Starting singing again in church

A long and winding road

We are slowly easing back towards normality in our parish, but it’s taken a long time and we still have a long way to go. There have been long periods when many of us couldn’t go to Mass in person, either because it wasn’t allowed because of lockdowns or because somebody in the family was self-isolating. We all got used to Masses on-line, or gave up altogether and hoped for a better future, but I don’t want to go in detail through all the stages of that gloomy period.  My memory of it is thankfully fading, and I don’t want to sit down and work it all out in detail again.  But we have now reached a stage when we can look back in general terms, I think.

a long and winding road…to get back to where you started from
Silence in the pews

It seems almost like a bad dream, so I may be a little out in my sequencing, but as I remember,  we went from nobody being allowed to go to church in person,  – to being allowed to attend Mass, but only in small numbers and no singing,  – to a small group (six) people being allowed to sing on behalf of everyone else,  – to less emphasis on the numbers, but still compulsory (according to the parish itself, no longer by law)  masks in churches.  So we had more people allowed in the churches, but no congregational singing.  Different countries  (like different denominations) have had different patterns of Covid precautions; some churches have had some music as part of their recorded Masses, some live, some from CDs.  It’s been very confusing, very patchwork and rather unhappy.  Some church musicians have done heroic work, like my friend in Adelaide in Australia, who has been singing a daily psalm at the Cathedral Mass all the way through the pandemic, whenever it was allowed (I know about this because she emailed me to ask for settings of the weekday psalms, which is why there are more of those in the Australian version on the website than for any other country).

Swans singing
Hunting for extra voices to boost choir numbers
Bringing things back to life

I want to think about how we can get the machinery of liturgy and church music grinding back into action, and what it feels like as we are doing it.  So here’s an account of what’s been going on in one of the Sunday Masses in one parish in England, and how it feels to be doing it.

Starting with hymns

When we were finally allowed, and those who would be constituting the choir wanted, to start singing again, there were immediately problems because you were allowed only six singers and we could not even muster those.  Many singers were either still self-isolating or had not returned to Mass in person yet.  But we had an organist, a few (double-jabbed) voices, and a deep sense that even limited music was a good idea.  So we started just with hymns, and nothing too ambitious.  We did not even try to sing the Mass; the usual Mass setting for that particular Mass previously was an old one in English (from before the ‘new translation’, so the words were not the current version), and in four parts, which we certainly couldn’t manage.  So we just had hymns, and quite short ones, too, because the time needed at Communion, for example, was much reduced as the congregation was so shrunken.

Little organ
teamwork makes the dreamwork
Humming along

Just starting with the hymns was touching, because the congregation didn’t have any hymn books and wasn’t supposed to join in anyway, although there was a bit of audible humming from behind masks.  What struck me, though, was how they patiently stood and waited at the end until we had finished.  They clearly didn’t see the music as a mere accompaniment, or a sound track to their leaving the church,  but an integral part of the service, and several people said how glad they were to have it back.  Of course there are people who don’t like any singing at Mass, but there are several Sunday Masses available, and only two have any music, so people do have a choice.

…but which hymns?

Choosing the hymns : now is not the time for interesting new versions and unfamiliar tunes.  If you pick fairly well-known ones, the congregation will hum along, and some of us even remember the words, having an alarmingly good memory for hymns with short lines, nurtured by years of school assemblies (no hymn books because they are too hard to sanitise).  But we are also trying to avoid anything too dirge-like.  In our church there are even too few singers to manage parts or some of the big hymns reminiscent of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  We’ll get there, but for now, we’re thinking more of gentler hymns which encourage a prayerful atmosphere and make people feel comfortable and reassured.  He who sings, prays twice; especially if the words are good and you enunciate them clearly.  I shall stop sitting on the fence and offer some solid examples : anything by George Herbert, anything translated by Catherine Winkworth or E. Caswall, anything with an old German psalm tune, and don’t forget the old favourites like Soul of my Saviour, and the familiar psalm-hymns (The Lord’s my shepherd, All people that on earth do dwell, O God our help in ages past).   The words are very important!  They have to make sense and not just be emoting, because people are actually going to be listening to them.

Youths singing
only six singers at a time
Then the Alleluia and the Responsorial Psalm

Moving on from the hymns, we wanted to reintroduce singing the Alleluia, and then the Responsorial Psalm.  We did the Alleluia first because it is one of the shortest elements, especially if you don’t repeat it at the beginning.  The congregation still wasn’t supposed to join in, so we limited the number of repeats, and avoided using the lectern and making eye contact.  This all felt very peculiar, as usually what you are doing is desperately trying every body-language way you can think of, to communicate that you do want people to join in.  Now in contrast we were just doing a pared-down version of these parts of the Mass, on everyone else’s  behalf, which felt like quite a responsibility.  Some of the time there were gaps, pauses and hitches, as the readers tried to remember which parts they were no longer doing, but that’s fine, I’m sure God does not expect a perfectly choreographed offering every Sunday! 

Last week we sang the Response to the psalm just the once, as we had been doing since we restarted the singing, and went straight on into the verses, only to hear the congregation trying to repeat it (still with masks on).  The rules about congregational singing, though a bit unclear, have apparently been eased, so next week we will reinstate the repeat and see how it goes.  That coming psalm (53/54) has a nice easy Response, too.  The Lord is on our side.

Snail shell with person emerging
encouraging the singing (once it’s allowed)
Singing the Mass (or bits of it)

For the last few weeks, we have been singing the Kyrie, the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei out of my Mayfield Mass setting, with just the tiny choir singing it and the congregation listening.  It is a new setting for this congregation, but I’m actually delighted to be able to introduce it in this way, as they are learning what it sounds like without any risk of embarrassment over making mistakes, and I think they will move into singing it with no trouble (we’ve had some positive feedback, and I’m delighted to say that the congregation toddlers are swaying to the Agnus Dei, which I love to see).  It will probably be a while until we can tackle the Gloria, but there’s no rush.

mediaeval dancers in a line
Hold hands and keep together : another group of six
Still a work in progress

We are still a scanty congregation.  This week we put the pews back to the way they used to be instead of bunching them up and labelling them so that people had to sit two metres apart.  It looks very strange, even though we know it never used to.   The pews look astonishingly close together,  and the Communion queues bunch up and spread out unexpectedly as people try to remember what version of social distancing is current.  I’m more comfortable with the uncertainty than with those who ostentatiously push for going faster,  because we are in fact still being asked to wear masks and keep some distance in our church.  I would like there to be more open doors, and to have the fans in use.  I know we usually keep them only for summertime, but they are an easy way to encourage ventilation, and our church is modern and low, not one of the soaring Victorians with a big ceiling space.

Singing hopefully on the journey

Repeating the Response and the Alleluia seemed to run smoothly, so we’ll keep those going.  Our aim is to glide smoothly into more singing, letting people join in as much as they feel able to.  A church choir is meant to lead but not replace the singing by the congregation, at least since Vatican II.  It is going to take a while, even as the pandemic restrictions have taken a while.  Christians have always sung together,  borrowing psalms from the Jewish tradition and writing their own hymns from the earliest days.  Singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (nice distinctions, there),  as St Paul urges in Ephesians 5.19,  is for many of us a completely natural and integral part of the Mass.  We have missed it.  It is wonderful to hear it coming back.

Church choir
all singing together : something to look forward to

Another good old hymn : Holy God we praise thy name

The matter of words

I like hymns with good words. A hymn ought to be able to be prayed without its music, which is very handy at the moment when we aren’t allowed to sing in many of our churches. A lot of modern hymns are disappointing in this aspect, not able to sustain the weight of prayerful attention and lacking in solid theology, but older hymns are a wonderful resource which it is a shame to neglect.

a hymn book without the music is a prayer book
Words and/or music

The best hymns, of course, are those memorable for both words and tune, but a set of really good words or a really good tune can keep a hymn going on its own. Here is a hymn with good words and an excellent tune, from the Germans who gave us so many of our best tunes (and a couple of beloved composers as well).  Holy God, we praise thy name (with more or fewer capital letters) was a staple in all the hymn books we used at school and growing up.  In later life, I discovered it was a favourite with many American friends, who had even chosen to sing it at their weddings.  I hadn’t gone that far, but I loved the fine rolling tune and the way the words followed the roll so exactly, especially in the second verse.

A version of the Te Deum

As so often, the story is more complicated than at first appears.  The words are an adaptation of the Te Deum laudamus, one of the oldest Church hymns, so old that we don’t even know who was responsible for it.  Both St Ambrose and St Augustine have been suggested, but the hymn is thought to be even older than those names would indicate.  As a text, I find it a little unwieldy, in both Latin and English.  It feels like a set of sentences laid out on the page with minimal organisation.  It is a hymn of sorts, but it’s written in prose.  The last part is a collection of what we would nowadays call ‘arrow prayers’, taken from the psalms.  The Te Deum divides antiphonally with ease. This probably led to the myth of Saints Augustine and Ambrose creating it spontaneously together, like a two-man rap, but its rhythms are not patterned until it comes out of the Latin , and the standard English version in the Book of Common Prayer keeps stopping and starting.  It has been a part of the liturgy for centuries, and is one of the prayers which is really useful ecumenically : most Anglicans are more familiar with it than Catholics, as it plays a central role in Matins.

The translator (into German)

The version we have in our (older) hymnbooks has three or usually four verses, but the Te Deum is quite a bit longer than this.  Our version comes via a German paraphrase of the Latin, in twelve verses, by Ignaz Franz (a Catholic priest), in 1771.  He does a fine job, metrical without being forced, and even elegant in places.  He edited it later down to eleven and then eight verses and it occurs in several different hymnals in several different versions.  It was a Catholic hymn originally, and then was adopted by the Protestants.  It became frequent in Protestant hymnals only in the twentieth century, according to wikipedia, but the tune is slightly different (it goes up instead of down at the end of lines 1 and 3, which makes a surprising amount of difference).

Protestant hymnal 1901, with the variant in the tune
Classic Mitteleuropean

It then went through a bad patch, acquiring an extra verse in praise of Hitler, and being adopted as a military machismo hymn, which is unfair if you read the lyrics.  The Poles have a version; the Swiss have an extra pacifist verse;  and I’m certain that I have sung it in Czech.  This happens with a lot of the good German hymns : their words fit the tune so well that they can often be translated into related languages with minimal adjustment, and the tunes export with no problems at all.  The tune we sing was actually written for the (German) words; you can tell because it’s named from the first words of the verse, like a Bach chorale.

Moving into English

The German words are solid and straightforward.  The English ones are not always quite so felicitous, but when the number of verses was reduced, we lost most of the awkward lines.  I regret the loss of two parts in particular, though it was probably a wise decision.   First this one, because it sounds completely Gilbert and Sullivan, the tune emphasizing ‘tri-bu-tary’ just like ‘tutelary’ in The Mikado  (and it just means ‘subject’):

Thou art King of glory, Christ:
Son of God, yet born of Mary;
For us sinners sacrificed,
And to death a tributary:
First to break the bars of death,
Thou hast opened Heaven to faith.

Resurrection
The Lord himself as the first of the ‘startled dead’

and then these lines:

When Thy voice shall shake the earth,
And the startled dead come forth.

because I like that ‘startled dead’ so much.  It is not in the German.

The translator into English

However, let me get back to the version that we actually sing.  The English version was translated by Clarence A. Walworth in 1858.  He was an American (note the spelling of ‘scepter’) lawyer who studied for the Episcopal ministry but then later converted to Catholicism and became a priest.  He wrote poems (which Oscar Wilde was rude about), and translated the German version  into English, which was then published in the Catholic Psalmist, Dublin 1858.  The long text is in the wiki article, but here are the verses in our modern hymnals.  Sometimes they are slightly modernised (you/your instead of Thee/Thy, which works easily because it’s an unstressed syllable). 

1. Holy God, we praise Thy Name;
Lord of all, we bow before Thee!
All on earth Thy scepter claim,
All in Heaven above adore Thee;
Infinite Thy vast domain,
Everlasting is Thy reign.

2. Hark! the loud celestial hymn
Angel choirs above are raising,
Cherubim and seraphim,
In unceasing chorus praising,
Fill the heavens with sweet accord:
Holy, holy, holy, Lord.

3. Holy Father, Holy Son,
Holy Spirit, Three we name Thee;
While in essence only One,
Undivided God we claim Thee;
And adoring bend the knee,
While we own the mystery.

4. Spare Thy people, Lord, we pray,
By a thousand snares surrounded:
Keep us without sin today,
Never let us be confounded.
Lo, I put my trust in Thee;
Never, Lord, abandon me.

Matching the words to the music

I think the power of this hymn comes partly from the complete correspondence of tune and words.  The words roll on, like the waves of the sea, measured and rhythmic, each verse apart from the first being a single sentence (spot the German influence, although there are more full stops in the German version).  The rhymes are solid and show little strain, alternating simple and composite very effectively (apart from the unconvincing ‘claim’ in the first verse, which has always niggled at me; sometimes it’s replaced by ‘own’, but that messes up the rhyme).   In the second verse, the singers accumulate as the lines roll out, culminating effortlessly in the first line of the Sanctus, and by then we too are singing with the angels, as part of the mighty chorus.  It works beautifully.

Angel choir
angel choirs enabling a singalong

On the whole the English translation is more self-conscious and affective, certainly more adjectival,  than the German.  I would almost say ‘more Counter-Reformation’, except I’m not sure how much to ascribe to that movement in the Chuch and how much Father Walworth’s version is coloured by an American rather than a European idiom.  The whole hymn would be too much, but the reduced version works well. 

The last verse as a contrast

The last section of the Te Deum, the short collection of arrow prayers or one-liners, is much reduced in the translations.  Even in the German, it is limited to a single verse, and Walworth does the same.  I particularly like the way that the orotund majesty which informs the first three verses contrasts with the simplicity of the petitions in the last verse.  The English version is more acute and emphatic, mainly because it changes from the plural to the singular in the last two lines.  The German, like the Latin, uses the plural throughout,  but the sudden change here in the English version to the specific and individual is arresting.

Job surrounded by fierce animals
I need help here
Changing the focus from ‘we’ to ‘I’

The psalms that use the plural throughout tend to be the more ceremonial ones, the Songs of Ascents, the Temple celebrations, the laments.   The psalmist is singing to God; about various things, about his life, about what’s going on.  He’s not singing to other people, but sometimes he sings about the group to which he belongs.  By the rivers of Babylon/ there we sat and wept (Ps 136/137).  In the same way, the Te Deum is almost like the Creed or the Gloria.  It is a set of statements of belief, and the people are plural.   The singular on the other hand tends to be for the more intimate psalms, the penitentials, the yearning psalms.  The Lord is my shepherd (Ps 22/23).   Any dialogue is between God and the individual, never two human beings, one reason why the psalms belong to anyone who reads them.

David and tongue
just the psalmist and God in this conversation
From risk to reassurance

Often the narrative in a psalm is of the individual set against an undifferentiated crowd of enemies, and that is what is evoked here in the last verse of the hymn.  The first four lines are a simple statement of being beleaguered, or ‘tempested, travailed and afflicted’, as Julian of Norwich puts it.  But then the last two lines move from the political to the personal, with a cry for help : Lo, I put my trust in Thee,/ Never, Lord, abandon me.  This sudden shift to the first person singular, in the last two lines and falling on the last, heavy note of the whole hymn, is very striking, and paradoxically comforting, because we can all instantly identify with it.

Beautiful tents
my enemies encamped around about me
The power of the personal

It reminds me specifically of Psalm 118/119, the longest psalm in the Psalter, which I have written about before, a long, mainly tranquil, even rather smug treatise-poem on the beauties of the Law and how much the psalmist loves it.  It’s an alphabetical psalm, and it just keeps on moving on letter by letter, explaining to God how virtuous and remarkable the speaker is,  until the last stanza, where suddenly the psalmist, this great and eminent jurist, this expert in the Law as given, blurts out ‘I am lost like a sheep; seek your servant/for I remember your commands’ , and the psalm ends abruptly.  Just as in the psalm we move from the majesty of the Law to the rescue of one individual, so we move in the hymn from the enormous majesty of God in mighty chords of music (and you really do need an organ for this hymn) to the singer’s own complete dependence upon him.  In contrast to the tune, the words here are broken and almost breathless, with those two commas : this is entirely down to the English translation, as the German words here are sonorous and smooth.  Breathless but not desperate, because the singer here is as confident as the one in Psalm 62/63 : ‘My soul clings to you;/your right hand holds me fast’ (v.9).  Very personal; very close; very comforting.

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