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Musical Musings: Liturgy

Banish the Soloists – Let the People Sing

Musicians in Catholic Worship, Part I

by Lucy E. Carroll

This article first appeared in Adoremus Bulletin: Online Edition - Vol. IX, No. 5: July-August 2003, and is reprinted with the kind permission of the editor, Helen Hull Hitchcock, and the author, Dr. Carroll.

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).

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