The Gentle Guide to my Christmas music

A great and mighty wonder….every year
crib scene in illuminated capital
Sing choirs of angels….and everyone else too

Christmas is another all-nighter for many choirs, like Easter but a slightly different shape.  Instead of the enormous Easter Vigil followed by a day Mass on the Sunday, at Christmas we have a sequence of four (shorter) Masses spread through the night and into the next day. Many, possibly even most, parishes kickstart the celebrations at Christmas with half an hour of carols before Midnight Mass (which doesn’t have to be at midnight any more). So that’s a lot of singing, at a time of year when many people already have sore throats and churches are cold.

Advent and the run-up to Christmas
Female charioteer with four in hand
Me keeping the Advent Alleluias together; the black horse is actually dark pink for Gaudete Sunday

By the time you get to Christmas, you’ve already sung four weeks’ worth of Advent music.  Advent is much shorter than Lent, and the emphasis is on positive waiting and anticipation rather than moving slowly forward through anticipation and dread to new hope, so it feels completely different, and I take my cue from traditional Christmas music to get the mood right.  Even people who don’t sing normally will sing carols, so simple tuneful music is what I am trying to offer, hoping to persuade them to carry on singing once they have started with a carol verse or two….

Christmas music rooted in carols
Volmar having a vord with a recalcitrant Advent Alleluia

A lot of carols (and folk music in general) are in 3/4, and it’s easy to use this time signature to encourage forward movement, so the Advent Alleluia is in 3/4 rather than the more usual 4/4. It’s got some bounce in the rhythm, but the tune is simple, and in the middle of where most people’s voices are comfortable.   This is important, and I do try to think about where people’s voices naturally fall, mainly so that they can’t use that as a cop-out for not singing.

Deck the church with Christmas Alleluias

As soon as we move into the Christmas music, we have the Christmas Alleluia instead of the Advent one.  If you haven’t tried it with the descant, please do, because it’s really easy, but it sounds full of joy and excitement.  People have been singing the Advent Alleluias for four weeks, so they will sit up and pay attention when you give them a new one to sing.  The Christmas Alleluia is meant to sound like a peal of bells, like the choruses in Angels we have heard on high and Ding dong merrily.

Christmas, -mas, -mas, -mas
1 : the Vigil Mass

There are four Masses available for singing on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  The first is in the evening of Christmas Eve.  It is often regarded as especially for children (and people who don’t want to be out too late in the cold).  Our parish uses it as the Christingle Mass.  It’s an interesting set of music to arrange, because it needs to be jubilant and celebratory while not jumping the gun, as Jesus isn’t born yet.  So that knocks out nearly all carols, which should wait until the next day, as there’s no procession to the crib or similar.  But by now the anticipation is at fever-pitch, we all know what’s going to happen, and the excitement catches in your throat, just like when labour starts and you’re thinking that you are finally going to meet this small person that no-one has been able to hold yet except you.

The psalm for the Vigil (88/89) is joyful but still measured, talking about the history that has led up to this point and the covenant which is being fulfilled.  It almost feels like checking the paperwork at the hospital.  It’s still a question of sorting things out before the baby arrives, making sure everything is ready.   The Alleluia keeps the emphasis of this Vigil Mass clear, putting the stress on its first word  ‘Tomorrow…’, but the excitement should be fizzing and the joy is only a step away.

I do not know why the Canadians have alternative Responses for all the Christmas psalms, but I think it must be because they are in the middle of a revision of their Lectionary, so I’ve just set them, and the choices are up to you.

2 : Midnight Mass

Midnight Mass itself is a marathon, starting (usually) with half an hour of carols.  Some of our most beloved carols are old, some are difficult to sing, several are pitched to make it easier to play the accompaniment than to reach the top notes, and many members of the choir may have colds.  I have tried not to give you too many high notes to worry about, because descants and Hark the herald take quite a toll on the soprano line.  But we need to express joy here, and the music is trying to make this easy to do.  The psalms helpfully equate joy with singing, so we have a head start.

mediaeval animals playing pump organ
If the people don’t sing, even the animals will have to take to the orgen

The Midnight Mass psalm has a Response drawn from elsewhere in the Bible, which doesn’t always work, but does here, as it’s our old friend Psalm 95/96, but with a very careful selction of verses.  The psalm starts by encouraging everyone to sing, and then extends the list of the everyone to include the sea, the land and even the trees to shout for joy because – and then the Response explains the reason : Today a saviour has been born to us; he is Christ the Lord.

Angel bring Christmas message to shepherds
Good news is even better when you sing it

One of the Canadian Responses fits exactly to the tune of the chorus in Adeste fideles, so I had to write another psalm setting so that you could have a 4/4 Response.  So there you have two quite different options, because the other version of the words is irresistibly 3/4 and like other carols.  Adeste is originally a Latin hymn, rather than a carol, so a bit more staid and less skippy, but the other versions should all rollick along.  This is great news, this is exciting!

To add to the fun, the strophes are different lengths, which means I can’t compress the UK and the OZ versions, so you have lots of pages.  At least there are usually lots of people around in the choir loft on Christmas night, so you should be able to find someone to turn over for you if you are playing the organ.  The US and CAN versions have been slightly regularised, so there are compacts of those, but I can’t fit the last Response on to the compact sheets, so make sure you check for Recorder trills or twiddles on the non-compact form for the last verse, because it’s a shame to leave them out.

3 :  Mass at Dawn

This Mass always seems slightly like a poor relation.  It’s for the people who couldn’t come to the previous Masses and who can’t be there for the later morning one (after the stockings and breakfast and putting the turkey on).  It’s a shorter psalm, the next one in the Psalter, as it happens (96/97), and the readings are short too, because this Mass is for the noble souls who have to be on duty in hospitals or fire stations or are helping other people at Christmas.   I don’t want you to miss out on the joy and the excitement, and I think this is a great psalm even if it only has two verses.   But the singers in the choir loft may be feeling a bit weary, so there’s no pyrotechnics and it doesn’t go very high; just a simple bouncy tune reminiscent of a Christmas carol.

Depending on your translation, you have either ‘islands’ or ‘coastlands’ rejoicing in this psalm.  I like to think of the islands picking up their frothy petticoats and twirling away to the dance in the music in honour of the event.

4 :  Mass during the Day

And here’s the last Mass of the day, after which choirs and celebrants are all off-duty and there’s only little things like getting the Christmas dinner to worry about.  This Mass tends to have the most relaxed atmosphere, because the baby has been born and the celebrations have already started.  We move on to the next psalm in the Psalter (97/98), which again tells us to sing and ring out our joy.

It’s interesting to compare this psalm with the one at Midnight Mass.  They are both invitations to sing to the Lord, but the tense has shifted in the day psalm.  Now we are specifically singing about what the Lord has (just) done.  It’s all solid immediate past tenses: he has done wondrous deeds, he has won victory, he has made known his salvation, he has revealed his justice, he has remembered his kindness and his faithfulness, and all the ends of the earth have seen it.  Everything has been sorted out.   This psalm is pure celebration, and keeps repeating its imperatives : in four verses, we are told to sing five times, and even encouraged to take up specific instruments, melodious but loud.  We need brass, for ‘trumpets and the sound of the horn’ are demanded, and quite right too.  Enjoy the moment.  There’s (another) wonderful U.A.Fanthorpe poem  BC:AD  about this exact moment.

Refreshing the familiar

All the psalms for Christmas are familiar ones, which recur throughout the year, because they are calls to praise.  The Response and the Alleluia verses are often the only part that is specifically Christmassy.  This is good because it helps us to remember that we are meant to be singing these joyful words all year round, but they should have a fresh immediacy at the Christmas masses.  It’s happening right now, this event which causes us to rejoice for all the rest of the year, this event which makes our hearts dance as we sing the Christmas music.  Remember that carols were dances as well as songs, and sing them that way.  Merry Christmas.

mediaeval dancers in a line
Christmas dancing, about 1300 AD. Note the little hop : that’s my counter-rhythm!

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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The perils of being a pedant

One letter or comma is enough to upset a pedant

I’ve just spent quite some time pondering the difference one letter and a comma make. I had two psalm responses to deal with : ‘O bless the Lord, my soul!’ and ‘Oh, bless the Lord, my soul!’  They are definitely different in feel but they have the same number of syllables and could theoretically be sung to the same tune.  I decided in the end that the difference was enough to warrant rewriting the Response tune, even though the words of the verses are the same.

Job surrounded by fierce animals
Now let me think…where did I put that comma?
Keeping the words exact

Why does it matter?  It matters because when I began setting the psalms, I wanted to set the words exactly as they appear in the Missal.  When I first started, I allowed myself a little leeway (partly because I only had a UK Missal and we were part of a congregation using the US Lectionary), but also because, having sung religious music all my life, I knew that composers were allowed to repeat or emphasize words if they felt the need.  Then the Church prescribed the new translation of the Mass, and when I looked at the guidelines in GIRM,  it turned out that there was no leeway at all.  You were supposed to write a tune for the words exactly as given.  Even the punctuation was sacrosanct, I discovered, including aberrant capital letters.  Unless the text with the music was exactly as the text in the Missal, no repetitions, no inversions, no added commas, no nothing, it would not be approved.  Luckily you only need to get a Mass setting approved, but I decided that if this was the Church’s line, I would have to stick to it.

What happens to you if you don’t keep the rules
No repetitions, no deviations, no hesitations

It’s not logical, as it means that you shouldn’t be able to use any of the great composers’ Mass settings any more (no Bach, no Palestrina, no Mozart, no Haydn; I doubt they observe this in the Vatican Choir), but there we are.  There are problems, too, as the Missal is not infallible, and I have to find a way of dealing with errors.  If it’s obviously a misprint, I’ll correct it, but often it’s punctuation, and it probably doesn’t bother anyone except me and my fellow pedants.  You need to be a nit-picker in digital music publishing, but it does make it difficult when you are forced to reproduce errors.  (That’s when being a pedant is really, really hard.)

No mentioning women, either

You also have no leeway over non-inclusive language.  I set it as written, but I have had to allow myself to comment if it’s particularly bad (All Saints, Holy Family, wedding psalms) or I will burst.

woman with ornate false beard
Struggling with non-inclusive language

Volmar the Vebmaster says that being so exact with the words is passive-aggressive, and he’s been on fancy management and character-type analysis courses, so he’s probably right, but I think that it would be difficult to draw an exact line on how far you would be prepared to alter the text, so it’s safer not to get into it.

Most people are not bothered by the differences between the national versions either, as usually you only need one missal/lectionary for any congregation, and you aren’t especially interested in the other versions.  Here being a pedant helps;  I find having four versions to compare and contrast every week sharpens my perception of the small differences.  The People’s Front of Judea are going to be the closest critics of the manifesto of the Judean Popular Front.

O table! The vocative ‘O’ that baffles all small Latin scholars

To return to my problem with the Responses : it’s not so much the spelling, I’ve concluded, as the comma.  ‘O bless the Lord, my soul!’ is more formal than ‘Oh bless the Lord, my soul!’, though I think I would not have felt the need to set them differently.  But ‘Oh, bless the Lord, my soul!’ needs a pause after the ‘Oh’, which alters the movement of the line. (‘O bless’ is the CAN version,  ‘Oh, bless’ is for OZ.  The US is ‘O bless the Lord’, but its verse words are 4/4, so the tune is different anyway, and the UK is ‘Bless the Lord, my soul! Lord God, how great you are’, which presents a whole new set of considerations.)

It’s the Response to Psalm 103/104, which is a wonderfully baggy psalm about Creation, expansive and sprawling, with verses of wildly varying length, totally impossible to tidy up into a small number of pages even in the compact version.  It’s like one of St Francis’ joyful litanies about the wonder of Creation, and it’s where the Pentecost psalm is taken from, where the Spirit is sent forth and everything starts budding and flourishing in profusion.  Having it as the Sunday psalm is a bit like having to sing Hadyn’s Creation in three minutes flat, or something from the Reduced Shakespeare Company.   It’s an awkward psalm to set and it is long to sing (five verses), but it’s so exuberant that I love it.

Pity to leave out the monsters

It seems strange to have (except the UK version) such a short Response, but I see it as a sort of arrow prayer that boils over from the contemplation of all God’s wonderful creatures enumerated in the verses.  Even with five verses, there’s far more left out than included, and sadly we lose one of my favourite bits.  Just after the ‘moving swarms past counting, living things great and small’ in the ocean in verse 3, the psalmist continues, ‘The ships are moving there/ and the monsters you made to play with,’ which I think is a wonderful line.

Map with sea monsters
Some of the sea monsters for God to play with
Punctuation pedants rule, OK?

This Response is unusual in having an exclamation mark after it as well (not for the US), which also affects the way I set it.  It makes me try to roll the end of the verse into the Response so that it sounds as though it’s a spontaneous outburst of praise, a genuine exclamation.  So many times the rubrics say ‘The people acclaim’ when all we are doing is saying ‘Amen’ (always with a full stop) or something similar, but this should be a proper acclamation.  Exclamation marks and full stops are significantly different things.  We pedants celebrate this sort of difference.

A full stop full of meaning (and stop)

Here is a very good example of precisely that.  One final reason why I like this psalm is because its last line is the same as the first  (Bless the Lord, my soul!) but this time with a full stop instead of the exclamation mark.  So the movement of the psalm is like this.   It starts with exultation and an exclamation.  Then the psalmist runs through a huge list of the wonders of Creation, bursting (more exclamation marks) into overt praise twice on the way (How many are your works, O Lord! […] May the glory of the Lord last for ever!).    He reflects on what he has been praising and makes a resolution: I will sing to the Lord all my life, make music to my God while I live (a wonderful resolution and the spirit all church musicians should strive for); and then he ends quietly : Bless the Lord, my soul.

This is the calm tone of someone who appreciates all the glory of Creation and now is reflecting upon it, like Wordsworth’s daffodils : emotion recollected in tranquillity.  And all from a full stop.  Being a pedant can be a pain, but it’s also very rewarding.

Fiddler with dancer
Hours of fun making music across a lifetime


© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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