Choosing music for your church program
  • Priestboi
    Posts: 155
    I have a question regarding program creation and management...

    When I studied choral conducting at university our conductor was very strict on choosing balanced programs, HIP (Historically informed performance) and the adaptation of vocal quality according to style.
    A program had to include various styles, be sensitive to tonalities and had to tell a story of some kind or have a particular theme.
    She was very fond of the eastern bloc and Norwegian composers due to our love of the Norwegian style of conducting. Ola Gejlo, Arvo Part, Grieg etc.

    How does apply the following into a church program?

    1. A variation of style - gregorian and polyphony being the primary models
    2. Sensitivity to tones/keys used in the compositions sung - Proper, dialogues, ordinary, hymns and motets
    3. Use of music from other traditions - Eastern Orthodox/Western Rite/ Anglican for example.
    4. Use of local music (enculturation)

    This is a very important question as it seems that Catholic musicians often choose music in this fashion:

    1. Do I like this music
    2. Does it conform to the theme of the day or the readings (I doubt the propers are consulted)
    3. Can we sing it well, or perform a convincing (or not so convincing attempt)

    The result is a mishmash, rather than a whole. It also limits one to whatever music one has had experience with, rather than trying new things (both folk and classical musicians often fall in this camp).

    In the Orthodox churches, it seems that if you remain in a certain school of chant, every antiphon sung adds to the whole, in such a way that it is one continuous song of praise.

    I am looking to more the artistic side of planning a program. I for one would also like to know how the pieces are chosen for the colloquium, and if there is any rhyme or reason other than "does this fit the text" and is it worthy to be sung.

    This is a toughie, but I am really interested to learn, so please share your experiences and thoughts :)
    Thanked by 1GerardH
  • Chaswjd
    Posts: 222
    I think part of the problem is that we don't have an aesthetic. The Orthodox do have one. They ask themselves (on some level) what does it mean to be a parish in the ________ Orthodox church. Text and musical selections are generated (or dictated) as a result.

    I am not sure that many ask themselves the question: "What does it mean to be a Latin Rite Roman Catholic?" Part of it may be that the Roman Rite has adapted itself to a number of cultures which were not originally Latin or Roman. Part of it may be that the reaction to the Second Vatican Council was far more aggiornamento rather than ressourcement which cut off the church from its aesthetic roots (whatever the documents said).

    It would be interesting to see the question asked consciously and how it is answered.
    Thanked by 2CHGiffen Priestboi
  • Adam WoodAdam Wood
    Posts: 6,439
    we don't have an aesthetic. The Orthodox do have one
    320 x 320 - 44K
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  • ClergetKubiszClergetKubisz
    Posts: 1,912
    I am going to be the unpopular one who says this, but we could avoid the whole question altogether and just use the GR: the Church has already done all of that work for you.

    When restricted to the 4-hymn model, I've found that trying to incorporate the proper of the Mass into the programming is not viable, as the "crowd favorites" that people will sing generally have nothing to do with any of the texts of the proper. Sometimes they do, but most of the time, they don't. My thought is this: if you're going to use the proper of the Mass as a resource, just sing the proper. So, when I'm programming using the 4-hymn model, I concentrate on simply choosing songs that the congregation knows and can sing. I do try to put an emphasis on Eucharistic hymns, though.

    When choosing motets, I favor Eucharistic texts over all others, but often there are motets that incorporate the text of the proper, and unless I'm mistaken, the general direction is to use only the text from the proper.

    The main thing for me is that the Church has already done all of this work for us, and we don't need to select extraneous pieces to perform, unless you're selecting motets, choir anthems, or organ pieces, and even then, they should be somewhat in line with the proper that they supplement. A good example is de Maleingreau's "Low Mass For Christmas Day," for organ solo. Each of the processionals are thematically based on the proper chant melody for the day, but of course stylistically and idiomatically arranged for the pipe organ. It is a sublime work, and very enjoyable to play as well.

    EDIT: CHGiffen below said what I could not: the Mass is not a concert, so the programming guidelines that your professor gave you do not apply. My professor gave us very similar guidelines, but I was a clarinetist and took band and orchestral conducting.
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  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 5,103
    When I studied choral conducting at university our conductor was very strict on choosing balanced programs, HIP (Historically informed performance) and the adaptation of vocal quality according to style.
    A program had to include various styles, be sensitive to tonalities and had to tell a story of some kind or have a particular theme.
    She was very fond of the eastern bloc and Norwegian composers due to our love of the Norwegian style of conducting. Ola Gejlo, Arvo Part, Grieg etc.

    This is an approach that I see a lot of in "programs" that are concerts, and that is fine for such programs (to an extent) but fails rather miserably in the context of Roman Catholic sacred music. It also fails when for early music ensembles that sing (and/or play) basically only music of earlier times (whether Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, or a combination of such periods).

    Music at Mass is not a "program" (or concert), nor is it a "program" in a liturgy such as Vespers or other service from the Divine Office. One can talk about a church's "music program" instead, but this also is likely not at all what your university choral conductor was speaking of. If a church choir is to present a programmed concert outside of a liturgical service, then by all means one can begin to think in those broader terms mentioned (balance, HIP, adaptation of vocal style, variety, etc.). But that is not what we do in liturgical services ... the "program" is essentially predetermined by the liturgy itself, and there is nowhere near as much wiggle room in what one sings in liturgies as there is a wide latitude when one presents a concert.

  • Bravo!
    Well said, Charles!

    And a word or two further.
    There are aspects of church music programs which could or should take into consideration things like a balance of period musics as concerns the choir's repertory. One should wish to have in one's choir's accomplishments a representative sampling of motets and anthems and chants from all centuries and periods, not in the least neglecting genuine 'modern' (as opposed to 'contemporary music') masters. Ideally, chant should be well represented, with the Gregorian propers, if possible, regularly fulfilling their role and function. <> For the congregation one should wish to give them, also, as much chant as they are capable of singing, in addition to ordinaries subjected to excruciating musical standards, and genuine hymnody. The instrument of choice should be the organ, perhaps supplemented with brass consorts or such on solemnities.

    As for historically informed performance practice, while I admire and recommend it highly for recitals and spiritual concerts, it should play a small, if any, role in the choral music sung at the mass. One would never wish to perform anything in such manner that it would seem artistically distracting; or not contributing to the profound spirituality of the mass. As Charles said so well, the function of music at mass is to make of the mass itself that continuous song, of which HF Benedict speaks, a seamless garment of song from Trinitarian Invocation to Dismissal, which it always should be. The mass is not the time to exhibit one's musicological pedigree. At least not chorally. Playing organ literature as voluntaries is another matter.

    In choosing music for a given mass, some care should be taken to the end that all of it seems somehow related, meaning that there should be a rough continuum of complementarity in the music of that mass. The styles and performances should not be so divergent that the mass seems to be 'a little bit of this and a little bit of that', without any unifying aesthesis. This is obviously a very subjective sort of recommendation, but it is well worth keeping in mind. Nor is it meant to suggest a monotonous succession without any highs and lows, climaxes, emotional and intellectual arses and theses; even some liturgical sturm und drang when appropriate.

    I recently gave a recital of chant based organ music. We did the chant accompanying de Grigny's Ave maris stella with pronounced 17th century French accents, very slowly, semi-measured and with trills at the cadences. This was much appreciated at this sacred concert. It would have been totally, utterly, out of place at mass.

    By all means, sing Palestrina, Mouton, Perotin, and Howells, Britten, and Messiaen. But don't do period performances of them at mass. Sing them with a nod to the most tasteful choral aesthetics of our time - and you'll find no better examples of such than English cathedral choirs (including Westminster Cathedral!).

    End of word or two.

  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 9,083
    I can offer one point: if there are too many styles of music, or too many languages, the variety has a distracting or disturbing effect, leading people in the pews to think: what on earth is next?

    For example, if you are singing vernacular hymns instead of propers, you might limit the music for Mass to these:
    -- simple chant, as in the Missal: sung dialogues with the priest
    -- vernacular chant: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Pater Noster, Agnus Dei
    -- hymn at entrance
    -- hymn at communion (or afterward, cf. GIRM #88) (the two hymns similar in style, era; perhaps from the same country)
    -- Latin (or other second-language) choral motets at offertory and communion
    -- organ music recessional
  • BruceL
    Posts: 1,070
    The OP is great. Some thoughts:

    1) My mentor, Gerre Hancock, did not like mixing styles of CHORAL music within a Mass, and preferred that you matched organ music to the choral as well. This was an ECUSA context (St. Thomas Church, 5th Ave.), but I think it's still decent advice.
    2) I don't mind mixing and matching, but it depends on the day and the rep. Obviously, if one is doing a polyphonic ordinary, you would want to choose ONE, not a few of them in one liturgy.
    3) It's a bit of a pastiche to do some parts of the ordinary in Latin and others in English; we do that at Chrism Mass since there are some within the presbyterate who have yet to be converted... ;)
    4) Keeping to one style can be expensive, staff-wise: you need a director/organist who knows the rep and can pull it off, then singers, then a decent organ, then... This is why I am a little more pragmatic with mix-and-match.
    Thanked by 1Priestboi
  • Richard MixRichard Mix
    Posts: 2,689
    A program had to include various styles, be sensitive to tonalities and had to tell a story of some kind or have a particular theme.

    I knew the P word would get somebody exercised, but there are similar concerns. I do my planning in big chunks and think in terms of a 'performance' lasting a whole year in choosing music from varied style periods. Now that I think about it, who wouldn't love to do a concert series where the same audience returned every week! The closest one can usually come is a 4-night Festspiele.

    In a service the issue with key relationships is finding a unity, rather than avoiding the trap of a concert with 5 C major pieces in a row, but there is still plenty to think about. Our congregation is used to responding to the Intercessions in G major, but the Sanctus is in E-flat: Do I pitch the Offertory in two sharps, wrapping up the prayers, or prepare the way with three flats? Or should I have picked something in g minor ;-?

    "Telling a story" with aptly chosen motet texts ought to be a given, though there have been times I was caught off guard by a homily: My first Easter as MD I had a rather jaunty alleluia to replace the Presbytarian "Amen" after the sermon, but we got a lecture on the Kubler-Ross model of grieving. My first impulse was to let the air clear a bit, but as the silence deepened I realized it was going to be even worse and in a panic could think of nothing better than to conduct in quarter tempo...
    Thanked by 1Priestboi
  • Priestboi
    Posts: 155
    I must say that some of these comments have given me quite a bit to think about, thank you very much!
  • Another matter of planning music is how often to repeat, how much new, and so on, when scheduling choir repertory for a given season or solemnity. My practice (and others may have other approaches) is roughly to introduce about 1/3 new, 1/3 from last year, and 1/3 from any number of previous years. This way one's repertory is growing (new stuff), it is becoming more confident and familiar (last year), and it is becoming a part of a familiar cycle (other previous years). The 1/3 approach is just a rough guide with the figures varying when seemingly needful or appropriate.

    A similar approach can be adapted to your congregation's repertory with regard to hymn choices, new vs. old ordinaries, and so on.

    The object of the above is to have, over a period of a few years, a dependable repertory of quality music that can be called into service more and more easily. If employed over enough years this method will yield an anthem of very respectable stature every Sunday because of the familiarity with old and new repertory. There is the constant challenge of new things, and the pleasing confidence and command of a very respectable repertory. Also, by using material from previous years one is able to refine performance practice and continually improve musicianship to a high degree not always possible with a piece's first time 'round. One can spend as much time refining nuance, diction, choral tone, etc., on an old piece, making it 'better than ever' each repeat, as one spends learning notes and basic skills in a new piece. When repeating, never just give a familiar run-through of familiar notes. The purpose of repeating is to hone skills and raise an anthem or motet to new highs not before achieved.