Play Me Not A Dirge

Our first two Masses this weekend at the parish found the musicians switching out the planned final hymn (Lord, You Give The Great Commission) for “Sing of the Lord’s Goodness,” a parish fave. The 10:30 Mass leader asked if we “had” to do the planned music. “It’s such a dirge,” she said.

“I don’t play dirges,” I replied.

And indeed, we took it at a good clip–fast enough that our high school bass player (who reads his clef, not chords) complained about too many changes.

But even in my progressive parish, there seems to be an unfair association of organ hymnody with slow, boring music. Too bad, really. I think people learn new hymns (and this was new to us this past October) slow, so they can get the notes, and maybe they don’t ever pick up the tempo. I suspect this is why chant has such a bad rep: many musicians sing and play it so slow.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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6 Responses to Play Me Not A Dirge

  1. Liam says:

    This is never a problem in my parish. Everything is taken at a pace that allows entire phrases to be sung in a single breath, at least by the choir. This is in no small degree influenced by the fact that chant (mostly vernacular) is the foundation of the entire music program. And we have a *very* resonant nave, just in case anyone assumes it’s necessarily a problem in resonant spaces. Let the text and breathing be the guide to the accompaniment.

  2. David D. says:


    You often mention the tempo of chant, as typically performed, as being too slow. I sometimes find myself hearing chant performances that drag but wondered if this was a matter of rhythmic interpretation and/or poor performance failing to properly energize certain passages of the chant. A counter-example to such performances can be heard on the Inclina Domine CD issued by OCP. Although the tempo appears to be somewhat on the slow side with long notes held far longer than two pulses, these chants retain a strong sense of movement. Perhaps it’s more a matter of well executed chant versus poorly executed chant the latter of which seems to drag on forever.

    • Todd says:

      I see the distinction and I would agree. Working with many parish musicians, they are not always able to energize a slow performance.

      As for chant, I would assume that since the text is primary, the first consideration would be to present the text as one would pray it: either speaking it (for congregational singing) or reading it (for schola or individual performance).

  3. Sam Schmitt says:

    I got this criticism last weekend from a parishioner at a parish where I was filling in – she said that the more traditional music (esp. chant) is “not joyful.”

    I simply didn’t know how to respond.

    • Liam says:

      Next time, you can respond with a non-rhetorical but genuinely curious question: “What music connects you to joy?” And probe from there with a widening set of examples. Don’t, however, argue with her. Merely be curious and by example allow her to see how broad her scope or range is, and let that be the end of it.

      • Sam Schmitt says:

        Thanks, Liam.

        The discussion did go on from there – with me trying not to argue! She mentioned some music that did bring her joy. It did strike me that a way of engaging her was to invite her to be open to “expand the list,” so to speak.

        However, the bigger picture was that she was upset with parish moving towards more traditional repertoire, and she was missing the styles that she had grown to like. In that context, there were issues involved other than just musical style. It was clear that “arguing” wouldn’t go anywhere!

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