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Musical Obesity

by Gary D. Penkala

Obesity is a very serious problem in the United States. Over 35% of adults are classified as obese [body mass index greater than 30]. The causes are over-eating, eating the wrong kinds of food, and lack of exercise. My assessment is that liturgical music programs in our parishes might just exceed this 35% rate; I would say well over half our parishes suffer from obese music programs.

Let me give some examples of musical obesity at Mass.

I. Over-Hymning

I've been to Masses where the congregation was asked to sing six hymns: Gathering, Preparation of the Gifts, three at Communion, and Sending Forth [and aren't these titles telling]. Hymns are heavy material. They often have deep, poetic theology and multiple stanzas that tell a progressing story. They're the Chateaubriand of congregational music. I can't imagine singing six of these at one Mass, where the subliminal goal may be to keep Mass at 55 minutes or less anyway. The Church, in her wisdom, does not call for a single "hymn" during Mass, Yet for how many parishes is a standard diet of four at every Mass the norm?

Healthy adjustment

Just like dieters learn to replace Whoppers/Fries with Salads, and Lasagna with Pasta Primavera, and Pound Cake with Angel Food Cake, so too should the health-conscious music director begin replacing hymns. Not all at once, but gradually. There are easy ways to start.

  • Replace the Communion Hymn with a Communion Psalm, where the congregation needs to sing only a refrain. This could be any of the hundreds of Responsorial Psalms available in your worship book. You could make up your own refrains, using a section of a familiar hymn (e.g. the first part of "At the Lamb's High Feast We Sing"). The cantor or choir could chant psalm verses to a Gregorian or Meinrad tone.
  • The Offertory Hymn is the one most often replaced already, usually by a choral motet. At non-choir Masses this could certainly be an organ piece. Or you might introduce the congregation to a Proper they've never heard, since these antiphons were not translated into English in the Roman Missal. They're available at Offertory Antiphons, and you could sing them to a familiar tone.
  • The Introit has the potential for making perhaps the most impact, and may be the hardest to "pastorally" implement. There are numerous sources for this Proper — just visit any CNP Liturgical Planning Page. However, the absolute easiest, no-excuses method for singing the Introit Proper is found in our recently-completed Mass Propers for the Liturgical Year. These are simple, straightforward ways to begin singing the Propers instantly!
  • It's also possible to drop the Closing Hymn, replacing it with an organ recessional. There's nothing called for here in the rubrics anyway — and the people might just enjoy being able to leave when the deacon really says, "Go!" A less drastic path might be to sing a consistent, brief antiphon prior to the organ music. The seasonal Marian antiphons [Alma redmeptoris Mater, Ave Regina cælorum, Regina cæli, Salve Regina] are great for this. An argument can also be made that, since the rubrics say nothing about what kind of music should happen at the end of Mass, this is a convenient place for a congregational hymn, since no Propers are being omitted.

II. Surfeit of Music

It's laudable to use the Rite of Sprinkling during the Easter Season, in fact, the Roman Missal recommends it. This is normally accompanied by singing. But just what does this do to the"heaviness" of the Introductory Rites during Eastertide? Imagine: singing a multi-verse Opening Song, then another hymn during the Sprinkling, immediately followed by a through-composed Gloria. It's like Country Paté, then Caesar Salad, plus Creamy Clam Chowder; and we're not even at the entrée yet! Can you feel the bloat?

Healthy adjustment

Streamline. Combine some of the disparate music. Sing verses of the same hymn for Entrance and Sprinkling. Or have the choir sing Vidi aquam during the Sprinkling — yes, it's legit! Be careful what kind of Gloria is sung.

III. Gloria

Speaking of the Gloria — this is likely the biggest block of music that will be sung at Mass (unless you sing the Credo). It's rich, dense, heady text. There are several ways composer approach this hymn (one of the few precribed in the liturgy):

  1. Through-composed — the congregation sings everything
  2. Through-composed, but with a choral middle section
  3. Alternatim — the cantor or choir alternates phrases with the congregation
  4. Responsorial — a congregational refrain is sung between choral verses… Please don't use this one, except as a temporary measure to familiarize the congregation with the entire Gloria!

Healthy adjustment

Format 1 is the heaviest, since the congregation sings the whole thing with no break. Think of this as a thick slab of Prime Rib. Format 2 is less heavy, since the people get a break in the middle, but it requires a choral group and won't work at the other Sunday Masses. This is perhaps a moderate Ribeye Steak. Format 3 is the best option for the Roman Rite; it's used almost exclusively at the Vatican, and has centuries of precedence. It makes for a comfortable interplay between cantor (or choir) and congregation. It's a Beef Kebob, with healthy vegetables between the chunks of meat. Format 4 is an aberration, a quirk, an anomaly, which destroys the structure of the Gloria as found in the Roman Missal. It's no more correct than singing, "Lamb, Lamb, Lamb of God, you take, take take away…" Don't even consider using this … ground meat by-product!

IV. Communion Concentrate

Some Music Directors take the Church's rubric about congregational singing at Communion time to a ridiculous extreme, programming one hymn after another, just to keep the crowd singing. That's exhausting!

Healthy adjustment

Participation (a laudable goal) is not tethered to our vocal cords. The congregation can listen to organ music, choral music, or instrumental music during part of Communion time. Using some of these would alleviate the "revival-tent-hymn-sing" atmosphere from singing many hymns in a row.

V. Over Amplification

A strong cantor singing into a microphone can carry a hymn alone. Why does the congregation need to sing at all? The hymn "happens" whether they sing or not. And this amplificatis is an epidemic that has infected almost every Catholic church in the country. It's amazing what ensues when the congregation is needed for music to happen — they're not just an addendum to a miked soloist. Congregational singing in churches flourished before the advent of Shure and Dolby. It can still happen — heavens! what would we do in a power outage?

Healthy adjustment

  • Move the cantor back a few steps for hymns; or don't use the microphone at all.
  • Try a verse without any accompaniment; let the people hear themselves!
  • Try a whole hymn without accompaniment. Come on, you're doing it already during the Triduum… or you should be. It can happen more often — Advent? Lent?

In general, we can avoid the problem of musical obesity in our churches if we consider balance. Too much of anything upsets the equilibrium inherent in the noble Roman Rite. Gonna have meatloaf and mashed potatoes for dinner — think about some fruit for lunch. Chicken Pot Pie coming this weekend — work in a Stir Fry the day before. And more importantly, when you plan Sunday's liturgy, don't swing out the plastic music template with four hymn-holes in it. Be fresh, be creative, be healthy. Chuck some of those carnivorous hymns for a Proper or two. We're all aware of the deadly health outcome of four Big Macs a day; four hymns are similarly lethal to liturgy.

Article written 29 August 2015

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