Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Properly Singing

Some personal observations on restoring the Propers to the Novus Ordo Mass...

It was logical, after months of re-enchanting the Mass with Gregorian chant during Communion, to restore the rest of the Propers of the Mass. We had been chanting the Introit since Advent and Psalm tones for the Psalm responsory, so the Offertory and Communion Antiphons were the ones that needed unveiling.

It was logical to begin with Passion Sunday. Why keep singing All Glory, Laud and Honor over and over again when there are the antiphons and Psalm verses already there for the Mass?

During Passiontide, we used some modified Psalm tones and some from Richard Rice's Simplified Choral Gradual. Our choir is in many ways very typical of most parish choirs with untrained singers.

The first thing that I told the choir is that chanting the Propers restores the internal structure of the Mass and elevates the dignity of the choir. They are not just an ornamentation to the Mass. They are integral to the offering of the Mass in praise of God. It's less important that they "sing pretty" as it is to sing the words with the heart of prayer.

Second, the words of the Propers, because they are specific to that Sunday or that Mass have a grandeur of their own, even with a simple choir. A chant with the words, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me" in a delivery devoid of drama focuses on the words in a way that is compelling.

Third, the pressure to find appropriate hymns is lessened because the Propers are there heightening the listener's appreciation for the Word of God. And because it's chanted, it's not entertainment and gradually detaches the person from an emotional approach to the Mass. The average person in the pew may not be able to articulate this. But I know that it's working in a more profound and secret way. People have become more still during the silences as the months have passed. There isn't the restless fidgeting that was there when I first started this job last fall. (Although we still need some serious work with people leaving church. That's another topic altogether)

Fourth, the Propers allowed Father to weave into his homilies the words of the Propers and bring attention to what the Mass of the day is conveying to us.

My choir can barely do two-part harmony. It will be long time before they can do polyphony. It's taking many months to break the singers of the metrical way of singing. Chant is making them listen to the internal cadences of the text, the rise and fall of the speaking voice and transferring that to chant. It's not easy. We're so ingrained to sing with a regular pulse.

One thing that my choir members did say about neumes, "They're a lot easier and make more sense than modern notation." These are singers who can't read a lick of music who struggle with phrasing and counting note values.

In many ways, learning the Propers for each Sunday is now giving more focus to our choir rehearsals. The priorities have shifted.

Anyway, just some observations by an obscure musician in the not-so-dusty loft of a small parish church in the Christ-haunted South.

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