"Contrary to a fast-growing error, High Mass is the Mass which the Church would have us hear. Many Catholics ignorantly believe that Low Mass is the proper Mass, which has been expanded and embroidered into High Mass by Catholics who are too pious. On the contrary, the truth is rather that Low Mass is High Mass bleached and shorn for the sake of Catholics who are not pious enough. High Mass is Mass par excellence, and the singing of the Proper is part of it, by inexorable ordinance. Therefore, when the Proper is so dull or bungling as to hinder devotion, and to make people frequent Low instead of High Mass harm is done not only to the cause of the Liturgy but also to Catholic piety."
--fighting words from a column in The Tablet on November 22, 1924
Maestro Jeff Ostrowski has, once again, pointed his readers to the next great fascinating find from the annals of obscure publications from ages past (see his post on April 5 in Views From the Choir Loft). This latest offering is from a series of essays on how voluntary (i.e. volunteer or unpaid) choirs ought to approach and execute the Proper of the Mass. In the early 20th century, The Tablet was a premier journal in the British Catholic world and beyond for all kinds of scholarship. Today, it's... rather the opposite, with the archives being no doubt a source of embarrassment to any of their present-day editors who could be bothered to read any back-issues from the 1920's.
This particular series was the fruit of a contest that The Tablet held, which would give a modest monetary prize to whoever could present the best solution to a very real problem facing churches of the time: that most parishes frankly ignored the singing of the Mass Propers altogether. About twenty years prior, Pope Saint Pius X issued forth his monumental directive on sacred music, Tra le sollecitudini. Its chief aim, to restore Gregorian chant as the normative form of music in the western Church and cull profane, secular, or overly operatic pieces from church around the world, was met with a respectable degree of success; certainly with magnitudes more obedience than any papal document to come from Rome since Vatican II.
Nonetheless, while most parishes in England had succeeded in at least implementing something the Missa de Angelis for Sundays, they were overwhelmed with the demands of Rome that the Propers (the variable sung portions of Mass, such as the Introit and Offertory antiphons; sometimes called the "minor propers" to distinguish them from the variable parts used by the celebrating priest alone, such as the Collect and Preface) be sung from its approved Vatican Gradual: the primary source for the Proper chants which are found in the Liber Usualis and sung in many Latin Mass communities today. Musicians trained in the reading and interpretation of Gregorian chant were as few and far between in those days as now, but they also had no Internet to make up the difference, nor even chant CD's to know what plainsong might authentically sound like. The more faithful directors arranged to have the Propers sung according to psalm tones or in a monotone, but the rest just ignored them altogether.
At the end of the submission period, The Tablet determined that the received entries were all so unhelpful, off-topic, or downright bad that the title and prize simply could not be given out without diminishing the paper's good name. Still, the essays printed give a glimpse at the worries of the early 20th century church choir and the remedies they chose, and a few are amusing. One essay in particular is outstandingly funny and will be reposted in full at the bottom of this entry. But as you read through these, you see that the choirs' concerns from ages past are not so different from those who sing at Latin Masses today. Anyone who's sung in an intermediate or advanced schola knows well the "weekly grind": the hour, two hours, or even more required to rehearse the Propers for that Sunday alone, only to forget them until the same Sunday next year. Once your schola upgrades to full Propers, you find yourself with little time to ever learn new Ordinaries or anything else. But, do you dare revert to the bad old days of psalm-toning? Once you attain mastery of the full cycle of Propers, it's hard to go back to anything less.
On whether hired choristers are less devout than volunteers
"It must not be taken for granted that volunteers are necessarily and invariably more unselfish and high-minded than paid singers. Many a recipient of a quarterly cheque, which rarely covers more than his out-of-pocket expenses, is truly anxious that Almighty God shall be worthily praised in His temple. On the other hand, many a volunteer joins a choir because he takes pleasure in hearing himself sing; or because the choir-gallery is an informal part of the church, where you can be inattentive during the sermon ; or even (according to credible report) to dodge the collection." [MM: guilty as charged on this one. I remember a slight sense of indignation once when I sang at a church and saw an usher come up to pass the collection plate around the organ loft]
On the importance of training grown men to sing chant
"The difficulty of inducing certain grown-up Catholics, who describe themselves as 'passionately fond of music,' to content themselves with truly ecclesiastical music, even in Advent and Lent, has caused some earnest priests to drop ordinary mixed choirs of adults altogether, and to rely on picked bodies of children, who sing sweetly and chastely the Missa de Angelis and a plainchant Credo. This is good as far as it goes. [MM: Indeed, though I prefer adult or mixed boys'/men's voices, have sung the Missa de Angelis enough for a lifetime, and am rather skeptical of all the pre-conciliar romanticism around photos of "sweet altar boys", it's hard to picture a children's choir singing these chants as anything other than heavenly.] But although 'praise is perfected out of the mouths of babes and sucklings,' it is clearly fitting that the voices of grown-up persons should swell the song.
"We must not encourage the scoffer who says that Catholicism is mainly soprano—a religion for women and children and not for men in the fullness of their manhood." [MM: What a relief to hear someone saying this almost one hundred years ago.]
Choirmastering: an age-old balancing act
"It is extremely difficult to be level-headed on the subject of music; and when a question of ecclesiastical music and propriety is touched, the fire of controversy leaps high. A member of a church congregation tells you the choir is all awry and the music too operatic, while his friend in the next pew gives as many reasons as to why the music is too gloomy and lifeless, and so on.
"In fact, I suppose the ideal musical director would be the man who could satisfy both extremes and who could steer his course without offence to either party. Indeed, since 'operatics' in church were authoritatively discouraged, and since the entrance of plainchant as a rival to modern musical tendencies, the choirmaster's task has been a severe and unenviable one. Popular prejudices in favour of the operatic style, hard and unwise insistence on the omission of anything except Gregorian chant, have greyed the hair of many a man before his time."
--by H.W.R. Lillie, S.J. (Saint Mary's Hall, Stonyhurst)
October 18, 1924
Needed: a professor of plainchant
"Very often he [the choirmaster] is at a disadvantage on account of his business occupations, or else his knowledge of music is so scanty that it will not bear presuming upon. No one, too, will deny that to render the chant well demands great skill and patience both in those who undertake to sing it and in the conducting of it.
"A possible solution would be the institution of summer schools in central districts where those Who are keen to begin could attend. This seems quite a practical way out of the difficulty. Self-sacrificing teachers would, I am sure, lend their assistance to the furtherance of the cause. If summer (or vacation) schools were formed in each diocese, the standard would assuredly be raised.
"Another plan would be the setting aside in each diocese of a competent musician who could travel round and give instruction where it was needed. A time would come when the appointment of choirmasters could he regulated, and those only who had sufficient experience and knowledge would be appointed.
"Perhaps we shall see the day when a 'Professor of Plainchant' will have a chair in our larger seminaries and colleges—to say nothing of a Catholic college of music!"
--from the same column by Lillie above
The real Propers: too hard to even bother with
"Our Holy Mother the Church has most wisely decreed that Whenever a Mass is sung, then the choir shall not only sing those portions of the Mass called the Ordinary, but also the Proper parts which vary according to the feasts. By a large and well-trained choir, such a task as singing the Proper in the official melodies of the Church, i.e., the Vatican chant, can be easily and gracefully performed, and we all know how delightful it is to hear the Proper of the Mass as sung, for instance, at Westminster Cathedral, whilst there are numerous other churches in London and the Provinces where the Vatican proper is very meritoriously rendered. But for a small and voluntary choir to do likewise would be entirely out of the question and should not even be attempted."
--by the Rev. R.J. Simpson (Domodossola, Italy)
October 25, 1924
Volunteer choirs are destroying the liturgy
"To begin with, the writer cannot help uttering a protest against the very existence of the volunteer choir, viewing it as a form of musical frightfulness which has done more than any other agency to relegate the splendour of the Catholic liturgy to a state of innocuous abeyance and wellnigh oblivion. Let me state with all possible emphasis that if our clergy desire singing which will be a fitting concomitant to the descent of our Divine Lord upon our altars, it must be bought and paid for just the same as are magnificent edifices, golden chalices, costly vestments, and indeed all the other appurtenances of the Divine Sacrifice."
--by James P. Dunn, U.S.A.
November 8, 1924
Comments from a musically literate outsider looking in
"I am not a Catholic—not even an Anglo—but I frequently attend Catholic churches, and can find my place in the book better than some of the faithful. It may interest you to know that many choirs settle the problem of the Proper of the Mass by leaving it severely alone. Some of them give creditable performances of those parts of the Mass which are sung in the same words every Sunday, but they simply pass over the variable Proper. Perhaps there is a special dispensation for Great Britain, but nobody can refer inquirers to its date and scope. You, Sir, have stated without qualification that the Proper must never be omitted from a sung Mass. I could name the defaulting choirs but I don't want to play the informer—to have it on my conscience that choirmasters have been dragged in chains to Rome. Besides, I admit that the Proper, in a majority of churches, is a trial to musical hearers, and that, more often than not, I am glad when it is skipped. Excuse a heretic's intrusion."
November 8, 1924
No one cares about liturgy
"I think most priests will agree with me that the laity, taken as a whole, are not much interested in the Liturgy as such. Suggestions from the pulpit that the laity should follow the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass from the missal in the vernacular—opportunities for which are by no means lacking at the present day—are listened to but seldom acted upon. For some reason or other the beautiful simplicity and grandeur of the liturgical prayers is set aside, and the exaggerated complexity of most of our devotional books is preferred. After all, truth in all its beauty is to be found in the simple and straightforward.
"This is a pity. An interest in the Liturgy leads to investigation and, eventually, to a correct interpretation of the mind of the Church. To give an example, the Introit of Midnight Mass at Christmas speaks of the eternal generation of the Son from the Father, and, be it noted, the chant corresponds perfectly with that idea. Compare with this the Introit of the third Mass, a few hours later, and note the contrast. In other words, the Proper of the Mass when understood in the vernacular by the laity reconciles them to the style of chant employed for a particular Sunday or feast. How often have we heard the remark: 'What an uninteresting Introit for Christmas!' It is clear that what is lacking is a true interpretation of the Liturgical Mind of the Church. Given an interest in and a fair grasp of the meaning of the liturgical words, the rendering of the Proper would be vastly different from what it has been."
-by the Rev. Richard Arscott, Southsea
November 15, 1924
They've used psalm-tones so exclusively that the youngsters think this is all Gregorian chant really is
"On making inquiry, our colleague was informed that this method of executing the Proper [MM: that is, of psalm-toning everything, even the Easter and Pentecost sequences] had obtained at the church in question for very many years, without variation. Indeed, he computed that the same chant had been used over two thousand times, and he found that some of the younger people in the congregation regarded it as 'official' music, equal in authority to the strains associated with Sursum corda and the Paternoster. In short, this kind of Proper was looked upon as the thorns besetting the mystical roses of Holy Mass. A discreet investigation revealed the lamentable fact that, although the case above described was an exceptionally bad one, the Proper is not in a good way. There are many churches where, in flat disobedience to the command of the Church, the Proper was quietly dropped so long ago that hardly anyone remembers a time when it was sung. In certain other places it is voted a nuisance by choir and congregation alike, and is perfunctorily rattled off (monotone or chanted) at express speed. Where more conscientiousness prevails, the week-night preparation of the Proper is often a bugbear to the choir, and its Sunday execution is a torture to the congregation."
--from the "Summing Up" conclusion, leading up to the first excerpt I posted
November 22, 1924
One essay by a certain Canon Reginald Vaughan stands out for its sheer delightful absurdity. Vaughan was apparently a liturgical purist of the highest sort: if an all-male choir can't be had, then it's low Mass for you. (Though strangely, it's equally acceptable to use a gramophone for music at low Mass as it is to use female singers.) It's a textbook case of letting the great become the enemy of the good, but he argues so effectively and hilariously for it that you almost want to believe.
"A voluntary choir is, I presume, the same as an amateur choir of people who sing, not because they are paid, but because they like it. A professional choir sings because other people like it, or they would not pay. Sometimes the other people like the singing of the amateur choir, but that is when they do not think they could do better themselves, and that is when time and trouble have been spent on music. Yet the choir must not sing to please. The people's likes and dislikes can be an indication of good and bad, but only when the people are musically wise. Nor should the choir sing to edify; that will take care of itself if they sing for the love of God and music, because He is honoured when they give their best. To offer one's best means taking trouble and spending time. It also means spending money for copies—not home-made copies of copyright music, for that is an injustice to composer and publisher, and cannot rightly be offered to God. Some schools and even convents seem to be without conscience in this matter. It would be a good thing to have one or two of the richer ones well prosecuted and heavily fined. [MM: perhaps GIA Publications should start up a canonization cause for this guy.]
"Now where sung Mass is concerned, these amateurs must be men or boys, or both. I say must, because the Pope says so. 'Women cannot be admitted,' he says. [MM: Vaughan is merely quoting from Pius X's Tra le sollecitudini directly here.] The choir must be composed of clerics, or of those who are capable of being clerics. This has been perfectly clear for twenty-one years, and yet I believe there are places where Mass is sung, Proper and all, by 'mixed' choirs, in open defiance of the law. They plead 'necessity'; but, surely, a place where there are not enough men or boys is a place where 'necessity' should compel them to keep the law, and do without a sung Mass. 'Low Mass with music' is another thing; this music is not liturgical, and may perhaps be performed by women or gramophones. [MM: or, in our century, perhaps chant played through an iPhone connected to speakers? I once visited an historic downtown church with just such an arrangement. I also heard the phone's ringtone echo throughout the nave when it started to receive an incoming call.] The matter rests with the celebrant. If he sings 'Dominus vobiscum,' the women must keep silence, for it is a Missa Cantata, and they are liturgically 'incapable' of singing 'Et cum spiritu tuo.' I do not know how nuns manage; but then, they are not voluntary choirs in the sense of this discussion.
Besides, women almost invariably wobble. They have been spoken to very seriously by the highest authorities about this disgusting vice, and they have heard Dame Clara Butt. And yet, where there are women who profess to sing, you shall be driven half crazy by their everlasting 'vibrato' as they call it. And worse, they do it in church, and you cannot get away. They take an unfair advantage of your compulsory presence, and scarify your long-suffering ears with their horrible accomplishment, till you begin to think the deafness of Beethoven would be a blessing. Pius X knew a thing or two. This prohibition is the clearest thing in the whole 'Motu Proprio.' [MM: I read that Rome was issuing dispensations to allow female singers within days of the motu proprio's release.]
If sopranos are wanted, we must have boys. Now your boy, at his best, is peerless. But short of his best—even when he is not a mere squalling infant—is he worth the trouble? For he is the most difficult of all wind-instruments, and you have to get a new one every three years, and begin all over again. To get the best results out of boys, and perhaps the only results really worth having, you must run a choir-school--and then the choir is not voluntary. [MM: I don't understand why every Catholic cathedral on earth doesn't have a choir school attached to it. Actually, never mind; I do know why. I just don't like the answer.]
Singing is natural in men and birds. The man who cannot sing is defective, physically, mentally, or morally. [MM: Amen. Alleluia. It is written.]
He has no mouth, or is feeble in his wits, or is wanting in courage. Ask a man if he sings, and the answer is usually in the negative. But his wife has heard him in the bath room, and knows better. He means that he is not a drawingroom warbler—and a good thing, too. Your drawing-room warbler squeezes his wind-pipe and blocks his nose and does several other pachycephalous things under the delusion that it sounds nice. Sometimes he is so monumental an idiot that he tries to wobble. We do not want the drawing room voice in church. We want the bath-room voice. A man cannot add a cubit to his stature, an octave to his compass, or a Caruso-quality to his top note. But he can be a good man of his inches, and can use the voice God gave him without affectation, which is idolatry. An ugly voice, honestly used, is better for church-singing than a pretty one faked up to show off. However, very few men's voices are ugly, when they are allowed to work in their own natural simple unsophisticated way. [MM: All true. When your average American "dude" protests that he can't sing a lick, it's more of a cultural barrier or a lack of actually trying. I apply this to myself as well. I believe if I earnestly tried to study maths like my life depended on it, I could probably, eventually figure it out.]
Take the man who says he has never sung in his life, tell him to take a deep-sea diver's breath, open his mouth wide, and, while you play the chord of G major with all the stops out, let rip whatever comes. He will probably yell G or B or D, and be surprised at the music there is in him. He will soon learn, unless he be defective, to handle the joy-sticks of his vocal machinery, and let out notes of any pitch within his range, loud or soft. The less he thinks about quality of tone the better. Teach him to open his mouth, to avoid all sensation of tightness in the muscles of his head, to pronounce his vowels correctly and his consonants distinctly; warn him solemnly against Reginarangelorum and Hosannarinexcelsis, and the quality will take care of itself. As for reading, anyone who has mastered the mystery of deciphering The Tablet can learn to read a line of diatonic melody. It is not easy at first, of course, especially when others are singing different tunes, but few things are that are worth doing.
Of accompaniment, the great thing is to be able to do without it. Who was the criminal lunatic who first said the organ was to 'lead the singing'? Surely he was a Protestant—probably a Lutheran. Yet God brings good out of evil, and we have the Big Organ and J. S. B. (By the way, cannot some one of our historical pundits put in some good work and find out that Bach was a Catholic? They have nearly done it for Shakespeare.) [MM: See Joseph Pearce's many recent books on this subject, such as The Quest for Shakespeare.] And I suppose that, as for this people that knoweth not the law, the Holy Instrument must condescend to lead their artless hymns. Most of them sing the 'treble'; women and children at correct pitch (when in tune), men an octave lower, as is natural and not wrong. Sometimes a woman, or a boy who thinks he is clever, will sing 'seconds,' which, I understand, is the tune three notes down the scale. Or a woman with a music-book (and a wobble) executes the tenor part higher up. The deeper-voiced men supply what they call 'bass,' instinctively following the progression of roots where it is obvious, and doing any old thing where it is not. Some, I have observed, reverting to the Hucbald type, sing in fourths or fifths, while others are like the late Dr. Benson, as recorded by his son: 'He produced a buzzing noise that bore no relation to any known melody.' And occasions are not unknown when three versions of the same tune, each with its own set of variations as above, may be heard simultaneously. Under such conditions it is not a sin to try to bring unity out of multiplicity, order out of chaos, by using the organ for a purpose for which it was not originally intended. But popular hymn-roaring is not Liturgy. The choir that cannot sing without its organ is not worthy to be called a choir. At certain times the organ is supposed to be silent. If the Church allows it then to be played softly to 'support the voices' it is a concession to human weakness of which Englishmen should be ashamed to avail themselves. A pitch-pipe is all the organ they should need.
But so wedded are we to the organ and so dependent upon it that, if on a Sunday the wind should fail, either the choir goes all to pieces, or, if it has been properly taught and continues as if nothing had happened, the people gape with astonishment at the marvel.
In places where they cannot afford an organ there is never any question but they must spend good money on some nasty substitute, perhaps one of the things called harmoniums—a dismal piece of furniture from the interior of which one squeezes gruesome sounds suggestive of pain in the abdomen. Unclean though it is, however, there is a certain blatant honesty about the thing that renders it less utterly loathsome than the horrible contraption known as 'American organ.' [MM: Many Americans have come to terms with these abominations by simply allowing them to fall into disrepair and disuse permanently. In Philadelphia, we have churches whose organs have been busted for decades! Unfortunately, they've done just the same to the good organs, too.] One of the mysteries of our complex life is to account for the unblushing presence in Catholic churches of this meretricious abomination, that pretends to be a big thing on a small scale, and panders to corrupt taste with its vulgar 'grand' effects, and flaunts its painted pipe-top in front of an altar built of soap-boxes. Were I a Bishop-----! [MM: God knows how many times I've said "were I a bishop" in my short lifetime.] One row of good diapasons is better for all church purposes than the largest 'reed-organ' ever made, and would cost less.
Now what Proper of the Mass shall our men sing? I will say at once and boldly—not the Vatican Gradual. They will inevitably spoil it. It is much too difficult for any but experts in that style. It is a wonderful collection of oneline songs, and this kind of music, perhaps more than any other, is either very good or very bad, according to the way it is done—Corruptio optimi pessima. Compare 'Home, Sweet Home,' as Patti used to sing it, with the same simple melody rendered by a gang of Chinese coolies. Most Englishmen, though able to sing modern 'figured' music very well, would extract a din quite as hideous out of the Vatican Gradual. I have heard plainchant that, if it were broadcasted without introduction, might be taken for steers waiting to be bulldogged. And we wonder why there are people to whom plainchant 'does not appeal,' and why England does not get converted. Is it a great wonder, when we show them the noise of a cow-yard, and say, 'This, my brethren, is the Church's own music'? There is a vulgar notion that plainchant is easy, because it is in unison. Of course, it is easier to read one line than two, but you might as well say that, for this reason, it is easy to play the cello. Try I can well believe that it takes ten years to train a monk to sing, though he may practise every day. But our men are business men with families in potentia if not in actu, and it means much to come out of an evening after a day's work.
They will, however, if they are interested. And they will be interested if something worth singing is put before them, something not too foreign to their taste, something that needs work to make it go well. Also, if their attention is not distracted, and their valuable time wasted by the presence of a bevy of ladies or a cage of boys.
And they will be more than interested if they realize the dignity of their office, which places them next in official importance to the clergy themselves.
We must, then, find something worth singing well that can be got up in a short time. It would do many choirs a great deal of good to practise monotone. A 'reciting note' is by no means easy to do neatly. You get this kind of thing :—Dodomiminominussssfofortitityoudoodopleplebississyouay.
Your men may be excellent as individuals, but they are not a good choir till they can sing all together on one note :— Dominus fortitudo plebis suae, like one large man.
The Proper can be set to the conventional psalm-tunes. It is not very interesting, but quite good when well done, i.e., when they 'recite' as above, when every man knows what tune is going to be sung, where the inflexions are to occur, and which commas are to be observed.
[MM: I've removed some of Vaughan's more technical commentary here on method, but you can see it, with the musical notation, in the original scan of the article on The Tablet's website.]
But we can do better. Dr. Tozer published a book of Propers for mixed voices. He has used the 'recitingnote' freely, and, especially at the ends of phrases, divided the text into regular measures. The result is often pleasing, not unlike an 'Anglican Chant' without its woodenness. For men's voices, of course, these pieces have to be adapted. And here, if space permit, I would digress a little on the surprising ignorance of many who 'do the singing' in church. They do not seem to know that when a man sings 'treble' he sings an octave below what is written. Consequently, if two tenor-men and two bass-men sing something written for soprano, alto, tenor and bass, the tenor will frequently get above the soprano, and the bass above the alto. Chords get inverted, and there may be consecutive fifths. Thus: the most practical Propers for voluntary choirs will probably be on lines somewhat similar to those followed by Dr. Tozer. [MM: Jeff Ostrowski posted a scan of the Tozer Propers online for the first time ever, I believe, in 2014. They were first published in 1905, a couple years after Pius X's motu proprio, to allow choirs unfamiliar with chant to comply with the requirement of singing the Propers by setting them to harmony, sort of like Anglican chant. You can view them here.]
Some of the texts are very refractory, but art thrives under restriction. It is an opportunity for our musicians to show their mettle, a test of musicianship worthy of the greatest composers. What, for example, would Sir Edward Elgar make of the Offertory for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost?
These pieces must be less difficult to sing well than the Vatican Gradual. They may be with or without accompaniment, for 'mixed' (boys' and men's) or for 'equal' voices; for one voice, or two, or more. There must be no undue repetitions, and, as the Frog tactlessly remarked when asking Mrs. Mouse to sing (did she wobble?), 'Let it be something that's not very long.' Let our music-makers, then, get first to prayer, and then to work and compose Propers. The monks of St. Gall did it, and we also have gifts of music by the same Spirit, together with larger resources and more science. Let them design musical miniatures, joyous vignettes of contrapuntal tracery, or strong gems of harmony, like the chasing and the jewels that adorn the chalice. With prayer and work, perseverance and a pure intention, our Parochial High Mass will become a source of interest and reasonable pride for choir and people, and a joy in Heaven."
--by the Rev. Reginald Vaughan, C.R.L.
October 11, 1924