Cutting Edge or Cutting Throat

My otherwise sensible friend Jeffrey Tucker is promoting polyphonic propers at the NLM site this weekend. (Sorry; I’d link the post, but NLM doesn’t seem to provide easy (or even possible) post linking.)

Polyphony is great as a concert experience. And a good parish choir could no doubt render them prayerfully before Mass, or possibly at a few other moments at liturgy.

What’s wonderful here is the addition into the Mass of these intervals of great color and beautiful during processions and contemplative portions of the Mass, while the people continue to sing the ordinary.

Throw the pews a bone, I guess.

You may be surprised to learn that choir-only singing at the entrance is a possibility envisioned in the GIRM. It comes in last among the musical choices, after the alternation between people and music ministry, and the people singing the whole thing. Interesting how the reform2 crowd likes to promote and point at mainstream Catholic “unfaithfulness” when most parishes prefer hymns or songs or antiphonal-styled pieces for entrance. But their own promotion of choral singing at the expense of the assembly is touted as “cutting edge.”

Sad to say, this is another example of the elitism of conservatory musicians who know that a concert of sacred music won’t draw nearly the numbers who come to Mass.  As long as they’re coming to Mass, give them a floor-to-rafter singing experience coming from their own mouths.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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8 Responses to Cutting Edge or Cutting Throat

  1. Todd, in this case I think you’re selling Jeffrey’s point short. First things first, the Reform2 (I like that) crowd is decidely not a monolithic enterprise. Secondly, Jeffrey’s had a number of posts recently that advance, ahem, plurality of styles and titles within a parish schedule as opposed to everyone has to sing the same order of music at each and every Mass of the weekend. Next, you’re very aware that Jeffrey makes every effort, whether at his parish, on the worldwideinterlink or with CMAA, to manifest his efforts as anything but elitist. And to the contrary, many of his/our confreres that I believe you mis-characterize as “conservatory musicians” (they generally do NOT take church gigs, be real!) are quick to dismiss the concertizing of “Classical Masses” as just as inappropriate for liturgy as some of the LifeTeen devotional stuff that’s used at Masses.
    You mention the options present in the GIRM for the Introit only. We all know those options are rife throughout the entire document; those options are all licit to the point of being confounding sometimes. I have been known to quibble over whether their ordering constitutes an actual heirarchy of preferences, but that doesn’t affect each option’s legitmacy, including a choral Introit.
    I, myself, will take the spinal tap thrill of a full throttle hymn sing Entrance any day over the others. But I wouldn’t be so quick to judge the occasional change to a choral motet as evidence of the nattering nabobs’ success at suppressing the congregation’s voice. You know your homework-part of “active participation” during the Entrance is to WATCH the procession. This happens all the time on feast days, at funerals, installations, etc.
    I’m actually an advocate of carefully blended musical liturgical practice. The GIRM, if you look at it practically, allows for same. Musica Sacram, however, does call for a heirarchy of sung portions. I believe that Jeffrey/CMAA’s clarion call is for everyone in the hinterlands to wake up to these possibilities, instead of defaulting to “missalette liturgy.” And then to open their minds and hearts towards accepting the ethos of “beauty” that is called for by tradition and the documents.
    So, if the choir or schola sings a polyphonic Agnus Dei or Communio, it is not elitist, it is called for in some good measure. Having some fat tenor like me singing the Franck “Panis Angelicus” would be elitist.
    The mere fact that you said some would find the polyphonic Introit a valid GIRM option is proof positive that we all have some serious work to do, no matter where our musical proclivities lie.

  2. Liam says:

    Took the words right out of my fingers….

    A polyphonic introit *to the exclusion* of the other options does not ring my chimes*. It’s quite lawful (I am assuming Jeffrey is considering the idea of using polyphonic settings of the texts of the propers in the Gradual, in which case the texts have the highest level of approval already). And, depending on the circumstances on the ground, it might be brilliant…or dense.

    * I most frequently encounter the true propers from the Gradual as something that precedes a processional hymn or psalm (a practice that reverses the preconciliar practice for sung Masses, where you had to be singing the Introit by the time the celebrant got into the sanctuary).

    But I am all for awakening people out of the lazy idea that the thing that necessarily gets programmed at the opening of Mass is a hymn.

    If Todd’s post had been stated with less vinegar and baiting, I probably would agree heartily with much of it. But the vinegar’s getting in the way of the idea.

  3. Todd says:

    Thanks for the input, but I think the floor in this discussion room is already sticky with vinegar from other chats.

    I do know Jeffrey is not part of a monolithic effort.

    I also know we have occasional liturgies in which the people would prefer to gawk than sing. I have no problem ceding that option as their choice, not the choice of a music director.

    There are points on which I base my criticism of the post and the objections stated here:

    1. The mode of “always” a congregational hymn of song is less a prison or boxing oneself in than a nod to the value of ritual predictability. Nearly always, it’s something the people should count on. And we have enough structural possibilities to satisfy the preferred dialogue format–adding polyphony or other choral styles more often, if that were engineered with congregational singing.

    2. The exception to the rule should be predicated on liturgical and pastoral judgments, not when the musicians have something ready. I’d be interested to hear when Jeffrey (or others who promote the idea) would utilize it.

    3. While the Ordo Missae and GIRM may seem to be fluffy when it comes to rubrics and directives, they should still be the basis for choices of repertoire. As for Church musicians who do not use the GIRM and don’t have a deep familiarity with it — that’s a professional lack that deserves remedy.

  4. Liam says:


    I would venture the times to use it would be in the style of progressive solemnity, in solemn celebrations where the propers would typically (see above) precede a antiphonal psalm or hymn – sometimes, in very long processions, this makes particular (and especially acoustic) sense to have the propers sung while the procession is making its way out of the holding pen before it even gets to the back of the nave (even in my church, this happens on occasion). Also when the procession is bifurcated by a ritual action. I’ve seen this situation before (it happens several times a year in my parish, for example), and it makes sense in that context.

    And I love the idea of chant antiphons which the congregation joins and polyphonic choral verses – we do that in Lent in my parish, for example.

  5. Jeff Pinyan says:

    Todd, the “permanent link” is found at the bottom of each article:

    Posted by Jeffrey Tucker on 23.8.08

  6. I love the idea of chant antiphons which the congregation joins and polyphonic choral verses – we do that in Lent in my parish, for example.

    It is also done frequently at St. Peter’s, as well (so you’re in good company).

    Regarding the OP, I hardly think that having the congregation sing what used to be called the “ordinary” is “throwing them a bone.” In fact, singing the ordinary was, for at least 1500 years, the normal form of congregational participation — or at least the ideal to which one aspired. Congregational singing of the processional chants is a recent innovation. It might be a good one, but it does not, to my mind, have a long enough pedigree to become dogmatic about it.

  7. Liam says:


    In Ted Marier’s Hymns Psalms & Spritual Canticles, for example, Psalm 51 is set with a chant antiphon. The choir sings the first 2 parts of a verse triplet to Tone 3 (typically, the women lead and men respond), and then go onto an SATB setting of a third part (using simple but stellar settings by Palestrina or Viadana, for example), et cet.

    All in the vernacular, btw.

    Works like a charm. I wish there were many more settings of this sort available for processional psalms.

  8. Todd says:

    Jeffrey, thanks for the tip. And all, thanks for the suggestions–those would be what I would have in mind, being guided by the important principle of progressive solemnity. This would be an instance in which the SLJ’s among others, were prepared with the structure of processional psalms while most hymn-oriented organists would be scratching their heads.

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