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April 2012

Vol. XVIII, No. 2

To Sing the Mass and Teach it

by Susan Benofy

The Musica Sacra St. Louis conference, held at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis February 16-18, 2012, drew musicians from the US and Canada — clergy, religious, and laity — who came to sing the liturgy in the music proper to the Roman Rite, and to learn how to teach others to do the same.

The conference was organized by Musica Sacra Saint Louis (Adam Wright, chairman), jointly with the cathedral’s office of sacred music (Dr. Horst Buchholz, director) and the St. Louis chapter of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM).

How to Sing the Mass

The event began with a lecture, “Ritual Music: Singing the Mass”, by Mrs. Heather Martin Cooper, director of the St. Louis NPM chapter — followed by Compline (night prayer) chanted in English. Chanted Morning Prayer began both the Friday and Saturday sessions, which continued with instruction and rehearsals for both beginning and advanced chant groups.

Scott Turkington, noted organist and choirmaster at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, Charleston, South Carolina, led the “beginning” group that concentrated on the Ordinary of Mass (parts of the Mass that are repeated throughout the year, such as the Kyrie, Gloria, and Agnus Dei), using the chant setting Mass XI (Orbis factor).

The “advanced” group — those already familiar with basic chant — was directed by Nick Botkins, music director at St. Francis de Sales Oratory in St. Louis. This group concentrated on the Proper of the Mass (those parts of the Mass that change frequently, such as the Introit, antiphons, etc.) from the Graduale Romanum.

The two groups came together to form a polyphonic choir in the afternoon sessions. They learned motets by 16th-century composers William Byrd, Thomas Tallis, and Giovanni Croce, as well as a polyphonic Kyrie and Agnus Dei by Orlando di Lasso under the direction of Dr. Buchholz.

Working with Small Choirs

Workshops oriented toward improving the music in actual parish situations were also featured at the conference. “Working with Small Choirs” was Dr. Buchholz’s topic. Small choirs, he said, can be seen as an opportunity for growth. Since church choirs are generally composed primarily of volunteers who do not have specialized musical training, this means, first, musical growth. The choir director has to do vocal training of choir members, and must also teach some music theory and skills such as sight-reading. This will help keep rehearsals interesting and encourage regular attendance.

Dr. Buchholz stressed that the choir members must think of themselves as an ensemble, not a group of soloists. He suggested several means of encouraging this. For example, vocal warm-ups are necessary at the beginning of rehearsal, but not only to activate choir members’ voices —warm-ups also help form the members into an ensemble, since they must listen to each other and try to blend their voices. Cantors should not only be soloists but also members of the choir.

The choir is not there simply to lead the congregational singing. That may actually inhibit congregational participation, since often the choir and organ combined with an amplified cantor will render the congregation mute. The choir can alternate with the people, but also has its own role and needs its own repertoire, what Vatican II called the “treasure of inestimable value”. This includes the Proper of the Mass, which involves texts that change each Sunday and therefore require rehearsal. In order to build an appropriate repertoire he suggested it may be necessary to “sing better, but less often”. That is, to have the choir sing at Mass, perhaps only once a month, though still rehearsing weekly. This allows them to really master the material and sing it well.

The internet is a good source of repertoire. One web site particularly useful for small choirs is small-choirs.org.uk, based in England. This site features a wide range of choral pieces, both old and new, suitable for small ensembles, all available for download. Conference participants sang several offerings from this site, including a setting of the Palm Sunday hymn “All Glory, Laud, and Honor”, an a capella Alleluia by 18th-century composer William Boyce, and a recently composed setting of the Pentecost sequence Veni, Sancte Spiritus.

Musical growth is likely to lead to numerical growth as well, Dr. Buchholz pointed out, since a good choir will attract new members. This requires recruiting through, for example, the parish bulletin and occasional announcements at Mass. It is also necessary to show that the choir’s work and commitment is appreciated.

How to Teach Chant

Scott Turkington offered two workshops on reading chant notation as well as a lecture on “How to Teach Chant to Your Parish Choir”. He began by giving several reasons for singing chant. Chant is part of the living tradition of the Church, and is the Church’s own music that she asks us to sing. Chant has an ineffable beauty that — because it is based on modes and not modern scales — is not earthbound, and suggests a different world.

While being sensitive to people’s needs and musical views, musicians should try to acquaint people with this beauty. It is especially important to introduce young people to well done chant, to which they respond very positively. They should not be deprived of this important part of their Catholic heritage.

Chant, as it developed over the centuries, responded to several problems of Church music. For example, psalm verses can be added to the Introit to adjust the length of the chant to the length of the entrance procession.

Another valuable feature of the chant is the veracity of the texts. There is no need to worry about whether their content is theologically appropriate, since they are mainly taken from the psalms or other Scripture passages. In addition, the texts are an official part of the Mass, which is not really complete without them.

It is true that chant is difficult, and takes commitment to learn. But some chants are easier than others and they can be introduced gradually. Perhaps a parish could begin by having the choir sing the Offertory once a month. The people would not sing, but that would leave them free to be more attentive to the action of the Mass at that point, the presentation of the gifts.

Throughout the conference, chant and polyphony were used in actual liturgical celebrations, including two Masses sung by the participants. The Friday Votive Mass of the Sacred Heart included the Latin Introit, Alleluia, and Offertory from the Graduale Romanum as well as a Responsorial Psalm and Communion chanted in English. The Ordinary of the Mass was the Gregorian setting XI (Orbis factor), and the motet “If Ye Love Me” by Thomas Tallis was sung after Communion.

Closing Choral Mass at Cathedral

Conference participants sang the regular Saturday evening Mass at the cathedral basilica. This included an entrance hymn in addition to the Introit. The Responsorial Psalm was chanted in English, and the rest of the Proper used settings from either the Graduale or the Simple English Propers. The Ordinary of the Mass joined a Gloria and Sanctus from The Mass of Saint Francis, by Dr. Buchholz, with Kyrie and Agnus Dei settings that combined a simple chant tune with polyphony. Each invocation was first chanted by the cantor, then repeated by the people, followed by the choir singing a polyphonic setting, the Missa Octavi Toni by Orlando di Lasso. Such an approach is a practical way of incorporating more complex choral settings into the Mass while still involving congregational participation in singing.

Most of the participants in the Musica Sacra Saint Louis conference are active in liturgical music in their parishes, and are interested in teaching the music of the Church to choirs and congregations. The age range was wide: the youngest participant was fourteen, one of three teenagers in attendance. Most of the conference organizers were young adults, as were a large portion of the participants. This is an encouraging sign that a new generation is prepared to follow the directive of Vatican II that the “treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care”.

The organizers hope to have future conferences. Information will be posted on the Musica Sacra Saint Louis web site —musicasacrasaintlouis.drupalgardens.com/ — when available.

***

Susan Benofy, AB research editor, attended the Musica Sacra St. Louis conference.

***

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