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Church choirs: The good, the bad and the ugly


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.

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.

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