Parish Musician as Composer

This was one of the many dropped topics I found as I’ve been cataloguing the old posts from blogspot. I touched upon it when someone asked me my opinion of which of the contemporary liturgical composers were likely to have musical items survive in church use to the end of the century.

My own experience is part of the opinion I offer. From 1982 to 1988 I was working and/or going to grad school. I had a few temporary gigs as a part-time choir director, but mostly, I played and sang under other directors in ensembles and choirs. I wrote about 200 pieces of liturgical music in those days. None of them are currently in my repertoire, and I don’t think more than a few are still in use by my friends. I’m okay with that.

I wrote music for liturgical needs. Baptismal acclamations and songs for weddings: these pieces were done once then never presented again. A director got tired of the Jesuit tune “Yahweh The Faithful One,” and asked me if I would use the same Scripture and develop a new setting.

I adapted a thought from Psalm 8 for the refrain:

“O Lord our God, O Lord our God, we sing for joy that you have made us your own, your very own.”

1. Do not let fear hang in your heart; come trust in me, your shield and God. On every path, I will guard you through all the journey, I am near.

2. Through barren years and lonely days without a hope, we trust in God. Behold the skies, see the promise of children numerous as the stars.

3. To see the Land, our promised home at exile’s end, what joy we’ll know! You are our God now and always; we are your people, and your own.

The verses were taken from Abram’s call in Genesis, so the “Song of Abraham and Sarah” was conceived. I tried to take a different approach from the Dan Schutte text on the verses. But like the Jesuits, I did not conceive of this piece as congregation through-sung, but music leaders taking the voice of God (verse 1), of Abraham and Sarah (verse 2), and then of the spiritual progeny of Abraham (verse 3).

My director was happy with it. He only considered about 20% of the music I brought him, and I only brought what I thought was my better half. So maybe one in ten made the liturgical playlist. That’s about right for me, I think.

When I began full-time ministry, I had less time for writing what came into my head. I didn’t have directors or couples asking for a setting of Psalm 33 or a replacement for a 70’s oldie. I had a celebration of anointing of the sick. I had a funeral for a priest. I needed music that wasn’t in the catalogue. So I wrote it. I also found myself arranging a lot more music than I was writing–the count on this could be at least 500. Ever have an alto sax play “On Eagles Wings?” I did. If I had a female-heavy choir, I needed SAB versions. I had a great choir who needed something more than the folk harmonies of the SLJ Mass, so I arranged it for SATB plus soprano descant. I could have easily titled this post “Parish Musician as Composer & Arranger.” By the mid-90’s I thought I could do better than David Haas or Richard Proulx, so I harmonized liturgical music the way I wanted to do it.
I may have written another 200 pieces since 1988. I hope I’m getting better, but I don’t have a director culling the wheat from the chaff anymore.

JS Bach was a church musician. Antonio Vivaldi wrote for an orphanage orchestra. Many of the best composers had reasons to write music other than to get it published. Let me offer a contemporary example. I still enjoy David Haas’ early music, what he wrote while he was still in parishes. It might be said it’s not as sophisticated as his later efforts, but it has a certain quality that marks it as parish-used. Same is true of the St Louis Jesuits before 1978.

I think contemporary composers like Martin Willett or M.D. Ridge produce good stuff because they’re in the trenches and they’re writing it for their people to sing. Likewise a lot of composers from religious life, Chrysogonus Waddell or Suzanne Toolan, and even from academia, Steve Warner. They don’t seem to get the level of respect because they don’t shop themselves at conferences and with publishers. But my respect for them is high.

Hearing hundreds of people pray the music I’ve written is a pretty huge thrill. Would more hymns in a hymnal or a cd make it sweeter? Perhaps so.

I’ll pick up on this theme again soon. Meanwhile, any comments out there?

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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12 Responses to Parish Musician as Composer

  1. Cantor says:

    Good stuff.

    I don’t know that I have written/arranged that much stuff, but I have done a fair amount of rewriting etc. in my time, just as I would think the next parish musician has. I have timpani this year for midnight Mass, but almost nothing we are singing has a written timpani part. So, I arrange. One of the choir members is a bassoonist and asked to be able to play something. So, arrange.

    It is really gratifying to hear a congregation sing something you wrote, or hear a choir do well with something you wrote.

  2. Liam says:

    Well, the compositional ability to re-arrange a good deal of contemporary settings is very desireable one. A number of composers betray their keyboard-based approach (as opposed to vocal-based approach) to composition and I cannot begin to count the problems I’ve encountered in amateur choirs from poor voice-leading by composers (and their seemingly non-existent editors). Most common error in voice leading (one that regularly confounds untrained singers, who are the ones who largely staff Catholic choirs these days): Overlapping pitches (to be distinguished from crossed voicing). A keyboardist would not think this is a problem; hence the problem. Another common problem is poor preparation in voice leading. Which leads to a pervasive but much more subtle problem in the relative lack of contrapuntally-informed gracefulness in crafting vocal lines, which are often subordinated to the desire for evoking jazz chords and cadences (again, this is a strain over time on untrained singers).

  3. Gavin says:

    As much writing as I intend to do, I don’t get much done for the obvious reasons. I did write (and arrange) the Introit and Communion antiphons for my church. The main benefit I see in writing is that when people say they hate it or that they want more “folk” stuff, I can look sad and say “you… you don’t like my music? I wrote it just for the parish as a gift!”

  4. Cantor says:

    Liam,

    By overlapping pitches, do you mean simply two voices singing the same pitch, e.g. tenor and alto both on middle C? My counterpoint courses let us do that…

    In my own writing, I tend to stretch the rules a bit – one trick I often use to get some interesting harmonies is to write voices for stretches of time in parallel 3rd and 6ths. It often results in something not quite working by-the-book, but it is still easy to sing, and some nice harmonies result, I find.

    Gavin, the trick with that tactic comes when your parishioners have their own music that “they write as a gift” and, by and large, is of poor quality. One choir member wrote a Good Friday veneration whose sappiness I find truly gut-wrenching. And of course, my predecessor had the choir (and the rest of the parish) sing her stuff, so she has been a bit upset that I haven’t had them sing any of her own music. Another of the “house songwriters” is better, but there again, the director is set up as a judge of the merit of a parishioner’s work, which is a position I find awkward to be in.

  5. Liam says:

    Cantor

    The counterpoint rule against overlapping may be illustrated as follows:

    Chord 1: Tenor on G below middle C. Alto on middle C.
    Chord 2: Tenor jumps to D above middle C. Alto jumps to F.

    At chord 2, the tenor is jumping beyond the alto pitch at chord 1. Untrained or amateur terors will have a natural instinct to go no higher than middle C. Very often, they will undershoot the D.

    (Note this is quite different from cross-voicing. Cross-voicing, if well-prepared and voiced, is less likely to present a stumbling block. Which is why the rules in counterpoint were less emphatic about it.)

    Too many keyboard-based composers neglect this problem, and it shows readily. From a pastoral perspective, this neglect undermines the confidence of amateur choristers. Which is why I would strongly caution against such music unless you re-arrange it to avoid that problem.

    The rules on counterpoint arose from centuries of observations of the natural tendencies of voices. It’s not that they are not to be violated, but a good composer either (1) is certain she will only have trained singers singing the violation, or (2) will prepare the violation in such a way as amateur singers will be less likely to stumble.

  6. Cantor says:

    Ok – yes, I observe this one.

    I would still call this “voice crossing”, though. At least, that’s what my theory teachers called it in class. It does make sense to call it something else (not sure “overlapping” is the best term), but I, just from habit, will probably continue using my familiar term.

  7. Liam says:

    Cantor

    In my counterpoint classes in high school and college, including standard species counterpoint, the situations were always strongly distinguished. And with good reason.

  8. Cantor says:

    “Overlapping” could describe both situations, really, as could “voice crossing”. They are both generally to be avoided for the same reason: the interplay between the voices, with the lower voice singing higher than the upper, makes it awkward to sing.

    Kinda like how, if you have a parallel fifth, you can’t “excuse it” by creating a suspension – we still call it a parallel fifth, even if the parallel isn’t between two adjacent sonorities.

  9. Liam says:

    Cantor

    Voice-crossing in the narrower sense is often far easier for untrained singers to manage, as it’s often done to maintain more intuitive melodic lines. Overlapping, however, is *much* harder for them in my experience over 25 years.

  10. RP Burke says:

    It would be incorrect to characterize Steven Warner as being from “academia.” He’s more like a parish folk band director; he works for campus ministry, and not for either the music or theology department.

  11. Cantor says:

    RPB – I agree. I’ve met Warner, and I vaguely know his music; calling him an “academic” seems a bit kind, at least insofar as the merit of his music. (I loathe that Our Father setting with a hatred that seethes from the core of my very being.)

  12. Cantor says:

    Liam,

    I’ll give you that the “overlapping” is more difficult to sing, but doesn’t this case more or less imply a lack of smoothness to the voice leading? In other words, there is often more going on than just the difference in when the crossing happens.

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