Lent Gospel Acclamations, a User’s Guide

Putting the Alleluia on hold (for a little while)…..

From this Wednesday, February 14th, you won’t hear the word Alleluia in church for the next six weeks or so. That is because it is the beginning of Lent (although there may also be a few people celebrating February 14th for other reasons), and during Lent all the Alleluias, like the Gloria, are removed from the liturgy.

A beautiful place to keep the Alleluias during Lent
…and giving the job to the Lent Gospel Acclamation

Instead we have the Lent Gospel Acclamation, which has the exact same role. It heralds the Gospel. We sing (or say, but singing’s better) it before the (relevant) Gospel verse, and repeat it afterwards; then, completely focussed and wideawake (because of the injection of new oxygen caused by singing), we listen to the Gospel.  In some parishes, they repeat the Acclamation again after the Gospel, which means the congregation is singing it at least three times.

Lots of options

There are different forms of words for the Lent Gospel Acclamation, and they also differ in each country-group, so we end up with lots of them.  I’m not sure why there is so much variation, as they all replace the simple word ‘Alleluia’, and no-one seems to feel a need to vary that from week to week, but I just work with what I’m given.

Hunting the Bonnacore (mythical beast)
Volmar and I attempting to subdue the Lent Gospel Acclamation

We’ve now been doing this for a few years, and I have to admit that my heart and that of Volmar the Vebmaster both sink when we realise it’s Lent Gospel Acclamation time again.  This is because they are tricksy little things and it’s hard to get a good grip on them.  Somehow they always manage to get in behind you and bite you on the bottom, however hard you try to keep them in order.  This year, for example, I was reasonably sanguine about them after putting a lot of work and organisation in over the last two years.  Ash Wednesday looked all right…..and then my nice neat system fell at the first hurdle as I had to write a third one for Canada for First Sunday of Lent Year B, because the Missal used a different one.

Sheep tightly jammed into sheepfold
How many different Acclamations?
Lots and lots of options

The problem arises because each country-group Missal can choose any of the optional Lent Gospel Acclamations to go with any set Gospel verse, which offers a dizzying number of possibilities.  Most parishes don’t actually want to have a new Acclamation every week as well as the new Gospel verse.  So what I have done is take a default setting for every week, choosing the one that is used most often in the Lectionary, so that you can actually sing the same Acclamation every week if you want to;  and where the Acclamation in the Missal is one of the alternatives, I’ve set that as well (so you can stick with the words exactly as in the Missal if you prefer).  For all the country-groups except  the Canadians, the default setting is the first standard Lent Gospel Acclamation, but for Canada it is the fifth on the list.

Nun reading at lectern
Hooray for women cantors even if they can’t read the Gospel
The problems of labelling

I started out by giving them letters instead of numbers, but that turned out too confusing.  We have numbered them according to the order in the Missal, but it’s still not foolproof as the Sundays of Lent are themselves numbered, and the Years are designated by different letters, so both obvious markers could cause confusion.  I thought about Roman numerals, lower-case letters and different alphabets, but they all have drawbacks.  Various useful typographical marks aren’t accepted as elements in filenames by the computer.  So the form we settled on is that the first number in any name is the marker for the top-and-tail, and later numbers refer to the Sunday of Lent. Thus Lent Gospel Acclamation 1 (US) 1 Lent A, for example.

America, Canada and Australia/New Zealand all use the same set of possible Lent Gospel Acclamations, but OZ and CAN do not use Nos. 3 and 6 in their Missals.  I thought about renumbering in consequence, but decided against it. The UK and Ireland have their own set.

In addition, the Saints’ days which fall in Lent have to use Lent Gospel Acclamations instead of Alleluias.  Since March is a busy month (St David, St Patrick and St Joseph among others), this is a whole further group.

Further possible complications

Sometimes I have to transpose the Acclamation down a tone, because the Gospel verse would otherwise feel uncomfortable for the Cantor;  I thought about doing a separate list of these as well, but decided it probably wasn’t worth it.  Most Acclamations are in G or F, and they are all 4/4;  this is to keep things as modular as possible, so if your congregation particularly likes one Acclamation, it’s easy to reuse it, even if it isn’t the one set in the Missal.  And I can easily transpose anything for you if you e-mail me (singenofbingen@gmail.com).

How does it work in practice?

When we post the music for the appropriate Sunday, this means that every week there is a setting of the Lent Gospel Acclamation with that week’s Gospel verse, and often two, because there is the default setting (usually Lent Gospel Acclamation 1) as well as whatever is written in the Missal.  It’s not as complicated on the ground as it sounds when you try to explain it.   On some Lent Sundays,  we have the same Gospel verse as a different Year, but a different top-and-tail, so it’s possible to end up with three options, but usually it’s only two; and of course, you only need one for any given Mass.   We are trying to keep this simple (I realise it may not sound like that!), and it’s easier in practice than it sounds.

Making them work

Like Alleluias, these are musical miniatures, but they do have a function, and they have to work.  To be succesful, they must be clear, attract attention, encourage participation, stop people being distracted and give the words their full weight.  This is why everyone sings the top-and-tail, even if only the cantor sings the verse.  That’s quite a lot of work for four bars of music.

Teacher reading to class
Paying attention and enjoying it?

The Acclamations need to be a call, but not jubilant like the Alleluia, more of a formal introduction.  The format for both Alleluias and Lent Gospel Acclamations  reminds me of the old advice about speaking to a group : you need to tell people what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.  It is a deliberate framing device.  Some of the words are trickier than others; I have tried to be ceremonial without being musically pompous.  They don’t need to be slow, just comfortable talking speed for the verse.  Over the course of Lent, the Gospel verses start spare and become slightly more elaborate; I have tried to follow the same development.

Always trying to catch up

As evidence of the tricksiness of the Lent Gospel Acclamation, I have to mention that only this year did I discover that there are even two more available for the US and CAN Lectionaries.  These two don’t get set in the Missal for the Lent Sundays, so I don’t actually need them for this year; but in the interests of completeness, and giving you the full set of options, I will try to set them before next Lent season……and then I will find that there is still more to do, before I have got all the Lent Gospel Acclamations sorted out and musicked.  I wish you a happy, holy and musical Lent.

Mini-dragons attacking people
Lent Gospel Acclamations refusing to lie down

© 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.

Women’s voices in the Bible : few but worth listening to

Women’s words and women’s voices

We have two big Marian feasts coming up as we move into the second week of Advent : the Immaculate Conception on December 8th and Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12th. Then on the Third Sunday of Advent in Year B (this year) we have Our Lady’s song, the Magnificat, instead of a Responsorial Psalm.  So I’m thinking about women and their prayer and singing.

Women’s words are a tiny proportion  of Scripture.  We have lots of chants, songs and canticles (which simply means ‘little songs’) in the Bible, but they are nearly all by men.  I read a fascinating account of the case for considering the author of at least part of the Song of Solomon to be female, a few years ago, but I don’t think it has met with widespread acceptance.

Women’s songs and prayers

There are a few precious references to women’s songs in the Bible.  When I was considering lullabies,  I said that because they are seen as ‘women’s work’, they don’t have the same esteem as poems by men, and oral literature is not taken as seriously as written.  This impacts directly on the preservation of women’s words as far fewer women traditionally have been literate than men (and schools set up ‘for the children of the poor’ have usually been kept only for the male version).   Women don’t even talk much in the narratives of the Old Testament, which presumably pleased St Paul, when he was studying it as a young Pharisee;  but this does mean that we treasure what we have.

Miriam, a prophet with no prophecies

Miriam the prophetess is allowed to lead the women singing the chorus in the song of victory after the Red Sea roars back and swallows up Pharaoh and his horses and his chariots, but although the male prophets declaim at length (a whole book of the Bible each), we don’t hear any of Miriam’s words.  It is only through her label that we know she is a prophetess at all.

There are very few books of the Bible named after women (and they are so short, it is easy to overlook them while leafing through).  We have Ruth, Esther and Judith (personally I would add Wisdom, as she is so often personified, and I called my daughter Sophia after her, but I do know she is an abstraction).

Ruth’s words : a tender poem

Ruth is a refugee with all the cards stacked against her : a childless, foreign widow, with a dependent mother-in-law. The Book of Ruth tells how by hard work, patience, obedience and love, she ends up married to Boaz, and is the mother of kings.  She has one piece of speech written out in verse, and it is the lovely invocation to her mother-in-law, ‘wherever you go, I shall go’.   It was adapted and given a tune a while ago (I remember singing it as a student), but the words have been changed and the tune has so many long pauses that it’s difficult to sing.  I think it’s interesting that it’s been used as a hymn, when it does not occur in any Sunday reading.  People would clearly like to use it.  Maybe I should do a more upbeat setting.

Esther’s prayer for courage before the lion king

The Book of Esther is in a bit of a mess; there is a Greek version which contains many parts not present in the Hebrew version, including not only Mordecai’s prayer, but also one by Esther.

Esther is a member of the king’s harem,  but no-one knows that she is a Jew, except her uncle Mordecai, who is an astute civil servant.  The king’s right hand man, Haman, takes against the Jews because they are a stiff-necked people, and Mordecai won’t bow to him.

Keep calm and be like Queen Esther
purple for the queen

Esther’s influence with the King is the only way to save the whole Jewish nation.   She adorns herself beautifully for the King and finds favour in his eye, which she uses to save her people (after three banquets, in the best story tradition).  It’s a wonderful, dramatic story, which has been turned into novels and plays, and I remember a haunting little poem by Eleanor Farjeon which starts, ‘Put on your purple, Esther, Esther’.   Most of us know the bones of the story.  But Esther’s own words are unfamiliar.

Judith, a great heroine, but don’t quote her

Judith is a corking story, longer than the other two, but I recommend it as a good read.   She is another widow (very low down in the pecking order, that’s why God has to look out for them especially), very virtuous, very sensible and forthright, and (critically) extremely beautiful.

Judith holding a sword
Giorgione’s Judith

Both her prose (when she’s giving advice to the elders and generals, which astonishingly they accept) and her prayers are worth reading.  And we have a really authentic voice here.  ‘You must not ask what I intend to do; I will not tell you until I have done it’ (Judith 8 33).   She is the only person I can think of in the Bible who says please : ‘Please, please, God of my father, God of the heritage of Israel, Master of heaven and earth, Creator of the waters, King of your whole creation, hear my prayer’ (Jud 9 12).  It would take too long to tell the story but (spoiler alert) she beheads the enemy’s general and saves the day with her virtue intact.  Her words are powerful (she has a couple of other short prayers and a great victory song) but the only song out of the book of Judith that we use in the liturgy (for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe) is actually the words of the High Priest as he blesses her for saving Israel.

I should mention at this point that Esther and Judith don’t even appear in many Bibles, as their pedigree and style are different from the other canonical books.

Are any psalms by women?

What else have we got?  Of course we don’t know who wrote almost any of the psalms, but I would be surprised if many of them were women’s prayers, though some of the yearning psalms might be.  As I said when I was looking at inclusive language, the Psalms are more inclusive than other bits of the Bible because so much of them is direct conversation between two interlocutors, and ‘I’ and ‘you’ are gender-neutral on the page.   This is possibly one reason why the Psalms are so widely beloved: because they feel relevant to each reader and he or she can pray them as his or her own words.

Hannah the mother of Samuel

I’m sure there are some  other examples of women’s words that I have omitted, because the Bible is too long for me to be able to do a quick check through.  I make no claim for this list being exhaustive.  There is a great prayer by Hannah, the noble mother of Samuel, after she gives her son, her only son, to God (I Samuel 2).

Hannah hands over Samuel
Hannah’s heroic sacrifice

In it she quotes the psalms, and she also uses many of the ideas that we find in the Magnificat. God humbles and he exalts (v7).  He raises the poor from the dust, he lifts the needy from the dunghill to give them a place with princes, and to assign them a seat of honour (v 8ff).  These are ideas that we often find in the psalms, but they have peculiar force when the person talking about God’s turning the established order upside down, is someone who is right at the bottom.  Like Judith, she reminds God that men do not win by their own strength, but by his.  The inference is clear : with his help ‘women can do much’, as Mary Ward says.

Deborah, a prophetess with more of a voice

Another prophetess is Deborah, in the book of Judges, and she is another strong and sensible woman whose advice is heeded.  Like Joan of Arc, she puts fire into the belly of the soldiers.  Barak refuses to go and fight Sisera if she does not go with him, and again I think we hear a real person speaking in her answer :’I will go with you then, but the way you are going about it, the glory will not be yours; for God will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman’ (Judges 4 9, Jerusalem version). They march out to battle together. Later, Sisera is horribly staked by Jael, and then there is the triumph song described as being by Deborah and Barak.  I hope it’s mostly by Deborah; to me, it certainly reads that way (there is even a little joke in it about men holding long debates by the stream while others are rushing into battle with Barak and Deborah).  It has some wonderful lines: ‘From high in heaven fought the stars, fought from their orbits against Sisera……Through her window she leans and looks, Sisera’s mother, through the lattice: ‘Why is his chariot long in coming? Why are the harnessed horses slow?” (Judges 5 2off).  It is really exciting,  a fine piece of writing.

The New Testament

Although there’s not much in the Old Testament, there is surprisingly even less in the New.  There are many women about in the narrative (Jesus seems to have felt comfortable in their company), but their words are rarely recorded, and never at length.   When they speak, it tends to be brief questions, requests, comments – not prayers or songs, with the exception of Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary incorporated into the Hail Mary, and of course, Mary’s own Magnificat.

Anna and the song we don’t have

There is a sad but very telling moment in Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus is presented in the temple.  Simeon, an old and very holy man is there, and we have the words of what he said. The first part is the Nunc Dimittis, another beautiful prayer which the Church uses every day.  He also prophesies Mary’s future sorrow.  Then the narrative describes the arrival of Anna, an elderly and very holy widow. ‘And coming up at that very hour she gave thanks to God, and spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem’ (Luke 2 38, RSV).  And that’s it.  The narrative moves on, and we do not have Anna’s words.  This upsets me every time I read it.

Suppressing women’s voices

Christianity and the Catholic Church in particular has a real problem with letting women’s voices be heard.  Adult women are the one group still barred from Catholic Cathedral choirs. During the Middle Ages, nuns were not even allowed to sing Gregorian chant in convents, they were restricted to intoning on a single note, in case people might come and listen to the beauty of their singing.  This seems to me to be a fine example of both missing the point and blaming the victim : if you are singing beautifully, you are doing it for God, not for an audience, which is usually not there anyway.

Nowadays we can read poems and prayers by women (not ‘for’, those are often less helpful) and they are often very useful and beautiful.  I have heard calls for a separate ‘theology of women’, but I don’t think we need one.  What we need is for the men who run the Church to realise that women are human too, and that their experience and its expression are equally valid with men’s.

‘Awake, awake, Deborah! Awake, awake, declaim a song!’ (Judges 5 12).  ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout with gladness, daughter of Jerusalem!’ (Zechariah 9 9).   Alas, there are no New Testament equivalents of this encouragement.   We have been waiting too long to hear women’s voices.



For us and for our salvation : inclusive language

Inclusive language

I have been ducking writing this blog because I know it’s an issue which creates heat and not much light. But with the All Saints psalm coming up, that feels cowardly, so I’m going to try and explain why I think the Church has got this wrong.

Unlike some people whom I respect, I do follow the official line on non-inclusive language as given when I am writing tunes for the Psalms and Gospel Acclamations.  For the website to be reliable and useful, I have to follow exactly the words as given in the relevant Missal.  I do not change things, or leave words out; but I do wince quite often.  If I am reading at my church, I check with the parish priest whether he is happy for me to add ‘and sisters’ to the exhortations made to ‘brothers’.  Mostly it’s not a problem, although a couple of years ago one priest said to me that there were far more important things to be concerned with in the readings.

Why does it matter?

And of course he was right.  The substance is what matters.  What he didn’t understand though, and what I think the authorities in the Church have equally failed to grasp, is that if you deliberately exclude what is usually the majority of the congregation, this is a stumbling block for many of them, and they can’t engage with the substance because they feel as if they have been told that it is not meant for them.

Women as a small minority in the past

When I went to university, women were a relatively small minority.  I remember being addressed, at lectures and seminars, as ‘gentlemen’.  One didn’t react.  Politer and more aware (maybe less myopic) lecturers gradually became the majority, though it took some time.  When I was doing postgrad research my supervisor consulted me about what to do with a new (female) student who burst into tears whenever criticised.  I suggested sending her to a female don, which completely nonplussed my supervisor, as the college he belonged to, though it had female undergraduates, did not have any women on the teaching staff.

This isn’t me; but maybe this is what I should have done

That’s a while ago now, and thank goodness the situation has improved.  But the issue of inclusive language (or rather of non-inclusive language) is still a painful one for (most) women Catholics.  Even more damagingly, a wholly male hierarchy does not even notice that half the body of Christ is being excluded, because the language actively misrepresents the reality.

Awareness of language, inclusive or not

I am very language-aware, I always have been.  It’s like having an acute sense of smell, something you are born with.  Because of writing music to go with a fixed set of words, I think I have probably become even more sensitised.  I look up pronunciation on-line to check whether the US ‘toward’ is one or two syllables (it’s one, and there’s a man who spends seventeen minutes explaining it). I understand how the UK psalm can have ‘power’ or ‘heaven’ on one note, but you need two for the US – and I’m still trying to find out which side of the fence Canada and Australia come down on.  I have to arrange the melody so that ‘tormented’ is stressed on the first syllable for the US and Philippines, but on the second syllable for UK, Ireland and OZ.  (The same is true for ‘frustrated’, but luckily that’s not a word that comes up in the psalms, only in Saint Paul’s Letters.)  I look at the words really carefully, and work on them for some time.  It is an enormous privilege to be able to do this, and I love it; but shoddy translation makes me cross.

It’s not Latin’s fault

I’m lucky enough to be also comfortable with Latin.  I grew up with it, partly because our parish was a very old-fashioned one, so even after Mass in the vernacular had been introduced, we were still having a lot of it in Latin.  I studied it at school.  I can sing chant, I can do Credo III and Salve Regina without book.  I’m not trying to boast or show off here, just explain where I’m coming from.  Crucially, I know that ‘homines’ is not the Latin for ‘men’.  It means ‘people’.  In French, it’s the difference between ‘les hommes’ and ‘les gens’.  So ‘for us men and our salvation’ , to go back to my headline example, is simply wrong.  You might well not want to use the word ‘people’ because it has two syllables, and disturbs the rhythm.   You could just leave it out.  This should offend no-one.  It includes all of us.  Because there is time for a tiny break after it, it actually helps to make you think about what you are saying.  ‘For us men’ is quite deliberately excluding.   And in Latin it would be ‘propter nos viros’.

The Church isn’t even consistent on this.  If ‘men’ means ‘men and women’, why do the advertisements for vocations to the priesthood always invite ‘men’?   Any woman aspirant would be rebuffed at a very early stage and told it did not mean ‘and women’ at all.  ‘Man’ is slightly more tricky, because we don’t have (unlike Czech, Serbian and no doubt some other languages) a genderless noun for a human being except for ‘person’, which has a special weight of its own.  ‘Homo’ and ‘vir’ both translate as ‘man’.  I am a ‘homo’ but I am not a ‘vir’.   For those who get agitated about in persona Christi, Jesus was made man: ‘homo factus est’.  He happens to be a ‘vir’.  I have no problem with that.  We are both ‘homines’.  As the hymn City of God says, ‘we are sons of the morning, we are daughters of day’, a very fine example of inclusive translation (Cf. ‘You are all sons of light and sons of the day’, 1 Thess 5.5).

(Non-)inclusive language in the Psalms

Moving on to the Psalms, the situation becomes clearer, because there, our translations distinguish between ‘man’ (‘What is man, that thou art mindful of him,’ (Ps 8/9) and ‘a man’ or ‘the man’, but a lot of the time, the psalms are so direct that it isn’t a problem: we are using ‘I’ and ‘you’.  When the discussion is between God and the psalmist, we can all use the words of the psalm without any obstacle.  When, however, the psalmist discusses other people in general terms, we do have a problem, as he tends to talk only about ‘the just man’ and ‘the wicked man’.  As soon as the word ‘man’ has an article, definite or indefinite, it seems to be talking to only half the human race and ignoring the other half.

Here’s another one, better than the real thing
But these are the words in the Bible

Some of the translations I set are aware of the problem and try to work around it.  ‘Man’ is a single syllable which can be difficult to replace.  ‘The just one’ (occasional, US) is a bit clumsy, as is the use of ‘their’ for a singular subject (occasional, CAN) to avoid ‘his’ (but probably better than ‘one’s’, unless you are the Queen of England).  The recommended wedding psalms nearly all focus on the joys of the just man, with his wife as an occasional desirable add-on, and this is why I would myself choose a different sort of psalm, one which speaks to both central figures.  (Have a look at my earlier discussion on wedding psalms, if you are interested.) Here is where the psalms’ directness is very helpful : ‘May the Lord give you your heart’s desire’ excludes no-one and is highly appropriate (Pss 19/20 and 36/37).

The Canada translations vary wildly, sometimes trying really hard to be inclusive and sometimes seeming deliberately to avoid doing so.  The UK/Ireland translations, being closest to the original Grail versions, are of their time, as of course are the Psalms.  Now, changing the Grail versions is difficult, because they were ‘Englished’ (and that’s her word) by a genius woman, Philippa Craig, who understood not just her own language but also that the psalms were meant to be sung, so the rhythms are good;  and if you upset them, you must produce something at least as good (this is why a lot of nineteenth-century hymn word revision is poor).  And the psalms are really old; Christianity has been around for two thousand years, but the psalms were already old when it started.  They are the product of their time, their culture, their context…….

So can we change them for the Lectionary?

…….but they are also new for us every time we sing them. So a bit of careful alteration can be justified, I think, and determined non-alteration is wearing on the ear of (some) female listeners.  All Saints always brings this topic to the front of my attention.  The Responses for the All Saints psalm are interesting. US and OZ (sorry, technical term for ‘Australia and New Zealand’) have ‘Lord, this is the people that longs to see your face’, which is OK.  The UK/Ireland version is taken directly from the text: ‘Such are the men who seek your face, O Lord’, which is not good. The Canadian one is inspired: ‘Lord, this is the company of those who seek your face’ – good rhythm, arresting, leaves no-one out, neat allusion both to the Church Militant and the eucharistic community; but then, sadly, subsides into the same verse words as OZ and UK, ‘the man’ and ‘he’. The US has ‘the one’ and ‘he’, but substitutes ‘race’ for ‘men’ in the last verse (which is where the UK Response is from).  I respect the effort, but that’s not a good alternative.  All four Lectionaries do adapt the psalm words quite freely when they choose, including the UK one, so keeping it exact is not a justification for exclusionary language.  I think it is justified to change the words slightly for a psalm that is designed to be sung by the whole congregation, especially in the Response because it is repeated.

I want to walk in Jerusalem just like John
Other writings more problematic

The Psalms are not (usually) the problem at Mass for those of us with sensitive ears, though I reserve the right to point out where alterations could easily have been made (I need a good picture, like my mediaeval Yoda for when the US psalm words are too inverted, but I haven’t found one yet).  So much of the language of the psalms is simple, direct and uses ‘I’ and ‘you’ rather than the third person, which is where the problem usually arises.  We could make better use of adjectives, which are gender-neutral in English : ‘the poor’, ‘the just’ etc.  The bigger problem is paradoxically in the more modern translations of prayers where non-inclusive language has been retained or even put back.  When you see translations of Vatican documents or Papal sermons or prayers in Morning and Evening Prayer (one of the worst offenders) which use the word ‘men’ (or sometimes ‘sons’ or ‘brothers’),  it is rarely necessary.  It could just be ineptitude or shoddy translation, but it often seems to be part of an agenda.

I have been at many Masses where the congregation was almost exclusively female, or even where it was all nuns except me and the priest.  ‘For us and for our salvation’ is a better version of the words, and not just in those situations.  It is what I say.

© 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.

Music for your wedding : things worth considering

Congratulations! Once you decide to get married, there are lots of things you want to do but I’m only going to talk about planning the music at your wedding service, specifically the bits with words.  Your going in and coming out music you need to discuss with your organist, and if you want the Arrival of the Queen of Sheba and Widor’s Toccata, just ask; organists love a challenge!  Only one point: it’s actually quite difficult to walk sedately to a 3/4 rhythm, so however much you love it, keep the Blue Danube for the reception, or you may find yourself waltzing out.

Planning for the personal

I’ve only had one wedding, but I’ve sung at a lot of them, and watched the planning of several others (big family), so I now feel that if I did get married again, I have a clearer idea of how to make the wedding service as personal as possible (although, reassuringly, I wouldn’t change anything about mine).  Some of the service is fixed, but there are plenty of places where you have to choose between alternatives.  What mood do you want to create?  What story do you want to tell?  These are in fact liturgical questions, and the words and music you choose are very important.

The psalm for your wedding : the official options by country

We have special requests for wedding psalms all through the year, but they tend to peak in the summer, so this year the Webmaster and I decided to think ahead, and we’ve put together a full set of the psalms listed in the UK and Ireland (one set) and the US and Philippines (another set)  Lectionaries for Weddings. I haven’t been able to track down the OZ or Canada equivalents on line, so I would be really grateful if anyone else could send me the list, as experience shows it may well not be the same.  It is actually quite funny to compare the different national missals in my possession.  The US one has a set of three possible wedding services at the back (and doesn’t include the words of the Hail Mary at any point).   The UK one has lots of Penitential Rites, and Evening Prayer out of the Divine Office.  The OZ one just has room for a selection of prayers because it’s in slightly bigger print (for which I am grateful).   The Canada one is based on the US version but unhelpfully takes out the wedding section, and has an Overview of the Catechism.  As they say, go figure.

Several to choose from

There is a choice of wedding psalms and alleluia verses, at least seven different psalms, and even more to choose from because there are often alternative Responses for the same psalm (none of this is me, by the way, this is all straight out of the Lectionary.)  The main thing I would say is make this an active choice.  Choose a psalm where the words mean something to you, ideally to both of you, personally.  If you have a favourite psalm and it’s not listed, have a word with your priest and ask if you may substitute it.  If I haven’t already set it (or you don’t like the tune), e-mail me.  Shortest turn-round time ever was a couple of days, but I’m pleased to say I got it done, and delighted to say that they liked it, but more notice is a help!

And the chance to go off-piste if you want to

The psalm selection isn’t always the ones I would choose, but there are some good happy psalms to choose from (though inclusive language is in short supply).  There are several which are basically just hooray for God psalms, and there are some which are hooray for the just man.  There is only one which speaks specifically about the family, and that from the man’s viewpoint (127/128); overall, there is definitely an emphasis on only the male half of this pairing, and this might encourage you to consider other options.   (All the psalm settings are listed on the website www.musicformass.co.uk , so you can listen to the tunes.)  Invite all the angels as witnesses to your wedding with Psalm 137/138.   Consider Psalm 19/20, which asks God to protect you (both), to give you your heart’s desire and fulfil every one of your plans;  or Psalm 36/37, which says ‘if you find your delight in the Lord, he will grant you your heart’s desire’ with the Response ‘May the Lord always hold us by the hand’.  I set both these as graduation psalms for two of my daughters, and the words have the excitement of a new beginning as well as the reassurance of God’s love.   And if you really want Psalm 22/23 (The Lord is my shepherd), ask for it; it does not have to be kept for funerals!

Be careful of the message

Above all – and this goes for your choice of hymns too – check the words.  If you are choosing an anthem or something for the signing of the register, check the words.  Even if it’s in a foreign language, check the words.  There will be some smartiebreeks there who understands them.  I remember being in the choir at a wedding where the bride’s best friend sang ‘Lascia ch’io pianga‘ from Handel’s Rinaldo.  It is a beautiful tune.  But the words say ‘Let me weep for my cruel fate, and sigh for my liberty’, not a good choice for a wedding.  If it was a mistake, it was embarrassing; if it was deliberate, it was in very poor taste.  Check the words.

Choosing the wedding hymns

Here I would just say, try to mix it up a little, as this increases the chance of your congregation knowing at least one of them.  Maybe adapt the old rhyme.  Something old (trad Catholic) – eg Soul of my Saviour;  something new (but not too new) – something like City of God ;  something borrowed (one of the great Anglican or Methodist hymns – enormous choice here but eg Now thank we all our God);  something blues-y- eg  Gentle as silence.   Leave out any category you hate, but don’t let them all be out of the same box (unless it’s the borrowed box, because that has so many different sorts of options in it).

Choosing the wedding readings

I know I said I was only going to talk about the music, but I can’t not include picking your readings here.  There’s a good reason why most people stick with the Bible readings : they are relevant and not embarrassing.  Choose something you like by all means, even not biblical if your priest is happy, but check the words.  A younger brother is an excellent sounding board on this.  If he snorts with laughter, yawns or goes bright pink, think of choosing something else.  You have the rest of your life together to read The Owl and the Pussycat or Pigling Bland.

Don’t forget to choose the Alleluia verse

There are a few options available in the Lectionaries as the Alleluia verse, so don’t forget to make a choice here also.  Funnily enough, these are different from ordinary Sunday Alleluias, so they are mostly new settings of the verse words.  I have kept them all nice and simple.  There are various standard Alleluia top and tails, and I used the Jacob Alleluia for one of the US options because he’s a good model for persistence even if he behaves badly later on.  Remember there may well be people at the wedding who don’t know their way around, but they will want to join in if you make it easy for them.

It’s always wonderful and heartwarming to see how much goodwill there is at a wedding service, all focussed on the two people at front and centre.  They will listen to your readings.  They will sing the music you have chosen.  It’s your wedding.  Make it special.  The choices are all yours.

© 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.

What about the organ, ‘the king of instruments’ ?

The organ rising from the primaeval swamp

When we think about church music in the west, we think of choirs and we think of the organ, but the organ is not an instrument mentioned in the psalms, unless you include the wonderful prophetic reference in Psalm 41 (42) : ‘Deep calleth unto deep at the sound of thy waterspouts’.  Sadly even this doesn’t survive into more modern translations; The Grail has ‘…in the roar of waters’, new Grail ‘…in the roar of your torrents’, which are powerful and frankly make better sense, but I regret losing the organ reference. The Anglican psalter has ‘ One deep calleth another, because of the noise of the waterpipes’, which is definitely prophetic, but perhaps the translation then was influenced by knowing that organs started that way, rather than the other way round.   Still, it delights any organist.

First water pressure then air

The organ is the first keyboard instrument (press not plink) and the biggest of all the instruments, according to my trusty Ladybird book.  The Greeks thought of it first, as so often; possibly  it was Ctesibius of Alexandria .  It was indeed water pipes, and about the third century BC (so about 700 years after the psalms).  Bellows instead of water power came in around the fourth century AD.  It was always a large instrument, because each note needs a separate pipe to sound, so it tended to be built into large buildings.  Deep notes need very long pipes.

Great cathedrals and great organs

It was Guillaume de Machaut who called it ‘the king of instruments’.  He was born in 1300, went off to work for the King of Bohemia in 1323 and that’s another place that has fine historical organs.  We remember also that at this stage, kings tended to be much bigger than other people because of a better diet. The great mediaeval cathedrals had big beautiful organs built into them (Machaut went on to work in Rheims), and this style of organ just kept getting bigger, as ingenious musical engineers developed new stops and more potential volume.  (I know of an organ builder who puts a special local stop into any organ he builds.  The last one was bagpipes.)  But these organs were built in and so fixed in position, so later developments are the portative organ, small and portable as the name suggests, and the positive organ (not easily portable, but which could be moved, maybe standing on a table).  Bach had pedals, and so did the other Europeans, but they were not part of English organ building until nearly the end of the eighteenth century, and then the cunning French worked out how to use electricity in 1867 to power the organ, so it was all debugged and fully operational in time for Messiaen (born in 1908).

Getting bigger, getting smaller

Until the telephone exchange was invented, the organ was the biggest and most complicated machine in existence.  Now we have computers, and they just keep shrinking.  So do the telephones.  Now we have electronic organs and keyboards, which are portable, but they don’t make the same noise as those wonderful enormous church organs.  However, those do need to be sensitively played when accompanying, or they can easily swamp  any number of voices, but when they are playing solo, there is nothing comparable.  Except possibly the voice of the Almighty, which is also preceded by the rushing of a mighty wind.

Saint Cecilia sadly not involved

I am really sorry to have to admit that Saint Cecilia was not involved in the invention of the organ.  I had a woolly idea of her inventing the organ on the sea shore because of the inspiration of the wind and the waves, but alas, no.  I think it’s partly confusion between Britten’s Ode to Saint Cecilia and Britten’s own memorial on the beach at Aldeburgh.

Cecilia is an early martyr (died around 167 AD), and she’s the patron saint of music because when her parents decided to marry her against her will to a pagan husband, she sang in her heart to the Lord during the wedding, not in gladness but in supplication.  The Lord sorts everything out, the husband converts and his brother also, and eventually after many other converts, including all the soldiers sent to arrest this most persuaive lady, all the Christians are killed on the orders of Marcus Aurelius (presumably in one of his less humane moments).  Chaucer’s Second Nun in the Canterbury Tales tells the story of St Cecilia, but interestingly it’s all about vows of virginity and converting lots of people on the way to death, so the music angle evidently became more important later.  We really know almost nothing about her, but I think her popularity is grounded in the natural desire to honour a patron saint of something so important to so many people.

Patron saints and tactless iconography

It’s good to find a positive patron saint (especially a female one).  Often they are special because of their method of martyrdom (teeth for St Apollonia, eyes for Lucy), even using them as namebadges in mediaeval portraits (Catherine and the wheel, Lawrence and the grill), so it’s good to find St Cecilia accompanied by various instruments, harps, lyres, trumpets, other instruments; but very often a portative organ.  Any sort of organ except the original hydraulis is going to be of far later date than the saint; and what I think we have here is evidence of the idea that because organs are in churches, they are uniquely suitable to music on sacred themes.  I think this is wrong.  I think any musical instrument, like any language, can be just as appropriate as any other for singing to or about God.

All are welcome, not just organists

People have preferences, and that’s good.  It keeps things varied and interesting.  What I don’t like is when someone insists that ‘only’ one specific instrument is the right one, whatever it is.  Church musicians are a band, like any other band.  Just like in so many films, you assemble the band, and then you play the gig.  So on a Sunday, or hopefully at the rehearsal beforehand, you work with the musicians who present themselves.  One of the most encouraging psalms says,’ Make a joyful noise unto the Lord’.  Not a refined noise, or a performance with no errors, or a gloomy little whisper, just a joyful noise.  And we can all manage that.

Thank you to Mary who first asked the question, to wikipaedia, to various reference books I happen to have (Oxford Dictionary of Music, Oxford Companion ditto), to Geoffrey Chaucer, and my old Ladybird book.  This has been a fascinating distraction from all the other things I should have been doing!

© 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.

Musical instruments (for holy purposes)

Angels playing musical instruments

I suspect we get most of our ideas about holy musical instruments from pictures rather than from the Bible or devotional literature. Christmas card pictures show trumpeting angels, sometimes angels with lyres, occasionally a shepherd with a pipe in the crowd scenes. Scenes of heaven in altar pieces and illuminated manuscripts show orchestras of angels as well as the usual choirs, and some angels clearly have very good flying muscles, as they are supporting little organs which must be quite heavy (perhaps there are a couple of cherubs round the back helping, like the organ blowers in Victorian church pictures).

Real angels, real instruments

There are a couple of really encouraging things about this. One is that music is seen as such an integral part of the Kingdom. Another is that they are using real instruments most of the time. The lyres can look a bit ethereal, but the trumpets and the lutes, trombones and serpents must be drawn from life and they aren’t instruments to make quiet little polite noises but a group that would make you pay attention.  And a third thing is that singing is an integral part of all this, which is very encouraging for all singers.  It should be encouraging for non-singers too : just as I look forward to eyes and ears that work properly when I get to heaven, so someone who has always been afraid or ashamed to sing will be given a most beautiful voice so that they will really enjoy using it to praise God.

Instruments in the psalms

There aren’t any illustrations in the Bible, so where do painters and illuminators get their information from?  The answer of course is mostly the Psalms, the original hymn book for the people of God.  We have a different musical culture from that of the countries where the Bible was written, so we don’t sing them the way they were originally sung, but we do have many of the same instruments.

Some time ago I started keeping a list of instruments in the psalms as they were mentioned. This is not an exhaustive list, but it is quite extensive.  I’m not going to give the references because they come up repeatedly, and also it varies between Bible translations, but we have mentions of harps, lyres, ten-stringed lutes, ordinary lutes, trumpets, horn, pipe, viols, psaltery, tambourines and cymbals (those are in the Judith Canticle, but I’m including it because we sing it as a psalm), timbrels and tabrets.  I had to look the last two up, but as you might expect they are percussion, versions of mini-drums and tambourines.  One of the sources of information says sniffily ‘popular with women’, which I think means light enough to play while dancing.  I am slightly sorry to have to let go of my mental image of a timbrel as a small musical cart, but there you are, sometimes knowledge comes at a price.

Human voices ever singing

As well as all these, the psalms give pride of place to the human voice. ‘Melodious song’ is an expression used as another instrument, and quite right too.  Singing a new song was the way to celebrate a victory or an achievement, and that’s why so many psalm start with a call to ‘sing a new song’, and feel so fresh.  There are shouts of victory included as part of the musical offering, and if they were rhythmic like the British three cheers, you can see how that would work.

More unusual instruments

There isn’t a mention of drums as such in the Bible (not in the King James version, anyway; I was so surprised that I checked in Cruden’s Concordance and it’s not there).  I still think they are probably the oldest instrument, but I think they don’t qualify as a holy instrument because big drums sound bellicose and/or were used in other cultures for worship of idols or for orgies.  They aren’t seen as a desirable accompaniment to the psalms!  But you do need rhythm instruments, especially if you are dancing, and we know David danced and sang at the same time, so we can think of his psalm tunes as also dances.  So this is why we have the tabrets and the timbrels: they are rhythm instruments, but smaller ones with no martial overtones.

However, there’s no shortage of big instruments with a deep sound.  ‘The mountains and the trees of the fields shall clap their hands’ and the rivers too, and it’s wonderful to think what that would sound like if we had ears to hear.  The Lord can send out thunder and the mighty winds from his treasuries whenever he needs them as part of the chorus.  It’s not just in the psalms, too;  you can hear, in the account of God coming to talk to Elijah in his still small voice, that the whole sequence is built up like a film score.  God knows how deeply music affects our nature because he made us to be like him; and music would not be so fundamental to us if it were not to him.  We can’t hear the music of the spheres (one of the great disappointments of my life when some scientist pointed out that there’s no atmosphere to transmit the sound), but I bet God can.

What about harps?

I don’t think any instrument is intrinsically holy, any more than any language, but most people would reckon on the harp as the quintessential instrument for holy purposes.  I think we can blame St John for the emphasis on harps and heaven, because it’s in Revelation, but I’m not sure how musical he was because the songs he offers us (also in Revelation) would be extremely difficult actually to sing (which is why Handel only took little bits of them for Messiah).   These would be small hand-held harps, so a bit more like ukuleles, really, rather than those enormous concert harps that you see in nineteenth-century orchestras (usually women playing those too, but you absolutely couldn’t dance carrying one of those!).

I think it’s interesting that the picture of utter desolation involves hanging up your harps and refusing to sing (Psalm 136/137) ; this would be unthinkable unless all hope were gone, and that is why it is so poignant.  I’ve never been that keen on harps myself, so I’m hoping there will actually be a choice in Heaven.  If we have a choice of a stringed instrument,  I’d like a theorbo (and the ability to play it).

© 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.

What comes first, the rhythm or the melody?

Chickens,  eggs and potato peelings

This might look like a chicken-and-egg question, but I don’t think it is. There are times when both rhythm and melody arrive simultaneously, but for me that is rare, and tends to be when I’m doing something unrelated to work, like peeling potatoes or washing up. Also those tunes do not tend actually to be useful, as they don’t have words, or to put it another way, they do not fit a given line of words that you might need to make a tune for. (And I always worry that it might just be something I am half-remembering.)  I am probably chucking out a string quartet or an organ voluntary with my potato peelings, but when I sit down to write a psalm setting, I have to start with the words, as I have said before.

Learning about rhythm

That’s one reason why the rhythm comes first;  but I think that is where I should be starting, as we learn about rhythm before we learn about melody.  The first rhythm we learn is our mother’s heartbeat; the first counter-rhythm, her footsteps.  When we play with babies, we use rhythm games, patting and clapping.  Lots of nursery rhymes have rhythm but no tune (or a tune that varies widely, as each family has developed its own).  Often the tune is only half there, as the rhyme ends in a scurry of tickling or mock-gobbling up (This little pig went to market, Shoe a little horse, We’re going on a bearhunt etc).  At the risk of stating the obvious, poetry and verse of any kind have rhythm but no tune, and written-out songs are immediately different : compare Hiawatha to Summer is i-cumen in, or a Shakespeare sonnet to one of the songs in the plays, for example.

Rhythm instruments

Drums were surely the earliest musical instrument to be invented.  Almost anything can be a drum or a rhythm instrument (witness the amazing show Stomp which I saw years ago in London, still going strong), and human beings are hardwired to hear a rhythm in almost any ongoing sound just as they can hear a pitch note in a machine noise. Castanets are little tiny drums, tambourines are drums with a tinklefrill. Koreans, Georgians and many other nations have whole concerts of drumming, and they are very exciting.

Lullabies our first melodies

Melody comes a little later, although again it probably originates with our mothers and lullabies (and you may pat and stroke a bump, but you don’t usually croon to it much before it’s born).  Anything more exciting than a lullaby is not necessarily a good idea at this stage, though I would argue that here again rhythm probably comes across to the baby more clearly than a melody.  We were singing Monteverdi Vespers when our middle daughter was on the way, and she would get uncomfortably active in the Nisi Dominus.

The psalms: singing the words

But I’m writing tunes for psalms, and my first ‘given’ is the words.  Spoken words have a natural rhythm, which affects the sense and, even more, affects whether the sense can be quickly grasped (try reading anything aloud on a unaccented monotone, and see whether your hearer can understand; it’s surprisingly difficult).   So I try to find the natural rhythm of the words, and I am grateful every day to the people involved in the production of the wonderful Grail Psalter, especially Philippa Craig, who ought to have been made a saint already.  Sometimes the Response is a special difficulty, if it’s out of a different Psalm, or even from one of St Paul’s letters, for example.  The tunes for the verses and Response need to go together, obviously, but sometimes it can be difficult to effect this.

Tunes need bones

Once I have the rhythm, the tune comes in, and they are both equally important.  The beat is the backbone which supports the flesh.  Without it, the tune wanders aimlessly and lacks shape; and without the tune, the words cannot take shape on the scaffolding of the beat.  You need both;  and the tempo is important too, but I’m lumping that in with the rhythm for now.   Classic jazz works because each musician has a grasp of the shape of the whole phrase and its length – at its most obvious, the actual number of bars.  You can put all sorts of furniture and decorations inside a house, but the walls have to be upright and the roof secure before you start playing with the furniture positions.

Tunes to dance to

This is why I often try to give my psalm setting a folktune feel, because folk music values both melody and rhythm, and is easy enough for everyone to join in.  Many folktunes (and a lot of carols) were actually dances.  Above all, people can work together if there is rhythm : 123, Go! ; sea shanties; tug-of-war;  even the Mak’tar Chant of strength in Galaxy Quest.  It helps a group to sing a rest correctly if they do something bodily to mark the beats when they are learning the music.  Kenyan choirs I have known do this instinctively;  it can be difficult to get a choir of Anglo-Saxon origin to swing its hips (especially the men), but clicking your fingers is just as good, and you need to feel where the rests are just as much as the notes.  Like drawing, when you are supposed to draw the spaces between shapes rather than the shapes (something I am not good at, but I can do it with rhythm).

Pace and piety

I love it when one of the congregation babies starts to dance during the music.  David danced before the Lord, and he started with folk tunes.  I’m not altogether convinced by the sort of liturgical dance I have seen, because it tends to be done at people rather than by people, and I think the point about liturgy is that we all do it together, especially the music.  I don’t think that slow music is intrinsically more religious than fast music, but having spent a lot of time in Orthodox countries, I can tell you that this is definitely a minority view.  It is like the argument that sad poems or novels are basically more authentic than happy ones, which is not true.  Most teenagers write sad poetry.  It is much harder to write well about happy things (one of the reasons why the Bible is a bit unbalanced).

Rhythm as a power tool

Rhythm is a way to make patterns, and this is how humans create art.  Rhythm plus words is poetry, rhythm plus notes is music, rhythm plus movements is dance.  It gives form and shape, it is primaeval as well as artificial in the best sense.  It is creative.  In the beginning, all that there is is darkness and stillness.  Then the Spirit of God moves upon the face of the waters, and it is not random, but measured and purposeful. God dances the universe into being, by rhythm.

© 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.