HOW TO TRAIN CHURCH CHOIRS (7) – Selecting music for the Proprium Missae

– Aurelio Porfiri

In my previous chapters, I have emphasized the importance of selecting music for the liturgy with a very precise idea of what the liturgy is, not just following personal taste. Personal taste is not a good guide if not well developed. This is also very true for the selection of music for the Mass Proper (Proprium Missae).

What are the parts of the Proprium Missae? These are those parts where the text changes to the specific celebration. So we have in this category: introit, responsorial psalm, gospel acclamation, offertory, communion. I am not including here the final song, because there is no specific text for the final song. Here, opinions differ. In the past an antiphon to the Virgin Mary was preferred. Thus we have the four great antiphons that cover the whole liturgical year: Salve Regina for Ordinary Time, Alma Redemptoris Mater for Advent and Christmas, Ave Regina Caelorum for Lent, Regina Coeli for Easter time. It would be wonderful to learn these antiphons in their melodies in the simple Gregorian chant versions, but there are also versions in different languages.

Others think that at the end you need to sing a sort of “mission song,” a piece that motivates you to bring what you get during the liturgy and spread it in your daily life, with texts like “We are the light of the world” or similar. I still think that sticking to the Antiphons of the Blessed Virgin Mary has a deep meaning and I do think that the texts of these beautiful antiphons are theologically very rich.

Others prefer to sing a piece from the Virgin Mary that comes from local popular traditions. In Italy we have very beautiful songs for the Virgin Mary that are gems of “folk religious music.” There are pieces that are deeply rooted in the authentic Catholic culture of people and so it is beautiful to use them at the end of the Mass.

Why at the end? Because they are not liturgical music per se, they are not the voice of the Church that proposes selected texts for our worship. They are more the expression of subjective feelings and emotions of the people. This is also important and has to be respected. This is why the Church has always cared for the musical expressions of simple people, but we should be careful not to mix the two levels simply because they have two different functions.

Talking of the Introit, we need to be aware that we should not fall into the common practice that the English speaking people call “Hymn sandwich,” basically to use the hymn all the time for introit, offertory, communion and final song. Now there is no problem with hymns but they are not really proper to the Roman liturgy, indeed they were introduced in the Roman liturgy quite late (around 10th century) not during the classical time of development of the liturgy itself, roughly at the time of Pope Gregory the Great (540-604).  And here we are speaking of the Gregorian chant hymns, not the metric hymns that are more common in the Protestant tradition. Using songs in this form impoverishes the musical flavor of the liturgy, because at the end they tend to sound very similar. Roseanne T. Sullivan, in an article published on catholic (Propers of the Mass vs. the Four Hymn Sandwich) makes this point: “Ever since 1969, the vast majority of Masses are celebrated in what is called the Ordinary Form, and a sequence of four hymns is typically sung at the Entrance, the Preparation of the Gifts (Offertory), the Communion, and during the Recessional procession at the end of the Mass.  Sacred Music experts often refer to this sequence as the four hymn sandwich, and, while some object to the term as being snarky, I’ll use it in this article with no offense intended, because it’s colorful and it makes its point…. One big problem with the current situation is that the hymns are often selected from 20 to 30 old favorites that are sung week after week, and they do not usually have any discernible connection to that particular day’s place in the liturgical year.  Another big problem is that hymns seldom seem connected, as they ought to be, to the sacred actions going on in the parts of the Mass during which they are sung.  The hymns seem to be picked at the random whim of whoever gets to select the songs that day; and as my earlier example shows, they sometimes are actually heretical.  There is a movement to return to singing the parts of the Mass that have been ignored, and Fr Weber’s collection of chant settings of approved English texts is a valuable contribution to that movement.” 

In this interesting article there is the clear invitation to rediscover the actual texts that are in the Missal for the singing of the people and they change every Mass. Now some people may be scared, because they think how it is possible to make people singing different liturgical music every Sunday; but indeed it is possible, and in this the choir’s help is of fundamental importance. Please consider that you are not requested to sing the beautiful antiphons in the original Gregorian chant version if your choir cannot afford it, or sing in 4 parts polyphony, but you can have the text of the antiphon in a quite simple and noble melody and then the choir can sing the verses from the psalm using chantillation or polyphony. You can do this also with one singer leading the whole congregation, as was the use in Synagogues in Jesus’ time and after that. They call this singer Shaliach Tzibur, the messenger of the people. So, possibilities are there if there are clear and good intentions. We need to uplift people to the liturgy, not downgrading the liturgy to our own needs. So for the introit we have several possibilities but always remembering that a preference should be given at the actual antiphon that is in the Missal.

The responsorial psalm, one of the novelties after Vatican II (not entirely a novelty because it was taken from the uses of the early Church) should be always sung: there is no purpose in reading a responsorial psalm. There is a lot to say about this particular element, and I will do in another series devoted only to this topic. What is important here is that the responsorial psalm should be sung and the solo singer should sing it in the place for the readings, not from the choir pews.

The gospel acclamation is the Alleluia with the verse (in Lent another acclamation will substitute the Alleluia). Some people have the idea that this acclamation should be “fun,” but there is a big difference between joyful and fun. Don’t be mistaken, the liturgy is not “fun.” Indeed we have in the Gregorian chant repertoire some Alleluias that are very austere, solemn, you may also feel they are sad. But this would be a mistake judgment, because Christian joy is not the joy of the world – “fun” – but a joy deeply rooted in the sobriety and continence of the spirit. Is it necessary to sing the Alleluia also after the Gospel? Now, there is no indication about this in the official documents, but the best thing would be that the priest will sing the “Verbum Domini” with the sing response of the people. After that repeating the Alleluia would not be necessary but I don’t see it as a huge problem.

For the offertory the issue is a little more tricky. We don’t have the official texts in the Missal now as we have for the Tridentine Mass. So people usually do not know what to sing and use some songs about offerings, bread and wine and so on. Please don’t forget that here the choir can sing a beautiful and appropriate motet or the organ can play a piece.

For communion we have the proper antiphon as for the introit, that usually is taken from the Gospel of the day. Also for this moment we should say the same thing we said for the introit. If you study Gregorian chant you will see that the musical style of Introit, Offertory and Communion is very different, even if sometimes they use similar texts in the same Mass. This should be a leading principle for those that select music for the Mass. There are not “interchangeable pieces.” After the communion antiphon you may plan a thanksgiving piece where everyone can join, if the choir has taken the complete lead of the communion antiphon. Also here the choir can sing a Eucharistic song, helping the people to meditate on the great Mystery of the body and blood of Christ that they have just received.

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