Feb 15, 2011

Lucy Carroll

Online Edition:
February 2011
Vol. XVI, No. 10

Polyphony and the Parish Choir
How great masterworks of choral music can enhance parish liturgies

by Lucy Carroll

St. Adalbert’s, a Polish parish in the Bronx where I grew up, was a neo-gothic church with stained glass windows, wedding-cake altar, hidden icon, paintings, statues, large pipe organ and choir. I grew up there hearing the great choral masterworks of the Catholic Church in that parish on Sundays.

The choir’s repertoire leaned toward the classic through romantic eras: lots of Mozart, with Charles Gounod, César Franck, Franz Schubert. From time to time, there was a piece of polyphony. Today, to hear polyphonic works, one has to attend a concert or find one of the few churches or cathedrals where polyphonic works are still sung.

Polyphony — from the Greek for “many sounds” — is a style of music that dates from the late medieval period, flourishing in the renaissance. Each choral part is independent, often beginning and ending at different times, weaving back and forth like an aural tapestry. It grew out of Gregorian chant, copying the long and fluid lines. Like chant, polyphony developed to serve the Eucharistic liturgy.

The great 16th-century composers of polyphony included Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (ca 1525-26 – 1594), Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548 – 1611), Marc’Antonio Ingegneri (ca 1535-36 – 1592), and many others.

Today’s parishes too often sing hymns and service music written in a semi-pop style rather than in a sacred format. This is far removed from the ethereal — and difficult — style of sacred polyphony. Polyphonic motets are not heard on commercial radio, but they do appear on television and films when the music in the background needs to represent the Catholic Church. It seems that the world at large associates this style with Catholicism, even if the parishes ignore it today.

Better high school choirs have little difficulty presenting polyphonic works in their concert programs. I worked with high school choirs for more than twenty-five years, so I can assert this is true. I also worked with college choirs, community choirs, church, and professional choirs. It is easier there, of course, but the high school students can sing polyphony, so certainly church choirs ought to be able to, as well.

The first year I gave my high school chamber choir the “O Magnum Mysterium” of Tomás Luis de Victoria, they struggled and grumbled. Once learned, however, it became a favorite piece — a piece groups would insist on carrying over in repertoire year after year. I discovered how much my students enjoyed singing it one day as we were returning home from a competitive event. When I climbed onto the school bus, I heard the beautiful strains of “O Magnum Mysterium” arising from the very back of the bus where a group of students had gathered. And this a public school!

A place for polyphony

Does polyphony have a place in the parish choir? What does the Church say? And if it is to be sung, how can modern-day choirs adapt a style that is so far removed from their daily sphere?

In the Constitution on the Liturgy, the fathers of the Second Vatican Council wrote:

The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman Liturgy; therefore … it should be given pride of place in liturgical services. But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded … so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action. (Sacrosanctum Concilium §116)

In dedicating the pipe organ in Regensburg’s Alte Kapelle in September 2006, Pope Benedict XVI praised nineteenth-century canon Carl Proske because “Gregorian chant and classic choral polyphony were integrated into the Liturgy” there and “the attention given was so significant that it reaches far beyond the region…”

Earlier, in Liturgy and Sacred Music, an address then-Cardinal Ratzinger gave in November 1985, he referred to “The high artistic rank of Gregorian Chant or of classical polyphony”. Further, he stated:

The music that corresponds to the liturgy of the incarnate Christ raised up on the cross lives from a greater and broader synthesis of spirit…. One can say that Western music, from Gregorian Chant through the cathedral music and the great polyphony … has come from the inner wealth of this synthesis and developed it in the fullness of its possibilities. — (Reprinted in Adoremus Bulletin, April 2008: www.adoremus.org/0408SacredMusic.html)

Polyphony is sung unaccompanied; the term we use for unaccompanied singing is a cappella. That literally means “as in the chapel”. That meant that the music was sung as it was in the Sistine Chapel, under the leadership of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, the great composer of polyphonic works, as opposed to, say, St. Mark’s in Venice, where Giovanni Gabrielli used all manner of brass and wind instruments with his choirs.

But polyphony was nearly banned from the very Church that developed it. The Council of Trent examined polyphony, wondering if it was indeed suitable. Since the words appeared at different times in different voice parts, many feared that people would have difficulty hearing and understanding the texts. Cool heads prevailed. Polyphony, which grew out of ornamented Gregorian chant, was praised for the beauty and sanctity of its musical style, and — far from being banned — was encouraged.

Twentieth-century revival

In the nineteenth century, as music became more and more chromatic and complex, polyphony fell out of use. More dramatic, operatic styles appeared. In America, at the beginning of the twentieth century, Nicola Montani (founder of the St. Gregory Guild and editor of The St. Gregory Hymnal) taught polyphonic works to his choirs, and interest grew anew. Polyphonic styles of writing re-appeared in major orchestral works as well. In the mid-twentieth century, The Hymnal of St. Pius X included short polyphonic choral works as well as traditional-style hymns.

However, in the wake of the Council, choirs in many places disappeared as music of less demanding style took over, and as singers became soloists (cantors) instead of choir members.

Today, choirs are being restored in parishes across the country. And the more dedicated among them are also trying to restore polyphony, the great musical gift of the church.

How to begin?

How to begin?

Slowly, of course. This past season our monastery choir prepared “Gaudent in Caelis”, a beautiful work by Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria. As a contemporary of Saint Teresa of Ávila, the originator of Carmelite reform in Spain, Victoria is a perfect composer for a Carmelite monastery. However, had we attempted this piece when we began nine years ago, we would not have succeeded. Back then we had fewer voices, and no exposure to the singing of polyphony. Each year I added another piece, more challenging than the last, until finally, this past year, the Victoria work was at last achievable.

To sing polyphony, singers need to develop independence on their lines, as their parts are woven together like individual strands. There are many contemporary pieces that help to develop this independence.

A good beginning is “Peace to Soothe Our Bitter Woes” by David Cherwien (GIA Publications, G-4854). It is in two parts — men and women — and the voices enter independently and support each other. It is a brief piece, easily learned.

A longer piece is “I Lift My Eyes to the Mountains” (based on Psalm 121) by Hal Hopson (World Library Publications, 006262). Again, this is basically two parts, men and women, with independent lines that support each other. This is a longer piece, and a bit more challenging than the Cherwien selection.

Perhaps the very best way to begin to develop independence is to sing a canon. A canon is a piece of music where each voice sings exactly the same thing, just beginning later. If each voice begins on the same pitch, it is a canon at the unison, better known as a round. Think of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”, “Frère Jacques”, or “Three Blind Mice”. Singing these at rehearsal will give the basic pattern and build independence of parts. A good round (or canon) for a choir to learn to sing is “Dona Nobis Pacem”. This traditional canon is easy, tuneful, and sacred in style.

Once that is accomplished, the choir can move on to a canon such as “Non Nobis Domine” by William Byrd. The most common setting of this is for two treble parts and a bass — we sing it soprano, alto, men. However, most any combination will work. The second voice begins later, as in a round, but it begins on a note four steps lower than the first voice began. This makes it a canon at the fourth. The third voice enters on the same pitch as the first voice, or, if you are using men, an octave lower than the first voice. This is a beautiful piece of music. It’s easy to learn, because everyone sings the same melody. The text is especially suitable for church: “Non nobis Domine, sed nomini tuo da gloriam”. That is, “Not us, Lord, but to you be all glory”. This really ought to be the motto of every church musician. The music style is very chant-like and reverent.

Before attempting the fuller polyphonic motets of Palestrina, however, a modern choir must accustom itself to music that is truly sacred in the style of chant and polyphony. Music that is basically chordal with brief independent sections should come next. “O Bone Jesu” by Marc’Antonio Ingegneri is a brief and beautiful motet. Early publications attributed the work to Palestrina, but musicologists have traced it to Ingegneri.

“Cantate Domino” by Giuseppe Pitoni (1657 – 1743), is a longer and more difficult selection — but it is a joyous hymn of praise and accessible if the above steps to prepare the choir have been taken .

From here more complex works can be tried. Eventually, with persistence, patience, charity, and much directorial encouragement, the great masterworks by Palestrina, Victoria and others can be introduced.

Resources for polyphonic music

Choir directors who are unfamiliar with polyphonic works can write to publishers and request some pieces on approval. Music can also be downloaded free of charge from various internet sites. Two sites I use often are Cipoo (cipoo.net) and Choral Public Domain Library (cpdl.org).

Music can be found listed under composer or title. Many have sound files available as well as visual scores. (These works are simply transcriptions, with no editing or performance suggestions, so until one is more familiar with the genre, it might be prudent to purchase edited editions.)

If polyphony has been missing in the parish, it would be good to prepare both the choir and the congregation for this so-very-Catholic format by inviting a guest choir to sing a few pieces at Sunday Mass to introduce the style to the congregation.

For choirs filled with non-readers of music notation, it might be helpful to record each choral part and give copies to the singers so they can practice at home. The choir needs to hear the finished product too; there are many recordings by choral groups of polyphonic works. A simple search on the internet will produce results. Today there is the added benefit of musical clips on YouTube.

When the piece is learned, the congregation should be included by telling them from the altar before Mass, via the lector, or by noting in the parish bulletin that the choir has prepared a special piece of Catholic music in the venerable style of sacred polyphony. If the piece is in Latin, as it probably will be, then a translation ought to be provided for the congregation.

If a choir learns even one piece of sacred polyphony a year, eventually there will be a repertoire of sacred music that is truly uplifting, inspiring, and Catholic. It is a challenge worth meeting.


Lucy Carroll, DMA, organist and choir director at the Carmelite monastery in Philadelphia, teaches at the Westminster Choir College in Princeton. In addition to her essays on Catholic music for AB, Dr. Carroll is the creator of the “Churchmouse Squeaks” cartoon featured in these pages.


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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