What is the purpose of a church choir?

Speaking as a choir member…

I’ve been a member of at least one choir, off and on, ever since I was at school, and the first ‘outside school’ choir I joined was a church one. I love singing in a choir. I have joined the church choir in most of the places we have lived for any length of time. I even met my husband in a church choir (and that’s where he learned to play the guitar).  I am not being nasty about church choirs.

One day I’ll get him to move on to a theorbo…

This summer on our travels we got to see more different churches than usual for Sunday Masses, and I found myself thinking about church choirs and what they are actually for.  My first ever blog was about why we have music at all in church, but now I’m thinking about how we do it.

Differences between choir and church choir

I would distinguish very carefully between a church choir and a choir. Choirs learn to sing something exactly and beautifully, by doing a lot of practice. They sing different sorts of music, and often outside any context except that of a concert.  Their reason for existence is to perform the music.  Church choirs on the other hand lead the people at an event (usually a religious celebration) so that those people can take part confidently in the event itself.  The church choir may sing during a time when the congregation is doing something else (e.g. handling the collection, lining up for Communion), but it is not there to replace the effort of the congregation but to enable and enhance it. Mass is not a concert, and music should never be an excuse to stop people joining in.  I was delighted to discover that the Pope made the same point last year.

too much discipline here for a real congregation
What a choir can do

Deciding to concentrate on a choir instead of getting the people to sing is an easy trap for church musicians to fall into, because most musicians, even the non-professionals, are thinking all the time about how they can make the performance better, to do a better job at bringing the music to life, making it flower.  Using a choir instead of the congregation is a short cut.

a rare picture of a mixed choir

It’s quite difficult to find early pictures of choirs singing, because there are really only a few stock options, and in some ways it’s a relatively modern idea.  One version is the group of monks singing in community, and this is still the only model of church music which pleases some people.   Another is the single singer, often with instrument: the minstrel or the troubadour model originally, like the singer-songwriter of today.  We’ve all come across people like this singing at Mass, and it doesn’t work as a community effort.

Don’t leave it to the professionals

When we’re talking about Sunday Mass, we’re not talking about a congregation made up entirely of musicians.  Obviously any church on a Sunday is going to contain people who don’t know the music, who can’t sing in tune, who just want it to be over, who don’t feel like joining in, who can’t sing because the last time they sang that hymn was at a funeral, and the loss is still raw (and that’s even before you look at the congregation as well as the clergy).

Children can (will?) be restless and babies noisy (one old priest I knew always called that the ‘chorus of angels’).  People will take breaths in the middle of words;  they will sing passing notes that aren’t there in the text;  they know a different version of the tune (or the words – I often sing the wrong words in an older hymn because the text has been subtly altered and I’m singing from memory).  Often they don’t have a very big repertoire of hymns, so if you want to extend it, you will need to do it gently and encourage them.  As soon as they feel uncomfortable, they will simply stop singing.   They are frightened of getting something wrong and other people noticing, with a fear totally out of proportion to the likelihood of that happening.

So the music produced by a congregation is less polished and accomplished, but it’s their music, and they’re not doing it for any other audience than God.  I suspect at Mass on Sundays he’d rather hear them than a choir singing alone,  – just as you’d be disappointed if you went to your child’s school play and they had outsourced the singing to professionals.

…even if they came with a great set of instruments
Sing a new song

Having discussed the possible drawbacks of congregational singing, it’s only fair to say that it’s great to hear how well a congregation can sing if you give it the chance.  This is why we stress ‘singable’ (awful word) as the point of the music on the website, and why I try to give all my church music tunes which are easy to pick up.  Good unison is much more likely than bad harmony to allow people to feel secure enough to join in.  If your congregation consists of the same people singing the same words every day, you can decide to sing in Latin or anything else, but for most Anglophone people at church on a Sunday, it needs to be English.  If your congregation is, remarkably, exactly the same people turning up every week and they know the words, you can get them to sing chant; but for most congregations, chant will put them off, and they will leave the singing to the choir (and if you want to do chant well, weekly rehearsals are not usually enough).  Tunes were invented after chant, for a reason : they are easier for non-monks to pick up and join in.

New every Sunday?

I’m very aware that the psalm and response change every week, so accessibility is extremely important.  I’ve talked before about what makes a good psalm response.  I do ask quite a lot of my cantors, but the shape of the tune should be strong enough to help you to get back on the rails before the end of the stanza if the irregular words have thrown you off.  Then the congregation’s part is simpler, but still strong.   Only very rarely do I change the last line of a stanza, because the congregation really needs to recognise the lead-in (and of course, the cantor’s looking up, and if necessary waving at them, will also help).  Psalms do get repeated in the Lectionary (especially around Christmas and Easter), and this helps too, if it’s recent enough for the congregation to remember.  The Alleluia verse changes from week to week, but the Alleluia itself not so often (and they are modular, so you can decide just to keep to one, though I think it’s good to wake the congregation up and make them refocus every now and again).

Growing accustomed to the tune…

The Mass parts have much more chance to bed in to people’s memories, so it is worth spending time on getting them right, maybe even running through one of them before Mass if you have the chance.  It is an advantage that the congregation mostly knows the words for the Mass parts;  and/or having a tune is a great help to settling the words in your head if they have been changed.  Deciding to sing the Latin (or Greek, for the Kyrie) version every week to avoid getting to grips with the (new) English version is actually selling your congregation short, as they will end up stumbling over the English words (even while speaking) for a long time when they visit other churches.  Singing the Our Father in Latin at the standard parish Sunday Mass means that small children can’t join in with the one prayer they may know by heart, and it really annoys some young adults too (one of them being my youngest daughter).  There is a case for not singing the Our Father at all (Jesus didn’t, so far as we know).  I’ve set it so that you can sing it if you want to, but I’d always keep an eye on how many people are actually joining in, because surely that’s the most important thing.

The other version of the church choir

The other obvious version of a group of singers in this context is the angels, who turn up either alone as messengers or in a group as a choir.   Traditionally, there are nine choirs of angels, though I have no information on whether they pool their auditions, and I have heroically refrained from discussing the way in which the Church has used church choirs throughout its history as a way to prevent women singing.  But I take great comfort from the fact that the main choirs in the Bible are angels, since they do not have gender, so women can sing with the angels as much as they like.  The angels are like the best sort of church choir : they strengthen the congregation and make it brave to join in.

And here is a lovely picture of these wonderful inclusive angels with possibly the first version of a singalong sheet.  Why are they holding up the music?  Because, at any Mass, what matters is that everyone can take part.

Sing all ye citizens; all you need is the words and a full heart

[Read this in Spanish]

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2019. 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.

Just how bleak was the midwinter?

Does Bethlehem get snow?

Singing and thinking about Christmas carols (as one does a lot at this time of year), sometimes an unexpected thought strikes you. I found myself speculating on the weather in Bethlehem. One carol was talking about the bleak midwinter with snow on snow (and the accompaniment always sounds as though it’s adding another two layers) and another one was talking about soft winds blowing through the olive trees. They couldn’t both be right, I thought. So I started thinking about how our conception of the first Christmas is conditioned by our own experience rather than by what was (probably) true.

Crib scene in the snow
Plenty of snow around here
You have to have snow at Christmas

Weather is the first assumption we make : if you play Word Association Football with anyone and start with the word ‘Christmas’, you will almost certainly get snow as the first or second word following.  Christmas cards are full of snow.  We picture carol singers as rosy-faced, swaddled up in warm layers, standing in the snow to sing, and even singing about snow (especially if they are singing other songs as well as carols : Jingle Bells, White Christmas etc).  (If anyone wants the liturgical music for during Christmas masses, check out the Gentle Guide to my music for that at www.musicformass.co.uk.)

Not every Christmas is white

Some of the older carols have more temperate weather.  In While shepherds watched, the shepherds are ‘all seated on the ground’, which they certainly woudn’t be if it was under a foot of snow.  In The first Nowell, they are lying in the fields, which implies a certain degree of relaxation, if not necessarily comfort.  If the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem had meant trekking through deep snow, Joseph and Mary would have planned it differently, especially knowing that the baby might arrive  at some point on the way.  Elizabeth, with her own baby safely delivered a few months back, would surely have expressed a strong opinion against foolhardy travelling.  To go for a more modern carol, Little Donkey has them travelling on a dusty road, which would be easier going than Falklands-style yomping.  There’s lots of snow in Good King Wenceslas, but that, of course, is set in Bohemia (by St Agnes’ fountain, which presumably had frozen up); however, I’m sure that lots of people carry that idea of ‘deep and crisp and even’ across to their mental crib scene.

crib scne inside initial
Definitely a bit of snow, but just lying tidily on the ground
Victorian Christmases always had snow (thank you, Mr Dickens)

It just goes to show how we take our own experience and apply it.  We get cold going to church at Christmas, so Joseph and Mary must have found it cold travelling to Bethlehem.  Brueghel the Elder’s depiction of Joseph and Mary arriving for the census is clearly set in a Flemish winter, and makes you shiver.   A lot of the serious snow is in Victorian carols, and this is the period when so much of the Christmas myth (as opposed to the Bible events) was set into the modern collective consciousness.  See amid the winter’s snow, In the bleak midwinter, both Victorian carols, show clearly  how North European weather has been imposed onto the Middle Eastern narrative. Past three o’clock, despite appearances, is a Victorian piece of writing, with its ‘cold and frosty morning’.  As if to prove my point, this morning in a charity shop, I spotted a snow globe where the scene was a little crib.  I nearly photographed it, but it was such an ugly little object that I couldn’t bring myself to.  Here’s a different snowy crib, though.

back view of angel covered in snow
Flying must be tough when your wings are full of snow
What about round little Bethlehem, long, long ago?

I wanted to look at what the weather might really have been like, but of course there are no weather records that stretch back so far.  Even combining any available evidence and speculation, we can see that there have been fluctuations anyway over the last two or three thousand years.  Nowadays the average winter temperature in the Holy Land is around 7 degrees C – cold, but not snowy.  Then I realised that the best account of what the weather used to be like is in the psalms.  What do they say about the weather?

Evidence of snow in the Psalms

There is almost no snow in the Psalms, and it’s there for its qualities rather than as a real presence : ‘Wash me, I shall be whiter than snow ‘ (Ps 50/51), jewels flashing ‘like snow on Mount Zalmon’ (Ps 67/68), though real snow is mentioned as falling ‘white as wool’ (Ps 147/148) and ‘hail, snow and mist’ are called upon to praise God in Psalm 148/149.  There is rain by the bucketload, storms, earthquakes, hurricanes and other mighty winds, and I’ve already talked about clouds in a previous blog. God hurls down hailstones like crumbs and hoarfrost like ashes in Psalm 147/148, but that’s all the psalm references to actual wintry weather.  Snow turns up occasionally in other books of the Old Testament, and even in the Gospels (the Transfiguration, Matt 23.3 and Mark 9.3),  where it is invoked to show how dazzlingly white Jesus’ garments were.  So everyone hearing the narrative knows about snow and knows what it looks like, otherwise the comparisons wouldn’t work, but it’s not a frequent occurrence as it is in (say) Northumberland in the winter months.

Metaphorical snow still very chilly

T. S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi (that’s a brilliant link where you can actually hear him reading it aloud) makes it clear what is actually going on here.  The hard snowy journey is a metaphor for life and a difficult quest, but Eliot keeps the snow to the mountains, and shows Bethlehem as below the snowline.  I think this is probably because he was thinking of it as a real geographical place rather than a Christmas card picture.  Even among the Victorian hymn-writers,  the snow at Christmas time is a version of the pathetic fallacy and shows how hard and cold our hearts are before the Christchild comes to soften them.  So the emphasis is on the ‘bleak’ rather than on the midwinter.

crib scene with naked baby
This can’t be real snow or the poor baby would be covered

You really notice how European our imagery is if you happen to spend Christmas near the Equator or in the southern hemisphere.  It isn’t just that you can’t really appreciate Christmas dinner when it’s hot outside; nearly all the familiar songs feel out of place and time.  You can see how Christmas is laid over older celebrations; it’s impossible to imagine celebrating Yule or Saturnalia in the Antipodes (unless you’re making a point).

All out of darkness we have light

The other major image used in carols is of darkness and Christ coming as a light (John 1 of course, Isaiah ditto, but lots of other places too), and certainly in the Northern hemisphere, dark and winter are closely related.  In many older carols, the idea of light breaking through darkness is more common than the snow topos (How brightly shines the morning star, Angels from the realms of glory, Silent Night (‘Son of God, love’s pure light /Radiant beams from thy holy face’), the ‘bright sky’ in Away in a Manger, and there’s a lovely old carol called O Babe divine (described as ‘Old English adapted’), where the image keeps repeating : ‘O holy child, my dim heart’s gleam,/O brighter than the sunny beam! […..]O prince of peace, my dark soul’s light! /Thou art a day without a night’.  This neatly carries us back to another carol, As with gladness men of old, which takes its central image of the last verse straight out of Revelation : ‘In the heavenly country bright need they no created light, /Thou its light, its joy, its crown, thou its sun which goes not down’.

Snow’s significance can easily melt away

Our associations are precious and important to us, and of course we can picture Christmas any way we like.  We deck our mental cribs with holly and have robins hopping around outside them as they do in our own garden because we want Jesus to be as close to us as possible.  The event was a real historical event, but what is important for me is how it affects me here and now.  It doesn’t matter whether there was real snow at the first Christmas, but whether we celebrate it nowadays with warm hearts, which is exactly the point which Christina Rosetti is making in In the bleak midwinter.  The danger for us all is brilliantly encapsulated by C.S. Lewis.  A fallen world without hope is ‘always winter and never Christmas’.  That’s a terrible thought, and thank God, we don’t need to worry about it.  Real tidings of comfort and joy.  Merry Christmas.

decorated mediaeval hedghog
Christmas decorations: everyone can do their bit

 

© 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.