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How to bring better sacred music to your parish

Jeffrey Bruno

Diane Montagna - published on 08/24/16

“It’s time that we stopped the musical starvation diet and reached for richer fare.”

To many Catholics – priests and laity alike – the thought of setting aside “On Eagle’s Wings” for something sacred seems like an unattainable dream. But according to one church musician, with a little work and determination, it may not be as difficult as one might think to bring sacred music to your parish.

In this article, we conclude our conversation on sacred music with Dr. Peter Kwasniewski of Wyoming Catholic College. In Part I, we discussed Dr. Kwasniewski’s work as a church musician, and in Part II, the Church’s teaching on sacred music. Here we talk about practical ways Catholic clergy and laity can introduce sacred music into their parish; resources and advice for young people who are serious about pursuing it and learning more; and why there are many reasons for hope.

Dr. Peter Kwasniewski
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski

Dr. Kwasnieswki, there is a practical difficulty when it comes to sacred music, isn’t there? People in parishes where the Ordinary Form (Novus Ordo) is celebrated can be intimidated by what they perceive as the difficulty of singing chant or polyphony.

I’ll admit it can be a little intimidating at first. Modern Western culture is really not a singing culture and is certainly not a high culture anymore; we’ve become simplistic in our tastes and limited in our abilities. The realm of sacred music seems remote, esoteric, difficult. And we shouldn’t kid ourselves: it does require discipline and hard work; anything great does. Man is made for this greatness, and God deserves it. On the other hand, it’s not as hard as you might think, especially if you set realistic goals.

For 50 years we have been not only underestimating the potential of Catholics to learn better music but positively insulting their intelligence with second-rate ditties. I know of people who have actually been driven away from the Catholic Church because of the horrible music! In this way we have deprived ourselves of giving and receiving blessings from one another in the form of music. It’s time that we stopped the musical starvation diet and reached for richer fare.

Can you give examples of “realistic goals” to get us to “richer fare”?

Singing the Ordinary of the Mass is quite an achievable goal and the people in the pews will pick it up, too, since chant is very pleasant to sing, and the melodies are more natural and less demanding in range and rhythm than the vocal gymnastics of contemporary church songs. I’ve been to Mass in many places around the world where congregations are accustomed to singing the Ordinary of the Mass with a surprising amount of gusto. It is our Catholic music, and we can and should be proud of it.

Let’s say you wish to incorporate chant into the Mass. Chants are always sung in unison, so you don’t have to worry about splitting into parts. Those who can sing a hymn melody can learn to sing a Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, or Agnus Dei, or a Marian antiphon like the Ave Maria or the Salve Regina. You get together and you start with simpler chants, and you build from there. By the way, it doesn’t have to be accompanied by an organ; I have always found it easier to sing chant without organ because you don’t have to try to coordinate with a musician, and you use your own ears better. There is nothing so uplifting and so refreshingly human as the sound of a church full of people chanting in unison, with no amplification and no instruments.

The Propers of the Mass—the Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory, and Communion antiphons—are more challenging. They were written by and for trained cantors who know their stuff. There are, nevertheless, simplified settings of the Propers that one can look into for getting started, particularly in the English language. An outstanding example in English is Fr. Samuel Weber’s The Proper of the Mass.

How about polyphony?

Unlike with chant, polyphony requires a group of individuals who are musically talented enough to be able to sing their own part, in good pitch and correct timing, along with others who are singing different parts at the same time. This presupposes at least one competently trained musician who is familiar with the appropriate repertoire and its stylistic demands and who can confidently lead the singers. Even so, communities of any decent size will have the “raw material,” if only someone can lure out the singers and get them to rehearse.

You haven’t mentioned the organ yet. What about its role?

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Sacred Music
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