HOW TO TRAIN CHURCH CHOIRS (6) – Selecting music for the Ordinarium Missae

– Aurelio Porfiri

It is necessary to go a little deeper into the parts of the Mass. Because the liturgical rite has so many layers and so many musical differences that we need to go into details if we want to select music for the choir that is liturgically meaningful.

Paolinus of Nola (354-431) in his Carmen (20) talks about this search from harmony in the liturgy: “Faith is the only art we have; Christ the poetry. He who shows gathered in himself in admirable harmony the already discordant harmony. He who sings our poetry, the real David restorer of the corporeal zither, for a long time reduced to silence, break the strings of an ancient sin …. Master and God Himself makes the zither new tying it to the tree of his cross …” The liturgist Crispino Valenziano, who quoted the previous passage in one of his papers called “In via pulchritudinis,” has written a lot about the way of beauty (“Via pulchritudinis” in Latin) in the liturgy. We have always to strive for a superior beauty in the liturgy. Music is not just “functional,” not just some musical notes adapted to a text. Music in the liturgy has to lead to a supernatural beauty, or it is useless.

So when we look at the Mass we can enlighten certain parts, as the ones that form the Ordinarium Missae. Traditionally these parts are the Kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy), Gloria (Glory to God), Credo (Profession of Faith), Sanctus (Holy), Agnus Dei (Lamb of God). Now, why are these different parts of the rite categorized under “Ordinarium Missae” (Ordinary of the Mass)? Because these are the sung texts that never change, they are the same during the liturgical year. The text of the Sanctus will remain always the same, in Lent or in Advent. The Gloria in some liturgical seasons is omitted (Advent and Lent) but the text never changes. A good choir director never selects music that does not respect the official text for these parts. We have translations of the Mass Ordinary that depart from the official translation given by the Church and the competent local ecclesiastical authorities. These are the texts that should be used for music, not different versions of these texts.

This category of the Ordinary of the Mass comes from sacred music history; it has probably been around for six centuries. This is why it was always preferred, when performing the great polyphonic Masses (that include the texts I mentioned before, sometimes omitting some of them), to perform the whole setting of a certain Mass by a given composer, because this gave a sort of unity to the whole thing. Sometimes the musical theme of the Mass was the same, but of course the style of composing and the style of performing was different between a Kyrie and a Gloria, a Credo and an Agnus Dei, and so on. Remember: it is very important to look for a certain “harmony” in the Mass, not creating a collection of completely discordant parts.  So all the Ordinary of the Mass parts should have a certain stylistic consistency.

After Vatican II, composition of new Masses also included the Memorial Acclamation and the Amen for the Doxology. This makes sense (even if the Memorial Acclamation has some alternative texts). What about the Pater Noster (Our Father). This was not included in the Mass Ordinary. Why? Because the singing of the Pater Noster in the Tridentine Mass is reserved to the priest and not to the choir; the people and the choir joined only in the last phrase, sed libera nos a malo (but deliver us from evil). So there was no necessity for it to be included.

The Lord, have mercy is often recited and this is not correct. It should be sung and I think it would be meaningful to use the original Greek/Latin text. I think it was Saint John Paul II who said that using the original text of the Lord, have mercy in liturgies that use vernacular languages is a remembrance of the ancient liturgy, which was first in Greek and successively and for many centuries, in Latin. The choir can sing a polyphonic Kyrie or a Kyrie from Gregorian chant. I think a good mix would be to sing the first Kyrie with a solo, the second with all the people and choir repeating and then have a third repetition in polyphony. Same for the Christe, eleison and the second Kyrie, eleison. I use this a lot in my Masses and it works very well. Of course the Kyrie should not take a long time, but also should not be disregarded – it is the moment we ask for forgiveness.

The Gloria is a hymn. It means it should be sung from the beginning to the end. It is not a responsorial song! The General Instruction for the Roman Missal (GIRM) says: “The Gloria is a very ancient and venerable hymn in which the Church, gathered together in the Holy Spirit, glorifies and entreats God the Father and the Lamb. The text of this hymn may not be replaced by any other text. The Gloria is intoned by the priest or, if appropriate, by a cantor or by the choir; but it is sung either by everyone together, or by the people alternately with the choir, or by the choir alone. If not sung, it is to be recited.” It is a Trinitarian hymn, there is no sense in repeating the first phrase (that should be intoned by the priest) over and over. Some people said that this helps in people’s participation, but people should participate in the truth of what the rite is and the way it functions.  

In an article in Adoremus Bulletin (2001) called “Rethinking the Responsorial Gloria,” Andrew Brownell observed: “The Gloria took three centuries to arrive in its final form, and this only includes its years of existence in Latin. Surely the writers of antiquity knew what they were doing. The text of this ancient hymn displays an overriding unity when viewed as a whole; each idea in the text logically follows the preceding one and flows directly into the next. To interrupt this flow anywhere, even where a division seems logical, with a sudden exclamation of ‘Glory!’ is insensitive in the extreme. Fifteen centuries of musical practice affirm this judgment. … Protestant hymnals do not have any responsorial settings of the Gloria for a very good reason; the Gloria is not a responsorial hymn. To set it as such violates the flow of ideas in the text and requires a kind of linguistic gymnastics to fit the text into verses. The very nature of the text makes it inappropriate for a responsorial setting, and the mountain of liturgical and musical problems that are created by attempting it cannot easily be solved if the end result even warrants the effort.”

Yes, I know the problem: this hymn has a long text, but with a careful strategy people can certainly learn to sing some settings over time. Liturgical planning is not a matter of one single Sunday. It should be seen over a long period.

The problems with the Profession of Faith are in many regards similar to the ones we have with the Gloria: it is a long text, it is not so easy to teach it to normal congregations. But also here, persistence is the key to achieving good results. And also, this is not a responsorial piece. The singing should flow from the beginning to the end. The melody should be easily singable and on a limited musical range, one octave I think would be reasonable. If you have a good choir you may decide that in particular liturgical seasons some parts can be rendered polyphonically, for example “By the power of the Holy Spirit…” (on Christmas), “For our sake He was crucified…” (Lent), “On the third day He rose again…” (Easter) and so on. This helps to emphasize these parts in accordance with the seasons.

The Sanctus is an acclamation and should be always sung. It has a sort of triumphal character and the music has to distinguish well its textual elements. When you sing Holy, Holy, Holy, you cannot then perform in the same way Blessed is He, etc.

Lamb of God has to be sung during the breaking of the bread and not during the sign of peace! There is no song for the sign of peace, nor is it necessary. The Vatican has officially clarified this point, but in some churches (even in Rome!) you still can hear choirs singing the non-existing song for the sign of peace.

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