By Bill Tamblyn
THE worst mistake people can make in these adventurous times is to write off the parish choir. I know we are in an age when the music of the people is no longer Victorian monster choirs singing Handel's -Messiah — even the "Nine Lessons and Carols" has been moved from King's College.
It was events like these: the 1 hree Choirs Festival, the Huddersfield Choral Society, the Glasgow Orpheus Choir and similar organisations that helped to carry on the popularity of choral singing from the last century to our own.
In addition we had, nudging at our side, the Anglican choral tradition and — in part a byproduct of it — Edward Elgar, the national hero musician and a writer of Catholic choral music.
Small wonder then, that we were able. for a time at least. to establish our own parish choirs on the 19th century pattern, conjure up a choral tradition at Westminster, and muster a team of clergy composers (inspired I fear, more by the worst excesses of Gounotl and Liszt, then the pure expressionism of Byrd).
But looking hack. I feel this was all an extra-long "nine-days wonder" and the whole thing is sadly fizzling out. Only Westminster is left with a fully-fledged choir school, and, whether the press report it or not. there is no doubt that serious questions are being asked about the real future of the "serious" musical fare at any cathedral.
Parish and seminary choirs have suffered a similar fate if they have stuck rigidly to the old formulae for choral music at Mass. Our position has been further aggravated by the insistence of the Vatican right up to the present day that Gregorian chant is the apex of the Church choral music and that we should, as composers and choirmasters, aim at this (and Palestrina too, of course) in our work.
To me, at any rate, this attitude is both unrealistic and untenable, implying as it does the preference of the old litUrgy over the new, the elite over the people.
The implications of Ordo Afissae and subsequent publications arc clear. and I will not waste space rehashing what is said officially and what I have written elsewhere.
-The position is simple, and choir directors ignore it at their peril: the important people at Mass are the People of God. The role of the choir must he
re-thought. It is no use effecting a compromise from the stand point of the Victorian choirmaster who finds himself with a vernacular liturgy and a people who want to take their own part.
. Such a man says: All right, if you sing a few hymns, then you must let us do our stuff Lou" — an arrogant attitude which can be easily interpreted as you spend five minutes on a hymn while we are bored, and we'll spend 10 minutes on a polyphonic Gloria while you have a snooze." Ohs viously such a situation works against liturgy rather than with it.
The problem here is that the choirmaster is imposing his music on the liturgy, and, by implication, on the people. That is not how good liturgy works.
No, it seems a far better idea to me that we should examine the liturgy and the texts for each Sun day and decide the degree of music to be incorporated into the Mass on the merits of each case.
There is a time in the Church's year when it seems right that the people should give full throat to their feelings. I believe that the great joy that fills our people when Christ is horn (Christmas Midnight) or when he rises again (Easter Midnight) shoed be expressed in people's song, not in choir music.
The function of the choir on such occasions is to give a strong lead to the hymns and songs. On an occasion like the Celebrations of I foly Saturday, it is the priest and the Cantor alone who are heard apart from the people.
The choir's place must be in are prompt and urgent responses to the psalm verses. the joyous shout "Thanks he to God" and the triumphant "Alleluia."
Do the choir feel "neglected" on such occasions? Certainly not. The choir is part of the People of God, not separate from it. The choir should sing all the more strongly when it joins the people.
And there is a time for reflection — a time when the people accept that the choir is taking their part. The decision as to when precisely this is depends very much On the standard of the choir, the involvement of the choir in the action of the Mass and the relationship between choir and people in the parish.
I am not. for one .moment. suggesting that there is ever a time at Mass when the people should he excluded from active participation through music so that the choir can "do their thing." My argument is that, given the right circumstances, the music of the choir alone can stimulate the people to an active intellectual and prayerful involvement in the mood of the liturgy at a certain point.
All congregational singing. all activity of the "standing up and holding a hymn book type" (or massed guitars in "Michael row the horn ashore") cannot really he the only musical participation at Mass.
There is the moment for the choir alone. There arc many such times: in my own church the Offertory procession takes 45 seconds. A short vocal fanfare is far more effective in propelling the gifts to the altar than a single verse of a hymn.
I am, in fact, very much against chopping hymns up in this manner (a verse of the hymn at the Entrance. a verse at the Responsorial Psalm. another at the Alleluia, and the last verse at the Offertory—yes it isdone) for the obvious reason that it is
Another such occasion for choir music Tight he at the Entry of the clergy at a Mass, at the Communion or Post Communion. and Ordo Missae lists a host of occasions when the choir is "permitted" to sing alone: the Gloria, the A gnus Dei, the Alleluia Verse and so on.
But we make it a rule that there is no rule on when the choir sings. The choice of choir and/or congregation participation depends entirely on the Mass and the liturgy of the day.
One Sunday the Offertory might be a solo piece: another, the Responsorial Psalm may have two cantors alternating, or choir harmonisations to the congregation's response.
Sometimes the men sing alone, sometimes the girls. If a sequence or hymn is to be sung by choir alone it might well he alternating men/girls in unison. We might call on solo singers and instruments. • The choir might vocalise (hum, for example) behind the solo singer, and it is not beyond the imagination to use such techniques as a background to organ music.
I have been in churches where the most thrilling liturgy I have experienced incorporated many of these techniques, including a wonderful psalm for two choirs, congregation, monster organ and solo recorder (which stood out in the cathedral despite the huge resources in use).
Another liturgy (at the Anglican University Church of
London where Ian Hall is the lively director of music) included the choir (who stood as part of the congregation. not apart from it) clapping their hands. stamping their feet and crying to the heavens, letting off steam for us in an unselfconscious way.
The choir, then, is a resources medium (to use a horrible, modern educational term) i.e., it is a part of the people. prepared to work that extra bit harder in order to interpret the liturgy in whatever way appropriate.
There are two dangerous situations t% hich can develop from this attitude. First, the choir music may come to he looked on as a gimmick: "What will the choir do this week? Will it stand on its head, or run up the aisle naked, in the cause of art?"; and second, that the choir will become separated from the people.
This latter problem puts the modern "choir" with all its flexibility in no better liturgical position than the "SATB'' polyphonic choir up in its Victorian choir loft.
The way out of these corners is to keep alive to the liturgical demands of the Mass and the people, to keep the choir aware of its task in leading the people. The single Amen, even the spoken parts of Mass are important to the choir. If the people falter in their response it is the fault of the choir. There can be no greater responsibility.
Bill Tamblyn is Editor of Church