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Church choirs: The good, the bad and the ugly

October 22 2005 : Concert by the Regensburger Domspatzen boys choir at the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.



Diane Montagna - published on 01/04/17

In Part 2 of our interview with Dr. Peter Kwasniewski on choirs in the Church today, we consider Benedict XVI’s contribution and the many benefits of children being raised singing sacred music.

In Part I of our interview with Dr. Kwasniewski, we discussed the historical role of the choir in the liturgy, the origins of polyphonic music, the pro-choir teaching of the Second Vatican Council, and the commentary of John Paul II on the real meaning of active participation. Today we take up Benedict XVI’s contribution to the topic, congregational singing, orchestral Masses, children’s choirs, and resources for budding groups.

Dr. Peter Kwasniewski
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski

Dr. Kwasnieswki, Benedict XVI is a fierce critic of what he calls “utility music,” saying that its banality is unworthy of the Christian liturgy. How does this fit in with what you are saying about choirs?

Pope Benedict says somewhere that it is not enough to have music that “works,” that supplies a certain function, in the manner of a commercial ditty; it has to be better than that. It needs to be suitable for God by being worthy of Him, as much as we can make it. The Church’s tradition is overflowing with such worthy offerings and, although we can and should add to this treasury (otherwise I myself would not be a composer of church music), we would be fools if we did not continue to value what we have inherited from the past. Who but a fool would say that gold from yesterday is worth less than gold from today, or that a diamond a thousand years old is no longer up-to-date and relevant? Beautiful things are never outdated; they are always valid, always suitable, always worthy, always new.

In 2012, Pope Benedict addressed some inspiring words to members of scholae cantorum from across Italy. His whole address is worth reading. He asks why the Council says music is a “necessary and integral” part of the liturgy, and says: “Certainly not for purely aesthetic reasons, in a superficial sense, but because it cooperates, precisely through its beauty, in nourishing and expressing the faith, and so to the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful, which are the ends of sacred music. For this reason I wish to thank you for the precious service that you render: the music that you perform is not an accessory or only an external ornament of the liturgy, but it is liturgy itself. You help the whole assembly to praise God, to make his Word enter into the depths of the heart: with song you pray and help others pray, and you participate in the song and prayer of the liturgy that embraces the whole of creation in glorifying the Creator.” What a pep talk for any and every church choir!

Then, recalling how the famous poet Paul Claudel was converted by the beauty of the Christmas liturgy at Notre Dame, Pope Benedict continues: “We need not have recourse to illustrious persons to think of how many people have been touched in their depths of their soul listening to sacred music, and of how many more have felt themselves, like Claudel, newly drawn to God by the beauty of liturgical music. And, here dear friends, you have an important role: work to improve the quality of liturgical song without being afraid to recover and value the great musical tradition of the Church, which has in Gregorian Chant and polyphony two of its highest expressions, as Vatican II itself states (SC 116). And I would like to stress that the active participation of the whole people of God in the liturgy does not consist only in speaking, but also in listening, in welcoming the Word with the senses and the spirit; and this holds also for sacred music. You, who have the gift of song, can make the heart of many people sing in liturgical celebrations.”

Here we see how Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI were of one mind in their understanding of the nuanced teaching of Vatican II.

So the critics of choirs and of their polyphonic music are not being faithful to the Magisterium?

Let’s put it this way: if there is opposition to the judicious use of the great polyphonic sacred music of our heritage, or if there is opposition to choirs singing while the faithful listen, then obviously we are looking at unfaithfulness to Vatican II and all the popes from St. Pius X down to Benedict XVI.

On the other hand, there can be “choral abuses.” For example, if the choir is not sufficiently well-trained and capable of handling the repertoire, it will not edify the hearers and give glory to God. If they are always singing everything and the people in the pews never sing anything — not even the Kyrie or the Credo or the “Et cum spiritu tuo”— then the choir is taking over like some kind of invasive weed. If the choir’s choice of music is too eccentric or tilts too much to the modern, let’s say all 20th-century French impressionistic music, they will not be following the teaching of the Church. On most occasions, the predominant music ought to be Gregorian chant; the people should be singing what belongs to them, too; and the choir will be providing polyphonic motets either from the Renaissance or in a style inspired by and compatible with liturgical chant.

So you think it is always wrong for the choir to do all the music and the congregation sings nothing? And, while we’re at it, what about orchestral Masses?

For special solemn occasions, it can be perfectly fine for the choir to take a much larger role, doing a polyphonic Mass ordinary and polyphonic Mass propers, or even music with orchestral accompaniment, but this should not be the norm, because it would not be compatible with the best traditions of the Church and the oft-repeated teaching of the Magisterium. Catholics have always had a strong sense that the liturgical calendar features intense times and relaxed times, if I can put it that way. At the intense times—above all from Christmas to Epiphany, and the weeks from Palm Sunday to Low Sunday—the level of music ought to be much higher, much fuller, and the role of the choir increases accordingly. At more relaxed times, let’s say the many Sundays after Pentecost, the choir is still important, but the people should also have their part in the singing of the liturgy. It is all about “both/and,” not “either/or.”

Choirs seem to be an “endangered species” today, and where they do exist they are often poor. Why do you think this is?

The omnipresent false understanding of active participation led almost overnight to the marginalization of chant and polyphony and a dismantling of choirs and scholas. This was happening at the very time that the Vatican was saying the opposite. For instance, the Sacred Congregation of Rites, issuing norms about sacred music in the wake of Sacrosanctum Concilium in a document called Musicam Sacram, stated: “Because of the liturgical ministry it performs, the choir—or the capella musica, or schola cantorum—deserves particular mention. Its role has become something of yet greater importance and weight by reason of the norms of the Council concerning the liturgical renewal.” Amazing, isn’t it? There’s more: “Its duty is, in effect, to ensure the proper performance of the parts which belong to it, according to the different kinds of music sung, and to encourage the active participation of the faithful in the singing.” The document recognizes the different types of music and different roles. Then it draws the practical conclusion: “Therefore: (a) There should be choirs, or capellae, or scholae cantorum, especially in cathedrals and other major churches, in seminaries and religious houses of studies, and they should be carefully encouraged. (b) It would also be desirable for similar choirs to be set up in smaller churches.”

Our marching orders haven’t changed since then: we need to set up choirs everywhere, to perform the distinctive and important role that belongs to them in the sacred liturgy, and to foster a higher standard of artistic beauty and congregational singing.

For choirs to succeed, knowledge is necessary—knowledge of the Roman liturgy and its spirituality, structure, and requirements, of the relevant legislation, of the musical repertoire itself and how to interpret it and teach it, and inspire in others a commitment to it. This may sound impossibly complicated, but it’s not. The resources for learning and leading church music are better today than they have ever been; if anything, they are so numerous that some guidance is needed. This is why I always recommend to people that they attend the summertime Sacred Music Colloquium of the Church Music Association of America (CMAA) or some similar event. The practical experience and advice one acquires and the personal connections one makes vastly repay the investment of time and money.

Could you recommend some of those resources to our readers?

Gladly. First, check out the website of the CMAA itself, which is loaded with free music, especially chant, and downloadable books. By becoming a member of the CMAA, one receives their journal, Sacred Music, which features excellent articles on all the things we’ve been talking about. The CMAA Forum, too, is loaded with useful advice, in response to questions like: “I need easy polyphony for Lent—what do you all recommend?” It is painless to search for past threads along those lines.

Second, check out the Corpus Christi Watershed website, which offers a treasure-trove of free music, in Latin and English, monophonic, homophonic, and polyphonic, at every level of difficulty, with an emphasis on pieces ideal for new choirs. An example would be the new SAB (soprano-alto-baritone) Latin motets by Kevin Allen being sold in the CCW shop. With just a few decent singers, you can quickly have these lovely pieces up and running for your Sunday Masses.

Third, explore the Choral Public Domain Library (CPDL), which has thousands of scores of sacred music, for every type of ensemble and level of difficulty. Using the filters for liturgical seasons, ensembles, genres, and languages, you narrow down your choices—and then have fun looking at different pieces you could do with your choir.

Is it time for a renaissance of children’s choirs and good music in parochial schools?

Yes, absolutely! I know several children’s choirs across the country and the great work they are doing with and for their young people. One of the most incredible choir schools in the country is located not too far from my college—I’m referring to the Madeleine Choir School in Salt Lake City. Once you hear what those children can do, you will never say to yourself again: “This music is too difficult for us today and too remote from our times.” On the contrary, it sounds glorious and speaks to us profoundly.

The Ward Method is particularly effective in teaching music and deserves to become the standard feature of Catholic schools that it once was in healthier times. Children are unbelievably quick to absorb the music, to learn the scales, the solfege, the chant, and to memorize repertoire. They put us older folks to shame. They have an enormous capacity and a positive attitude that are, sadly, rarely utilized. “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them,” said our Lord. Let the children sing His praises and in that way come to Him and bring others to Him.

What do you see as benefits for children and young people being raised singing sacred music?

The benefits are many and deep. There are psychological and physiological benefits to singing and making music. There is the intellectual component: it is a type of learning that expands the brain, puts you in possession of a whole set of skills you would not otherwise have. You are inducted into an immense cultural heritage, something uniquely great in our Western tradition. And above all, there are the spiritual blessings—being conformed to beauty-in-motion, having one’s mind and heart imbued with order and harmony, receiving the doctrine and piety of the Catholic faith in a powerfully interior and holistic way. The music becomes a part of us and we find ourselves in the music. In the first millennium of Christianity, all the sacred music was learned orally; the singers carried it in their heart, while it carried them in their life of prayer. And the liturgy and its music blossomed in thousands of monasteries, from which the faith went forth into every land and people. That was how the old evangelization succeeded, and that is the way our new evangelization will succeed, too.

As a choir director, do you have any stories of young people being transformed through singing in a choir?

I have seen so many individuals transformed in my 25 years of working with choirs that it would be hard to know where to start! At both my alma mater [Thomas Aquinas College] and Wyoming Catholic College, the students in choir come to love the music they sing so much that they take their stuffed choir binders with them after graduation and look for ways to bring the music to the places they go. A few have contacted me to say that they are now in charge of parish choirs or music classes for children. Some are in monasteries or convents where they spend the day (and often part of the night) singing praises to the Lord, sometimes with the same melodies they sang in college. Other students marry and pass along this priceless treasure to their children. There is a ripple effect.

Do you have any final comments for Aleteia?

Most touching to me are the students who say, after their first semester in choir, “I have never had the chance to sing this kind of music before. It is so beautiful, so prayerful, and fits the Mass so well. Why is all this so rare? Why can’t everyone enjoy this blessing?” Indeed, why not? We have a lot of rebuilding to do. This is no time for melancholy regrets and bitter complaints. We need to bring our heritage back into our churches, where it belongs—and where choirs will always have a dignified and irreplaceable ministry to carry out.

Read more: WATCH: Andrea Bocelli gives poor children the gift of music

Pope Benedict XVISacred Music
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