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.

The Easter psalm (117/118) : the power of repetition

The last psalm of the evening, the first psalm of Easter

I’ve done other blogs on the Holy Week music and on the Easter weekend specifically, but I want to look at the Easter psalm on its own, because we do in fact sing it again and again.  When we finally make it to Psalm 117/118, at the Easter Vigil, it feels like the moment when Easter finally arrives.   We have had bonfires, processions, vats of holy water, the drama of the light starting so tiny and spreading out from hand to hand to fill the church (and how symbolic is that);  we have gone through a long sequence of readings (longer or shorter depending on what your parish can cope with); we have sung a different psalm after every  reading;  but once we get to Psalm 117/118, the Easter Mass is really under way and can move forward to the Gospel. It is The Easter Psalm, and it’s lucky that it’s so great, because we sing it over and over again at Easter and for the octave (and in Year B, even yet again on the fourth Sunday of Easter).

Christ leaving tomb
resurrexit sicut dixit
Between the shortest and the longest

It never comes back in exactly the same shape, though, and I’m always surprised, looking it up, to find that it isn’t one of the alphabetical or very long psalms. The psalm before it is the tiny Psalm 116/117, shortest of all the psalms, and the one after it (118/119) is the longest of all the psalms, and is, in fact, one of the alphabeticals. In fact, Psalm 117/118 has thirty verses, so it’s middling as far as length goes (but what a lot there is in it!).  I’m sure it’s only coincidental, but it is fun that just as Easter falls between the shortest and the longest day, so the Easter psalm sits between the shortest and the longest psalm.  But that way leads to madness and numerology.

painted Easter eggs
as full, they say, as an egg is of meat

Unlike many psalms, we actually use nearly all of it (just not in one go). Some psalms never get used on a Sunday, some we only use part of because they contain sections which feel inappropriate in the light of the New Testament (curses etc), but this psalm is like an apple, good all the way through.

Several poems strung together : forms..

And its form is interesting as well. It has sections like a litany, parts which are choruses, repetitions, accumulations, long verses, short verses……it’s a most rewarding psalm.  It’s like a sampler of different options; you can (and the Church does) take sections out and use them as free-standing poems, but there is also a long overarching narrative.    Repetition is neatly itself repeated as the recurring trope, not just the standard Psalms parallelism but even within single lines (v 11, v 13).  There are other psalms which use repetition to make a litany (Ps 135, Ps 148), but here there is just enough to enjoy as a litany, and then we move on to something else.

…and content

The form is very rich, but so is the meaning.  It has the whole human salvation story in a nutshell (at this time of year, perhaps we should say eggshell) : the just man attacked and thrown down by his enemies, but protected and raised up by the Lord, whom he will sing to and praise forever.  Also, it’s one of the psalms most easily appropriated to a Christian foreshadowing, helped by the fact that Jesus actually quotes it himself (the corner stone  and subsequent verses, Mtt 21.42,  Mk 12.10,  Lk 20.17).    This psalm quotes or is quoted by so many others (not to mention the references to or from other books of the Bible) that you can hear echoes chiming all the way through : the Lord is at my side, I do not fear; trust the Lord, not princes; the Lord is my strength and my song;  the Lord’s right hand has triumphed; I will enter by the Lord’s own gate;  Blessed in the name of the Lord is he who comes; the Lord is our light….and so on.  It’s like a compendium.  And for us the echoes go forward (into the New Testament) as well as back, because these are the words that we hear from John the Baptist, from Jesus, from St Paul.  This beloved psalm is quoted repeatedly, and it reverberates like a great bell.

Using it in the Easter liturgy

It starts with the word Alleluia!, one of the hallmarks of Eastertide, and a reminder of Easter for the rest of the year.  The word occurs only twentyfour times in the Old Testament, and only in Psalms, and only in the last third of the book of Psalms (thank you, Internet) : three surprising facts in a row.  So it’s a significant word, and unlike the infuriating ‘Selah’, on which opinions differ, we do actually know what it means (hurrah for God) and that it is a shout of joy.  So the best possible start to a psalm in this position in the Easter liturgy, so good in fact that on the psalm’s first outing, at the Vigil, it forms the Response, all on its own, and we sing it three times.

The Risen Lord with attendant angel musicians (every home should have some), probably singing alleluia
Easter Vigil version : 3 x 4 lines, Rx 3 x Alleluia

Alleluia is usually written with an exclamation mark, as I did above, but note the way that the US and OZ versions of the psalm for the Easter Vigil use full stops instead, and the UK version makes the triple Alleluia a crescendo : ‘Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!’.  The CAN version has three exclamation marks.   The variation of these ways of punctuating it makes us think about the force of the Response.  I like the serious three-full-stops version particularly, because as we haven’t had any Alleluias for six weeks, it is as though we are feeling our way back to it, trying out how it sounds, learning to rejoice.  When I set it, I was trying to emphasize the slight strangeness or dislocation of this, so I’ve gone for a sort of grave barbaric tune rather than just flourishes of trumpets.  Carmina Burana rather than the Hallelujah chorus (and do click on that link, it’s brilliant).

The strophe starts with the first two verses, which works well, as v 1 is the burden for the whole psalm :’Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,/for his love endures for ever’.  It gives the psalm structure, because it is repeated at the end, and the second line is the element which creates the litany section, which immediately follows.  Then the strophes in the Vigil version jump to the lines in the middle which seem to foreshadow Christ most directly:’I shall not die, but live […] the stone rejected by the builders has become the corner stone’.  Three solid four-line strophes, each with the triple Alleluia as the refrain.     ( I need another word for the bits that the cantor sings.  I’m using strophe to avoid confusion with verse, but the only alternative I can think of so far is stanza.  So you can have Italian instead of Greek, but that’s no improvement.  I’ll keep thinking about this.)

Easter Sunday version: same strophes, different Rx

Within hours, we are singing the same psalm again, on Easter Sunday morning.  We have the same three strophes as in the night, but a new Response : ‘This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad’.   This is the verse of the psalm directly after the lines about the corner stone.  It is a long Response, and you don’t want the congregation to have trouble remembering it, you want them to sing with joy and gladness (see Isaiah 12, Easter Vigil Fifth Reading).   It needs a solid tune of its own, but it has to go with the tune for the strophes.  I kept that the same, as I wanted to keep the solid connection between the Vigil and the Day Mass.   The daytime congregation should be fine to cope with a longer Response, especially as they haven’t already been singing at intervals for the last hour or so, as they would have been the night before.

everybody wideawake and joining in the singing
2nd Sunday of Easter version : 3 x 6 lines, different Rx

The next Sunday (Easter Octave, Second Sunday of Easter, Divine Mercy Sunday) has the same psalm again.  Only it isn’t.  This time we have three strophes of six lines each, starting with the litany section of the psalm, while the Response is the first verse which starts the litany section (which was the first line of the first strophe of the psalm last Sunday, I hope this is clear).  The middle strophe is a different bit of the psalm which we haven’t had yet, and the third strophe is the ‘corner stone’ four-line verse plus the Response from Easter Sunday.  Actually, that’s only for Year A.  For Year C, the corner stone strophe is the middle one, with another part of the psalm forming the last strophe.  Year B has a different middle strophe, and the corner stone back in as last strophe.  (I feel like the Cat in the Hat at this point : ‘Oh the fun we can have!’  And each country group has slightly different words.)

Putting it to music

You want people to realise it’s the same psalm, but you can’t use the same tune, as the strophes are half as long again.  Eventually I decided to go with the shape of the first strophe and Response, and emphasize the litany element.  (I’m hoping that as the words are the same, the congregation can spot that it’s the same psalm without my labouring it; also, I don’t want them to get bored.)  With a litany, it means writing the strophe to accumulate momentum as it goes along, because if you’re going to repeat a short line three times, it has either to grow or peter out, it can’t stand still.  So I went for waves of triumph getting bigger each time.  This was fun to write, because you increase until it can all tumble back down the notes into the Response.  But it’s also got to work for the subsequent strophes which are not in litany form.

Forever, everlasting and has no end

The UK version  uses ‘has no end’ instead of ‘is everlasting’, and I found it irresistible to echo that in the music of the Response, so it just keeps rolling on to the next line until there aren’t any, when it’s still waiting.

Female charioteer with four in hand
the danger of the music running away with you

When I set the CAN version, a couple of years later, the words were slightly different, so I wrote a new tune altogether, and that was in 3/4, which is really good for accumulating momentum, though you have to be careful not to get faster.  When this psalm comes back yet again in Year B (Fourth Sunday of Easter), the words are from yet other verses of the psalm, but I set it in 3/4 for all the different Lectionaries because the rhythm felt so rollicking.  That time, the Response is the corner stone verse itself.

 

We bless you from the house of the Lord

This is one of the great encouraging psalms.  This is partly because it shows the singer moving through peril to safety and bliss, not just hoping for help, but having received succour, and finding himself safe at last in the haven where he would be.  The last few lines (see heading for this section) are a message to those of us still on the road; it’s almost as though the Communion of Saints is sending us a postcard of encouragement.  ‘The Lord God is our light’ : the light showing in the windows of the house we are all trying to reach, and how the sight of that light lifts the hearts of those still walking on in the gloom!

Easter candleholder
light shining in the darkness

Its repetition at Eastertide only adds to its force, because that sort of encouragement is extremely cumulative.  It’s not surprising to discover that it is many people’s favourite, Martin Luther for one, William Cowper the poet for another.   Many people have made it their own, using it to pray so often that its words rise spontaneously when it seems appropriate.  Cowper writes touchingly of how this psalm made him brave to cope with bullying as a small boy at school.  He later spent time in an asylum following severe depression, and frames his account of his recovery in the words of this psalm (vv 17, 18 and 29).  Elizabeth I  quoted v 23 when she heard that her sister had died and she herself had become Queen.  This spontaneous quoting of it is exactly what Jesus is doing when he makes the lines about the corner stone his own, and it shows how familiar and dear to him the psalm must have been.   As before, this makes us realise again that the Psalter isn’t just our best prayer book.  It was his as well.

© 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.