    Thanks for the reference. Alas, it relates to the Prayer of the Faithful so isn’t germane to your criticism of the linked music (and in passing, the common practice of saying or singing the Ave Maria after the Prayer of the Faithful isn’t covered, either – hence the widespread continuation of the custom, even in English and Welsh cathedrals). Your complaint that the linked music isn’t “liturgically functional” therefore seems to be without support.

    As for your refusal to distinguish between the merits of the work of Hurd, Inwood et al on the one hand, and Arcadelt and Pärt on the other, and your contention that if it’s popular it must be right – they’re at variance with the Church’s recognition of artistic value judgement; of its teaching that certain kinds of music are particularly important to our liturgical ethos and tradition; and that not all styles of music are appropriate to the liturgy.

    There: that was measured, wasn’t it? The word “naff” didn’t appear once in my reference to the work of the worship-music great and good 🙂

    ps you may find it helpful to read these recent seminal church documents that touch on liturgical music:

    John Paul II on Sacred Music

    Musicam Sacram.

    Sacrosanctum Concilium

  24. Ian,

    I did not criticise the linked music.

    I did not criticise the practice of saying / singing the Ave Maria after the Prayers of the Faithful.

    I did not complain that the music isn't 'liturgically functional'.

    I did not refuse to distinguish between Hurd and Part.

    I did not say that if it is popular it must be right.

    I did not say that all styles of music are appropriate to the liturgy. (The USCCB said this).

    The Church has, for example recognised the artistic value of Marty Haugen's 'All you works of God' (See Irish Episcopal Commission).

    (Would anyone seriously disagree that, for example, Bob Hurd's 'Ubi Caritas' is a masterpiece?)

    I have read the above documents many times over.

    Many thanks for the above links.

  25. OK,expanding on my original questions –

    Is this Arcadelt's Ave Maria?

    Was it sung durimg or outside Mass.

    If it was sung in Mass – where?

    Were the congregation given a translation?

  26. John – no – they are all choral settings. As to the offertory motets, I often check the correct offertory antiphon text from the Graduale and then type the first couple of words into CPDL and see what it brings up. Sorry not to be more helpful – I have a terrible memory and am lost without my music library list!

  27. John Quinn demands to know "Were the congregation given a translation?" Recall that we are talking about the Ave Maria here, the most familiar prayer in the whole of Catholic Christendom. The very idea that such would be necessary illustrates the failure of so many agendas dating back so many decades.

  28. Jeffrey,

    I did not demand to know anything! (Although I would be curious to know).


    Many thanks for your advice.


    PS I would have thought that the Our Father was better known (although I might be wrong)

  29. John,

    To answer your original questions…

    It is Arcadelt's Ave Maria, and it was sung after the hymn during Communion. The pastor is only allowing for a post-communion 'meditation.' This is certainly not ideal, but it is all we can do. As I said before, this is a step to reintroducing sacred music to this parish.

  30. Oh, and the congregation needed no translation of the Ave Maria. Of course, they aren't Latin scholars, but you don't need to be to recognize that piece.

  31. Is it sacred?

    Is it authentic?

    There is no mention in Groves.

    I googled into the below:

    The choral anthem Ave Maria gratia plena attributed to Jacques Arcadelt has proven to be one of the most popular and established settings of this age-old sacred poem, especially in Roman Catholic services. It has helped keep the name of Arcadelt alive in church services, even though it is hardly known elsewhere, as Arcadelt's madrigals, chansons, masses, and other works are seldom studied or performed. Unfortunately, it does not appear that this famous Ave Maria is truly the work of Arcadelt. This piece, variously given in versions of three and four voices, only superficially resembles sixteenth century style and no concordance for this piece is known from a sixteenth century source. The earliest edition of the work dates from 1842. The attribution of the Ave Maria to Arcadelt is said to have been initially made by Sir Henry Rowley Bishop, although detail on this issue is unclear. The piece is often shown to have been "arranged" or "adapted" by French composer and conductor Pierre-Louis-Phillippe Dietsch (1808 — 1865). Dietsch wrote a lot of sacred choral music; perhaps he is the true composer of the "Arcadelt" Ave Maria. ~ Uncle Dave Lewis , All Music Guide

  32. "Why not look at what already works – the music of Bob Hurd, Fr John Foley, and Marty Haugen, for example" LOL. When have these ever worked anywhere?

  33. 'One bread, one body' (Foley) 'Ubi caritas' (Hurd) 'Shepherd me, O God' (Haugen) are acknowledged classics and have worked at many parishes.

  34. After being invited to listen to the piece and then reading all the comments I am not sure I am capable of posting an intelligent and civil comment as most of the above is outside my liberal expertise and well above my current pay grade.

    Understanding they have been together for a short while, I feel a sense of joyous passion in doing something well. As an avid music lover and passing student of Latin I feel anguish for children in some public schools who are simply denied a chance to learn either music or language because some bean counter deems it non-critical to a curriculum.

    After listening to this recording I would love to be in their presence when they honor me with a soul-touching performance, but after trying to digest the above banter of dogmatic gobbledygook I may feel too self-conscious to enjoy it even if I could attend.

    I really do apologize if I was unable to adhere to the strict posting criteria.

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