Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thoughts on Music

Happy St Cecelia's Day
A few thoughts on music.
We Catholics, we use music differently than Protestants or at least we should. For us music is supposed to soothe and quieten the soul to contemplate God; for Protestants it supposed to rouse the emotions. Catholic music, at least within the Sacred Liturgy is about prayer and communion with God: Protestant music is much more allied to preaching and the proclamation of faith.
Catholic music is, as the General Instruction tells us, above all Gregorian Chant and Polyphony, other music isn't proscribed but the model is music to quieten the soul rather than excite it.
Some of our choir have become pretty proficient at chant; Clare our Director of Music goes off to St Cecelia's, Ryde with a little group of women to do a master classes  with their choirmistress, she's been invited to teach a few other parishes about chant. In a world where trivial candyfloss is regarded as the equivalent of chant, the trouble is that we are regarded as odd, "You do things differently at St Mary Magdalen". As far as I know we are one of the few parishes for miles around that use chant: so much for the General Instruction!
At our one sung Mass (Ordinary Form) we try to avoid the hymn sandwich, we do have a hymn to begin with, then the Introit during the incensation, we alternate the Responsorial Psalm with the Gradual, at the Offertory we can have the chant from the Graduale, a motet or a hymn, at Commununion we always tend to have Proper chant but also a devotional hymn, or motet. The recessional is often a hymn, a bit of community singing.
I am not sure that most of our congregation understand why we use chant, despite the occassional bit of catechesis, in the inner city our congregation changes so quickly. For most people chant is just a bit of peace and contemplation whilst something else is going on or a musical lacoona. We have tried the English chant, written for the new Missal translations, to me they sound faux and are difficult to sing. Latin is easier though understanding the text, despite producing handouts, is difficult.
As one of my priest neighbours says, "Sunday Mass tends to be a bit of a bear garden", at least compared to quiet weekday Mass. The problem is of course prayer, though I am not quite sure how you teach two, three, four or five year olds about prayer and worship, perhaps  in "Children's Liturgy" rather than "colouring in" they ought to be listening to recordings of chant and taught to pray.


johnf said...

Father - it is interesting and shaming that the few places to hear Gregorian Chant nowadays are on Radio 3 and Classic FM (so smooooth and relaxing).

And Gareth Malone in his moving series setting up a Choir composed of Military Wives of Soldiers and Marines serving in Afghanistan, taught them to sing 'Pange lingua gloriosi' at Sandhurst.

So the secular world seem to be saying 'the Catholics don't seem to want these tunes - so we'll have them!'

johnf said...

Father, Something happened just now with google and I am not sure if my comment was received. If it doesn't appear, I'll send it again



The Rev. M. Forbes said...

Well, generalizations do not help the arguement.

Not all Protestant hymnody is as you say. At least for traditional Anglicans and Lutherans, doctrinal hymns and prayerful hymns were the norm. Many Catholic Hymnals contain large collections of these with slight word changes (I guess that proves they are no longer protestand.

As you well know traditional Anglicanism and Lutheranism opposed Enthusiasm( which accounts for the Anglican Droan in our older preaching.)

High Church Anglicans and Lutherans have used both hymns and propers as sung material. This is done alongside hymns. Good procedure.

The happy slappy fluff of Catholic and Protestant circles arrived after VII. Even the most Evangelical sang sober hymns which were biblical or testimonial. My Evangelical friends would love our fluff rather than their rock "Praise" bands.

The Rev. Michael P. Forbes
Rochester, MN

johnf said...


To our shame, the best place to hear Gregorian Chant these days is Radio 3 or Classic FM (so smooooth). It's as if the Catholic Church has discarded a pearl of great price and the secular world has picked it up from the gutter.

Gareth Malone recently in his excellent Military Wives Choir (composed of ladies whose husbands were serving in Afghanistan), coached them to sing 'Pange lingua gloriosi' at Sandhurst. Very moving.

Perhaps we may hear it in a Catholic Church one of these days.

Fr Ray Blake said...

Johnf, Comments are moderated rather than immediately published.

The Rev. M. Forbes,

Apart from Sequences Hymns are not part of the Latin Catholic Mass, even Office Hymns tend not to have the doctrinal "preaching" of Protestant hymnody. Hymns are a post Vatican II invention for us, that have replaced chant.

Hymns have been used but outside of Mass, at Processions, Marian or Eucharistic Devotions etc.

Fr Thomas Plant said...

With all due respect, Father - come on! What is the Exsultet if not a proclamation? And what is Mozart's Great Mass in C Minor if not emotionally rousing?

For that matter, naff though it may be, the Protestant hymnody of Iona is at least meant to encourage spiritual introspection and is pretty light on doctrine. Or, as a better example, the beautiful music of such Protestant luminaries Tallis and Gibbons is hardly an exercise in rabble-rousing proselytism. Then again, what about some of the incredibly godly Negro Spirituals?

The truth is that many Protestant churches retained much that was beautiful of their Catholic inheritance, and it would be charitable of you to accept that some even managed to improve on it. His Holiness was not impressed by Westminster Abbey without reason. So enough of the polemics, please!

Fr Ray Blake said...

Exultet: a hymn?
It is a type of Eucharistic Prayer, thanking God for redemption and the candle, and connecting the two a better parallel is with a Preface.

Mozart, though beautiful, is not normative for Catholic worship but chant and polyphony is.

I am not being polemical, merely stating a distinction in Traditions and what is authentically my Tradition.

momangelica said...

Father, I do not believe that taking little children out of Mass to attend a Liturgy group is a good thing and wouldn't let it happen to mine. Children miss the blessings and graces that come out of the Mass, they gain spiritual maturity through being present and being silent. I believe God can reach them even when they are so small. A parent can gently explain what goes on especially during the Consecration; the moving out and then back into the ceremony gives the wrong messages and ruins the meditative disposition to grow within them. Five of my six children practice. And school nuns and good priests and parents taught me.

Physiocrat said...

Gregorian chant seems not to work in English. Try singing a few verses of a psalm, in English, to a Gregorian psalm tone. If you are lucky you might get a couple of lines to fit the tune but in the end you get stuck with some words left over that you don't know what to do with.

We tried to learn an English setting for the Introit for the first Sunday of Advent but gave up when we kept stumbling over the words. In the end we settled for the correct Latin Introit as it was easier.

Whilst it is much better than the original ICEL translation I am not sure anyone actually wants to sing this new liturgy.

Anglican chant might work but it would be a huge job to set all the propers and it would just end up sounding old-fashioned Anglican. The Gregorian tones, being constructed on mathematical principles, belong to all times and none and are always up-to-date.

Perhaps the new translsations have just come too late. The EF low mass is more accessible than the NO version so what is the point of the latter?

So much for the vernacular making the liturgy more participatory.

Physiocrat said...

momangelica - taking children out of mass for a while can be useful IF they are doing something useful and do not make a disturbance when they come back in.

The useful thing they could be doing is learning to be quiet and to sing a few of the responses. But one has to ask what the Catholic schools are going?

Which done properly should be fun for them.

They should certainly not be colouring in printed pictures.

Amfortas said...

Chant does sometimes work in English and the there are good examples available on the New Liturgical Movement website. Personally I find the chant for the new translation of the Gloria very prayerful. It's a shame we don't have a setting of the Creed in English. Credo III in Latin is a prayerful acclamation and we are missing an opportunity to fuse doctrine and prayer. A good English setting would help.

Amfortas said...

A supplementary. My preference is for a Latin liturgy (EF or OF...it's a shame our liturgy didn't develop in an organic way after VII; there are elements of both EF and OF I value, the silence of the former and the lectionary of the latter). But there are times when the vernacular can be a real aid to prayer. I have a personal beef about 'mixed' liturgies a la Westminster Cathedral. A little Latin here, a little English there.

Anonymous said...

I have sung in a fair few of our neighbouring Anglican churches in Brighton and l would say the fundamental difference between our musical approach to the music of the Mass and to theirs is sometimes it feels like theirs is more akin to performance than to prayer. I have sung in one parish where between singing a polyphonic Mass each week, the choir natter, exchange holiday photos and read magazines. On the other hand, Anglican choirs that process in with the clergy and servers, as our next door parish do, always tend to have prayers in the sacristy beforehand to prepare them for their holy task which is something that can get easily missed in a busy organ loft on a Sunday morning.

The other point, I would like to say about the chant, whether it is in English or Latin, although Latin IS easier to sing, is it's inclusivity. It brings people together through its simplicity, its symbolism and l think ultimately through its history. How can you not be emotionally connected to two thousand years of Catholic liturgy when you are singing the same piece of music that has been sung for generations before you. This Sunday there will no opening hymn. Just the Introit, Ad Te Domine Levavi. And once upon a time, that was the universal introduction to Advent. Everyone associated the start of this season not just with the purple vestments, and the advent wreath but with those opening six notes of the introit.

And finally, Father, don't forget the greatest hymn of all that we sing every week, excluding Advent and Lent. The Gloria of course.

amator Ceciliae said...

"We Catholics are different from Protestants. We even use music differently." Surely in a world where all churches are diminishing this kind of oneupmanship should be consigned to prehistory? The distinction regarding music seems in any case highly questionable. Human beings are not made of separate bits - the God-directed soul and the lower emotions. Great sacred music involves the whole person. A work like the St. Matthew Passion of the Lutheran Bach is more truly Catholic in this sense than the old-style exclusive sectarianism that is making such a deplorable comeback in the so-called "Catholic" Church.

Ruth said...

amator Ceciliae,

That is madness!

Would you suggest a Greek Catholic begin Mass with Onward Christian Soldiers?

It is simply not part of their tradition nor is it part of the Roman or the subsidiary Latin Rite traditions, except of course in Germany.

Anonymous said...


You can sing the Creed in English.

The liturgy Office have Credo III in English. Listen here:


Jeremy at The Music Makers has set the Apostles and Nicene Creed to melody of Credo I


Fr Ray Blake said...

"The Gloria is a hymn"

Well sort of, but it is a strange structure compared to most, by that criteria I suppose the Sanctus is too, and would you describe the Agnus Dei as a hymn too?

Michael1 said...

A correction on a small point.

Thomas Tallis was an unreformed Catholic, as incidentally, was Byrd.

Physiocrat said...

There ARE perfectly good settings of the Creed and other mass texts for English by Merbecke. We should have used them when the vernacular was introduced.

The general problem with setting Gregorian tones to English words is that one is liable to have either a surplus of notes or words that somehow have to be worked in to fit. Anglican chant gets round that problem.

Whether it is desirable to make the Catholic liturgy sound like a tradtional Anglican service is another matter. The modal music of traditional Catholic liturgy is a more contemporary sound.

The vernacular is excluding in a parish where people come from many different countries. One effect is to split parishes up into ethnic groups.

Children should be learning the Latin settings in Catholic schools and during the time when they are sent out of mass, these days to colour pictures. Even if they do not know exact translations, the sounds of the words quickly become familiar.

Mixing Latin and English is a bit like trying to mix styles of food that don't go together. Anyone for curry with their fish and chips? If the decision is to use Latin, the vernacular should be confined to the readings and the Offertory and Communion motets.

Anonymous said...

Well the Gloria is a hymn because it has those three crucial Augustinian elements to it, song, praise and praising God/Saints.It is always referred to as a hymnus Angelicus like the Te Deum. I supposed you could call the Sanctus a hymn although it seems a little odd that the celebrant introduces a hymn by saying/singing 'dicentes,' And I suppose you could refer to the Agnus Dei as a hymn in the same way that you could refer to a psalm as a hymn, or a canticle, or just about anything sung praising God. But one doesn't normally. It is confusing. So basically, what l am trying to say is the Clapping Gloria is a hymn and the Israeli Mass Lamb of God is not. So there we are.

momangelica said...

Latin has a strange appeal to little children, the nuns taught us the Latin Mass while in the classrooms and it was under our belts by age 7 ready for 1st Holy Communion.
One of my daughters attends daily Latin Mass in Reading taking her small infant; when he was age three, at the end of Mass one day the Salve Regina was sung as usual when the whole church heard this "lusty" piping up of O clemens, O pio......, from our grandson. He knew the whole hymn and when asked would sing it down the phone to delight us. We should always raise the bar to children.

amator Ceciliae said...

Ruth, I don't know what you mean is madness in my comment. How temperate and polite of you to put it like that. I didn't suggest at all that anyone should use music in worship which they are not accustomed to, merely questioned dubious distinctions between different types of music. One can be contemplative or celebratory in various musical styles, and perhaps we can learn and borrow from others. Most Catholic congregations now seem to be happy singing Wesleyan eucharistic hymns at mass. They find the words and music help them to express their own devotion and worship just as much as listening to plainsong propers sung by others in Latin. We don't need to be exclusive and superior about our own styles.

Mike Telford said...

Re your priest neighbour's remark - surely you mean 'BEER garden'.
Then again...hmm

Te Rev. Michael P. Forbes said...

The earliest music of the Church was not metric, like the ambrosian hymns of the Office. It is called Ideomatic and includes the Gloria, the TeDeum, Modeled on the Great Thanksgiving of the Eucharist, the Phos Hileron used in the East and by Anglicans and some Monastic communities and Te Decet Laus.

Many musical pieces iin the Pauline Corpus and the Musical sections of Revelation and the Gospel Canticles and the opening of the Gospel of John come under this rubric.

These songs are governed by internal meter and poetic form and by certain Hbrew elements. In N. T. studies these elements were spotted in 1911 and became part of the Liturgical Criticism studies. Sometimes their forms are noted in Redaction Criticism. The chanted portions of the Mass, Ordinary and Proper, are more like these. In the Eastern Church these evolved into the complex poetic forms in their various liturgical offices.

The Rev. Michael P. Forbes
Rochester, Minnesota

JARay said...

I quite agree that children should not be taken out of Mass to colour in pictures. When I used to play the organ at one church (a long time ago) I used to sit my eldest on the organ stool with me and he behaved himself throughout the whole of Mass. Incidentally he still practices! As does one of his two brothers. I did not allow them to run around the church during Mass.
I'm glad that at least one poster has noted that Thomas Tallis was not a Protestant.
I get emails from time to time from Watershed which is a small not-for-profit music publisher in the US. They have a mass of music for the English versions of the Mass. Perhaps anyone wanting this music should Google "Watershed" and see what they have on offer.

Lynda said...

The Church needs Bishops who recognise and honour the traditional rite as the norm for the Holy Mass. They would also be Bishops that recognise and honour the doctrine of the Church.

Physiocrat said...

This work from 1550 could be worth a look

The Book of Common Prayer noted by J. Merbecke I have got a cleaned up version I downloaded from somewhere else on the internet but cannot find it from my search.

I have heard it sung at St Paul's Cathedral - there is a nice Creed and Our Father. If one really wants to do the liturgy in English it is very acceptable.

Michael Clifton said...

Here at ST Joseph New Malden we have an NO Mass choir which sings 4 different plainsong ordinaries (but no propers), plus harmonised responsorial psalm, Credo 3, Latin Pater Noster, REsponse after the consecration in Latin(sung), a motet at Communion time which might be Latin or English (4 part harmony) 3 hymns, entry, offertoryand exit which contain some of the wonderful hymns provided by protestant writers , all of which are sung in harmony.
I would like to have some simple polyphonic Mass by Byrd etc but we have not got round to that yet. We practice over l hour on a Wednesday evening and 20 mins before our 11.30 Mass. I joined up over a year ago...love it!

JARay said...

I rather think that I should have given the website of Watershed. I missed out the bit that it is Corpus Christi Watershed. I do recommend their site and what they have to offer. Take a look at:-

Physiocrat said...

I have had a look at the new English settings of the Creed on Youtube. The kindest thing that can be said is that they are a good try. The end result is still clumsy. The music is at odds with the words. Music written for a Latin text does not work with an English traslation unless the words are swapped around, which may stretch the text beyond the point of intelligibility.

ICEL missed an opportunity. They could and should have authorised the use of the Miles Coverdale texts as an alternative so that the perfectly satisfactory settings for those could have been used. This would have given us a ready made musical repertoire.

It has not helped, either, that for reasons best known to themselves, whoever has done this work has used standard musical notation.

If that is the best that can be done in English, I don't think it is even worth the effort of trying to get to grips with it. We should stay with the Latin. It is familiar and an increasing number of people are getting to know it again.

Congregations cannot usually hear the words anyway when they are sung by a choir, whatever language they are sung in. There is that story about the child who told his parents that they had sung a song about Gladly the cross-eyed bear in church.

My own thoughts on the subject are here

The Lord’s descent into the underworld

At Matins/the Office of Readings on Holy Saturday the Church gives us this 'ancient homily', I find it incredibly moving, it is abou...