Jul 15, 2003

Musicians in Catholic Worship – Part I

Online Edition – Vol. IX, No. 5: July-August 2003

Musicians in Catholic Worship – Part I

Banish the Soloists ­ Let the People Sing

by Lucy Carroll

Editor’s note:

Lucy E. Carroll, D.M.A., is organist and music director at the public chapel of the Carmelite monastery in Philadelphia. She is also adjunct associate professor at Westminster Choir College, Princeton. She has taught high school through graduate school, and worked in Lutheran, Episcopal and Catholic churches and a Reform Synagogue. Her Churchmouse Squeaks cartoons now appear regularly in the Adoremus Bulletin.

This is the first of a three-part series, Musicians in Catholic Worship. 

Part I

On a recent business trip, I attended Mass in a neighboring diocese. A few wrong turns made me just a little late, and I had to park at the extreme end of the lot, a distance of what seemed miles. It was the middle of the first verse of the entrance hymn. I knew this because the voice of the cantor carried, via outdoor speaker, all the way to my car. Inside, it was just as bad: the microphone was turned so high that the sound of the cantor’s untrained voice obliterated the organ, the congregation — and any hope of meaningful participation.

This appears to be the rule today. While we often don’t find organists, we always find a cantor (in many places now re-labeled "song leader" as if it were a campfire event), usually a loud, untrained soloist. Congregations sit quietly while they are sung at. As a priest friend lamented, "when the cantors came in, the congregation went mute". So prevalent is this that GIA (Gregorian Institute of America Publications) sells a button that pictures a microphone and the legend "Back off and let the people sing!"

Musicians fulfill an important and necessary function in the sacred liturgy. But whether fully trained professionals or ardent amateurs (amateur: translation: one who does it for love), all must remember that the purpose of the music is to implement the liturgy, not to entertain the faithful or glorify themselves. The motto of all ought to be: Non nobis Domine, sed nomini tuo da gloriam! (Not to us, Lord, but to your Name be all glory!)

As with so much that is out of sync in today’s Church, the position of soloist was not advocated by the Second Vatican Council. The word cantor does not even appear in Chapter VI of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Vatican II document on the liturgy. The choir was re-affirmed as being an integral part of the liturgical team of priest, deacon and reader.

The Council mandated that the choir be an integral part of the liturgy team: "Choirs must be diligently promoted" (Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, §114). Further explaining this, the Holy See’s Instruction on Music, Musicam Sacram (March 5, 1967) said:

The conciliar norms regarding reform of the liturgy have given the choir’s function greater prominence and importance. The choir is responsible for the correct performance of the parts that belong to it and for helping the faithful to take an active part in the singing. (MS 19).

Like many things in the wake of the Council, the choirs, instead of proliferating, virtually disappeared. In many parishes today the choir sings only for special events: Christmas, Easter, Holy Week. The choir, however, should lead the congregation at Mass, every Sunday.

When choirs disappeared, the cantors took over. But the cantor as soloist raises many problems that militate against the cultivation of good congregational singing.

When the cantor is soloist, then as soloist, the cantor will insist on singing in a key that is personally comfortable. We have all suffered along with bass cantors singing in keys that make the rest of us wallow in the nether regions, and (more often) with high soprano cantors who leave us far behind as they ascend to notes the average person cannot reach.

If the cantor is soloist, then the music will be treated as a solo, as it is in much music for liturgy that is published today.

Last month I attended a funeral. When it came time for the Offertory hymn, the organ played an interesting introduction that had nothing to do with the hymn. In between verses there was more interesting interlude. Since the congregation had no way of knowing what that was, no one except the cantor knew when to begin each verse. The organ accompanied the soloist; the congregation was lost.

The time-honored way of introducing a hymn is to play it, or part of it, in the tempo in which the hymn will be sung. This prepares the congregation. Anything else will confuse them or alienate them. Who wants to make a mistake coming in wrong? Better to keep quiet and just let the soloist take over.

Too many of today’s pop-style hymns are now appearing in their true format: solo songs with back-up group accompaniment. That is, the keyboard — and the intended instrument is the electric keyboard, not pipe organ — is given an accompaniment that has nothing to do with the melody. The part fits in nicely with strummed guitar, drums, etc. The part, however, can not lead a congregation; it is a back-up part for a soloist, the style in pop or commercial music.

Here we discover the true nature of the musical accompaniment: it is suited for back-up groups behind crooning solo singers in supper clubs and lounges, and not for congregations at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. This further allows the soloist up front to, well, to be a soloist. Slurring and scooping, ornamenting and excessive stylings are common. In our area, many soloist cantors sing in that throaty style that is just under the pitch, sliding into notes and taking liberties that absolutely mitigate against the congregation being able to keep up. And of course the microphone is turned up almost to feedback level.

And what if you want to, say, sing the alto part of a more traditional hymn? (Martin Luther, for one, knew the benefit of offering the congregation higher and lower harmony to a given melody.) First of all, few Catholic liturgy aids have anything but the melody printed. Secondly, with the soloist up front taking flights of fancy, and the organist following quietly along, harmonizing becomes impossible.

The Hazzan and the Antiphoner

Cantors come to us from Judaism, where the hazzan sings the traditional intricate Hebraic cantillations and leads the congregation in song. In biblical times, the Jewish people did not attend temple every Sabbath, but only a few times a year for special events and feasts. Music in the temple was reserved for the special groups of priests and musicians. It was after the destruction of the temple, when only the synagogues remained, that regular congregational singing came into being, and that singing consisted of simple Hebrew chants.

Exactly where and when the office of hazzan (cantor) originated, history does not tell us. However, it is a position of long standing and of great importance. A hazzan must study music, singing, Hebrew, and the art of cantillation. The hazzan may also hold the office of music instructor. He must have an excellent, trained singing voice, be able to lead the choir, write and arrange music, train youngsters for bat– and bar mitzvah, and oversee music at services.

In Christian monastic houses, where the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours) was the primary task of the day, the office of antiphoner evolved, taking the place of the hazzan. The antiphoner intoned the antiphon or introductory phrase for each Psalm, and began the antiphonal singing of each Psalm. (Antiphonal singing means that one half the group chants one verse of the Psalm, the other half the next.) The antiphon, or introductory phrase, is sung only at the beginning and end of the Psalm. This antiphonal method of chanting is still done in monastic houses and anywhere the Liturgy of the Hours is chanted.

The Responsorial Psalm

In responsorial singing, all the verses of the Psalm (or hymn) are sung or chanted by the cantor (or choir), while only a response line (antiphon) is repeated after each verse by the congregation.

With the introduction of the responsorial Psalm the antiphoner emerged as "cantor of the Psalm". In the new (2002) General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), we read in Chapter II that "The Psalmist’s role is to sing the Psalm between the readings". This is the old office of monastic antiphoner. Again, we do not read that there are to be soloists throughout the Mass.

Too often in the responsorial Psalm the cantor, as soloist, sings a complex, song-like extravaganza. This piece may become the centerpiece of the day’s music, a tour-de-force for the soloist; however, the words of the Psalm may not be clearly understood by the congregation.

At that aforementioned funeral Mass, the music of the responsorial Psalm (to a paraphrased text) sounded like a waltz from a romantic movie. I felt like getting up and dancing around to the strong 3/4 meter. The verses were equally waltz-y, and the biblical text nearly obliterated. Indeed, the music seemed to be derived from a "golden oldie" — a far cry from the beautiful Gregorian Psalm-tones of the antiphoner, or the cantillations of the hazzan.

Changing the Psalm Texts

An even more serious concern is that in many parishes, paraphrases are used in place of the actual Psalm texts — making them songs instead of Psalms. The music employed for these songs is often second-rate, as well, and can be a trial to the congregation. The Psalm, however, should remain as it is. The texts of the Mass should not be changed. In the 2002 GIRM it is firmly stated that "songs or hymns may not be used in place of the responsorial Psalm" (§62).

The Cantor

One searches Sacrosanctum Concilium’s chapter on sacred music in vain for "office of cantor". It simply was not envisioned. It is the choir that is mentioned again and again. Skip ahead to the 1975 General Instruction of the Roman Missal. Here we read "The cantor of the Psalm is to sing the Psalm or other biblical song that comes between the readings. To fulfill their function correctly, these cantors should possess singing talent and an aptitude for correct pronunciation and diction" (GIRM 1975, §67).

The cantor then, was taking the monastic position of antiphoner, adapted to responsorial, rather than antiphonal, Psalm-singing. And as a singer, had to have training.

It is obvious, however, that cantors — or leaders of song — in most parishes have little or no musical training. They do not have the rigorous training of hazzans. (Also note: the GIRM’s phrase was "the cantor of the Psalm", not "the soloist throughout the entire Mass".)

Visit a Protestant congregation that holds a traditional service, and you will search in vain for a cantor. The organist and choir lead the singing, and most of these congregations can put our own to shame when it comes to congregational singing! Many Protestant churches have multiple choirs: children’s choirs, teen choirs, traditional choirs, bell choirs, but always a choir.

In the 17th century, Presbyterians and Independents removed organs and choirs from churches, as they removed sacred art and iconography, altars, vestments, etc., as too "Catholic in nature". Organs and choirs returned to the Presbyterian Church two centuries later. When Methodism broke from the Anglican tradition, choirs were abolished as "too Roman" and too much a part of "formalized liturgy". The best singers in the congregation sang up front to lead the singing, and eventually, choirs returned. Today only a few Protestant groups hold services sans choir: Amish, Old Order Mennonite, River Brethren, and the like.

The Soloist — or the Choir

So ingrained has the role of soloist performer become in today’s Catholic churches that even when there is a choir, a soloist/cantor may be at a front microphone, with that microphone turned up to a volume that overshadows the full choir.

In stressing the importance of singing at Mass, the GIRM (2002) tells us that "When there is no choir, it is up to the cantor to lead the different chants in which the people take part" (GIRM 2002, III §104). Ah, the chants! The chanted responses.

At the monastery where I am now organist and music director, we do not have a cantor unless the choir is absent, and that is rare. A choir member announces the numbers of the pieces. The choir chants the Psalm and gospel acclamation, and, with the pipe organ, leads all congregational music. Because we have a balcony, we are unseen by the congregation. No matter: I play the pipe organ loud and strong, the choir sings with vigor, the nuns behind their grille sing out, and the congregation, seated between a balcony choir and a choir of nuns, can easily chime in knowing that their own individual voices will not "stick out". The singing is definitely a communal effort!

For certain special occasions, such as Christmas Eve and the annual Novena and the Triduum, we do use a cantor, even if the choir is present. This is necessary because the congregation attending these services is much larger than our ordinary weekly group, unaccustomed to our procedures, and cannot see me. We are blessed with a wonderful cantor, musically trained. He leads with his arms, bringing in the congregation on sung responses, etc. However, I do not "accompany" him (unless the choir is absent and the cantor is singing the Psalm alone). I open the organ up fully, for it is the people we want to open up! And so we do not have a soloist, we have truly communal music for worship.

Quo vadis?

Music in most Catholic parishes today has strayed from the original intent of the Council Fathers, who stressed "active participation" of all the faithful. If the goal of music at Mass were to have a soloist or an entertainment group, we have succeeded rather well. If, however, the goal is the participation of the people in the pew in authentic worship through sacred music, we are failing.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that music in Catholic parishes is seldom in the hands of well-trained liturgical musicians. Committees, liturgy directors, or priests usually select music for the Mass according to their own taste, or worse still, following recommendations of "liturgy aid" publishers on "what is popular" (i.e., their own stable of composers and performers). The result has been banal music. And this has led many professional musicians with expertise in sacred music to seek employment elsewhere.

The situation has no easy cure-all. There is a time for soloists, but not during the congregation’s parts. Congregations need to be led, not sung at. Soloists need to recede into the woodwork and let the congregation sing. The organ needs to be restored to its rightful prominence (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium 102; Musicam Sacram 62), and good organists need to be trained and hired, for the organ should lead the entire congregation, not serve as a quiet accompaniment to a soloist.

The cantor can fulfill a very important role in chanting the Psalm. For other music of the Mass and for hymns, the cantor should simply announce the hymn (if there is a visible number board, then no one need announce numbers at all), then step away from the microphone, and let the organ lead the congregation: let the people sing!

I know of several places where the sacristan turns down the volume of the cantor’s microphone once the hymn or Psalm has begun (another possibility when the cantor seems to have delusions of solo stardom!) Or the organist can simply introduce the piece, thus allowing the congregation to sing and the liturgy to proceed gracefully, uninterrupted.

So, let us have soloists only for appropriate occasions when soloists are true soloists — not during the parts of the sung liturgy that belong to the people and the choir.

Next issue: Part II : Where Have All the Organists Gone?


Musicians in Catholic Worship: Part II Where Have All the Organists Gone? — by Lucy E. Carroll [September 2003]

Musicians in Catholic Worship: Part III Bells and Whistles, Guitars and Tambourines — This is the third of a three part series. — by Lucy E. Carroll [October 2003]



Lucy E. Carroll

Lucy Carroll, organist and choir director at the Carmelite monastery in Philadelphia, teaches at the Westminster Choir College in Princeton. She frequently contributes essays on Catholic music to AB, and is the creator of the “Churchmouse Squeaks” cartoons regularly featured in these pages. In Memoriam: Dr. Lucy E. Carroll, DMA