Vatican II didn’t abolish choirs. So who did?
Apr 15, 2003

Vatican II didn’t abolish choirs. So who did?

Online Edition

– Vol. IX, No. 2: April 2003

Vatican II didn’t abolish choirs. So who did?

by Lucy A. Carroll

Where once the Catholic churches of this country had full choirs singing Gregorian chant, sacred polyphony, and great masterworks, today few but cathedrals and larger churches can claim a true choir. Most parishes have song groups that cluster around guitar strummers; others have groups that just sing the congregational music, in unison or perhaps with a descant here and there. Full choirs singing masterworks in harmony are few and far between. Did the Council abolish choirs when it mandated fuller participation of the faithful?

The answer is, of course, an overwhelming "no!" The Council no sooner abolished choirs than Latin, statues, stained glass, baldachinos, Gregorian chant, bells, incense, religious habits, or other losses for which it is blamed.

In fact, the Fathers of the Council emphasized the importance of the choir. In

Sacrosanctum Concilium

(SC), the Council’s document on the Liturgy, we read:

Servers, readers, commentators, and members of the choir also exercise a genuine liturgical function. They ought, therefore, to discharge their offices with the sincere piety and decorum demanded by so exalted a ministry and rightly expected of them by God’s people. (SC Chapter III §29).

Chapter VI, the section on music, mentions the choir numerous times. Section 14 states, "The treasury of sacred music is to be preserved and cultivated with great care. Choirs must be assiduously developed".

But how can we equate active participation of the people with the singing of a choir? The Latin term is participatio actuoso, rather than participatio activo. Actual participation. One can participate when one listens to the choir, just as one participates in the homily by listening quietly.

In his explanation of section VI, Pope Paul VI wrote:

The faithful are also to be taught that they should try to raise their mind to God through interior participation as they listen to the singing of ministers or choir. (Musicam Sacram, Part II, #14)

Indeed, far from abandoning the choir, Pope Paul stressed the importance of developing choirs:

Because of the liturgical ministry it exercises, the choir (capella musica, schola cantorum) should be mentioned here explicitly. The conciliar norms regarding reform of the liturgy have given the choir’s function greater prominence and importance. (MS, Part II #19).

A greater prominence and importance! He continued:

Therefore: (a) Choirs are to be developed with great care, especially in cathedrals and other major churches, in seminaries, and in religious houses of study. (b) In smaller churches as well a choir should be formed, even if there are only a few members. (MS, Part II #19).

In the 1975 General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the choir is referred to again and again. Some examples:

#31. The Gloria is sung by the congregation, or by the congregation alternately with the choir, or by the choir alone.

#56e. The Agnus Dei is as a rule sung by the choir.

#64. There should be a choir director to lead and sustain the people in the singing.

#37a. The Alleluia is sung, in every season outside Lent by all present or by the choir or cantor.

When my dad called on me to help him begin the Holy Name Men’s Choir in our parish, my parents sent me first to Monsignor Remey in New York, whose choirs had sung polyphony on radio in the 1930s and 1940s. Retired, he became a willing mentor. He insisted I study at the Saint Pius X School of Liturgical Music. I did. There I studied organ, conducting, music theory, liturgical singing, Gregorian chant, and polyphony. I was there in 1963 and 1964, the fateful years of Vatican II. Based on information directly from the Council, we continued to learn Chant ("The church recognizes Gregorian Chant as being specially suited to the Roman liturgy. Therefore it should be given pride of place in liturgical services". SC VI #116); to sing and direct polyphony ("Other kinds of music, especially polyphony are by no means excluded". SC VI #116); to toil away at organ practice ("The pipe organ is to be held in high esteem in the Latin Church, for it is the traditional musical instrument, the sound of which can add a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up men’s minds to God and higher things". SC VI #120); and, of course, to practice our Latin ("Pastors should see to it that, in addition to the vernacular, the faithful are also able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass belonging to them" MS, Part II #47.)

Those of us old enough to remember what happened next may shudder at the memory. The cantor of the psalm suddenly became a soloist throughout the Mass. The utter abandonment of Latin brought an influx of hurriedly-written, oft banal music. Coming in the turbulent decade of the 1960s, the choirs were considered "elite" and contrary to the new "democratization" of the liturgy. In came the guitars, in came the bubble-gum music, in came nice, well-intentioned folks with little or no musical training, no knowledge of the church’s musical heritage, and no true understanding of the actual nature of the liturgical reform.

As pipe organs fell to guitar groups and electric keyboards, organists and choir directors like myself retreated to Protestant churches. "Why should I spend time in choir rehearsal", a former member of a cathedral choir wailed to me, "if all we do is sing those unison congregational hymns?" Why, indeed.

The fault then lay in two areas, hopelessly intertwined: the amateurish new music, and the absence of trained professionals. And all because the actual intent of the Council was misinterpreted or outright ignored.

But it needn’t remain this way. The faithful need to tell pastors and bishops (nicely, in Christian charity) that the situation needs reform. Well-meaning but untrained folks need to be (gently) replaced with accomplished professional musicians, members of the American Guild of Organists and the American Choral Directors Association. At the very least, the folks currently in place need to study with a mentor or enroll in a good school of music. And finally, schools of sacred music need to be established in dioceses — on the level of the old Saint Pius X School of Liturgical Music — schools that train based on the true intent of the Council Fathers and the actual words of the original documents. That is, classes must be available in chant, polyphony, Latin, conducting, music literature, and organ.

Today’s "training" too often consists of workshops offered by music publishers who are, after all, primarily in the business of selling their products. These companies have large stables of composers who regularly churn out new music that they, in turn, promote at workshops and conferences. Few have read Sacrosanctum Concilium or Musicam Sacram. They write what is popular. This kind of music may be popular, but its popularity has much to do with the fact that for years it has been practically the only thing available. Popularity, we know, is not the same as excellence. And excellence should be our goal.

Though revitalization of the Church’s authentic musical tradition may seem daunting, it is certainly possible — and necessary. When we pray for the reform of the sacred Liturgy, let us add a prayer for the restoration of choirs.


Lucy E. Carroll has worked professionally as choral director and music educator; she has served as organist/choir director in Lutheran, Episcopal, Catholic churches, a high school, two colleges, and a Reform Synagogue. She is currently (and happily) organist/choir director at the Carmelite Monastery in Philadelphia, and an adjunct associate professor at Westminster Choir College, Princeton. She is also the creator of the Churchmouse Squeaks cartoons, which regularly appear in AB.



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