måndag 6 maj 2013

What is a Catholic church choir for?


At our choir in Hove we used to sing an old hymn, with a dreary tune and well over-the-top words by the Ultramontane Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman, the first Archbishop of Westminster, called "Full in the panting heart of Rome". It must be the ultimate in Catholic kitsch music. "Panting hearts", as we called it, became a standing joke, but then it was probably done as a joke in the first place. I suspect that the original Catholic triumphalist text was tongue-in-cheek, as the music came from the Calvinist Scottish psalter. We would laugh about it in the pub afterwards. We did not give up singing just because we did not like the music now and again.

However, I gave up on the current choir a couple of weeks ago, and that was for the reason that the choir director had got the idea into his head that I was a bass singer, and there was nothing that I could say that would change his mind.

It simply does not do to push singers into music that is physically difficult for them to sing. It is perfectly possible for a singer to work slightly out of his or her normal range but the trouble arises when this has to be done repeatedly, for example during rehearsals. Then they will end up with a sore throat. Unfortunately, the problem was compounded because this director's rehearsal style was to carry on with repeating the same piece of music over and over and over again, until voices were strained, tempers were frayed, and the choir members were thoroughly sick of hearing it - which he didn't seem to have noticed.

Following all of this, I received a nice letter from the director of the choir thanking me for my services and suggesting that the real reason I left the choir was his choice of the music. It is perfectly true that I did not like his choice of music, but I would not have given up for that reason. As a choir member you expect from time to time to have to sing things that you will dislike, though you pick your choir on the basis that it sings the type of music you want to sing. You laugh off the odd nasty, as we did last year with the contemporary Swedish composer Ulf Samuelsson who has a predeliction for writing sugary stuff garnished with discords that taste sour in the mouth.

But since the matter of the choice of music was raised, it is worth exploring. One joins a choir to sing the type of music for which the choir was established, just as one goes to, say a sushi restaurant to eat suchi and would not be well pleased to be served up with eggs and bacon.

In the case of a Catholic church choir, one expects to sing Catholic church music. This is not a matter to be settled by the choir director's preferences or a democratic consensus. Most of it is, or should be, predictable. There is little scope for choice or discussion.

Catholic church music must be chosen in accordance with the principles laid down in Sacrosanctum Concilium, the document that was issued after the Second Vatican Council. Thus, the texts would, for a start, include the Latin propers, if possible sung to the tunes given in the Graduale Romanum, or in psalm tone if the correct tunes were too difficult for the choir. There might be some polyphony, again, depending on the abilities of the choir. The choir would lead the congregation in the singing of the Ordinary of the Mass, again, normally in Latin, according to the season. It would expect to be singing most Sundays and festival days, and, ideally, it would be available for weddings and funerals.

If the Entrance Antiphon is sung, as it should be since it forms part of the readings, the Mass provides just three other occasions for singing, at the Offertory and Communion, and at the recessional. Whilst congregational hymns might be chosen, in practice, people are seated at the Offertory and Communion and are not going to sing with any enthusiasm or vigour. Besides which, at the Offertory congregations are fumbling in their wallets or purses, and at the Communion, they are not in their places or are meditating after having received the Sacrament, so neither time is appropriate for singing. So the Offertory and Communion are good opportunities for the choir to sing. Panting Hearts can come at the end as light relief.

What is highly questionable is whether there is any place for music of Lutheran, Anglican or Nonconformist origin in the Catholic liturgy? There is no denying that it is popular, and some of it of high quality, but music does not exist in the abstract. It carries values and beliefs, and Protestant music carries Protestant values and beliefs. In the case of Lutheran music, it was carefully conceived to put across the notion that it was NOT-Catholic. It really needs to be weeded out from the Catholic liturgy. The same applies to hymns of Anglican origin written in the later nineteenth century, which carry the values of British Empire triumphalism.

Directors of Catholic choirs need to be aware of these nuances.

2 kommentarer:

Monica sa...

I'm afraid you are wrong. Fr Faber did not write this hymn (though he did write Faith of our fathers). The author was Nicholas Cardinal Wiseman

Physiocrat sa...

Monica - thanks for info. But it must surely have been tongue-in-cheek, or a joke, to use the music of a Scottish Calvinist hymn for these words.

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