Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A Proposal to Reform the Role of the Cantor at Mass

Before this discourse begins in earnest, it seems both charitable and prudent to make it abundantly clear that, while certain practices which are widespread in Roman Catholic music will be criticized in this piece, the author nevertheless respects and even highly admires many of the people who make use of these practices in their regular work. It seems plausible, too, that many of them are only following orders from someone in authority over them.

Moreover, no disrespect is meant to the cantors themselves, many of whom unselfishly sacrifice countless hours of their time to offer a "sacrifice of jubilation" to God through their singing at the Holy Mass. Many of them are parents who have to work extra hard to get the kids out of the house a little earlier in the morning, etc. All of them have given a measure of devotion to the Church that requires a great deal of commitment and effort that is unsurpassed by most of their fellows in the pews.

Having said that, we must now move on to discuss what may be a very thorny issue in many corners--the role of the cantor at Mass. The purpose of this short essay is to examine the typical duties of a cantor in parishes in the United States and to examine which of these duties ought to belong to the cantor. Then we shall make a proposal for a revised list of duties, as well as for other long term measures that will make the proposed transition more possible.

In this writer's experience, the cantor is usually responsible for the following: a) leading the hymns--which typically replace the Propers--and the Ordinary, much of which, if in a responsorial format (particularly contemporary hymns and settings of the Gloria), requires a great deal of solo singing on the part of the cantor; b) singing the Responsorial Psalm and the Alleluia; c) encouraging the congregation to sing via bodily gestures; and d) announcing the hymns. In many places, the cantor must do all of this from a podium or an "ambo" (sic)* which is located in the sanctuary, or in some area in the front of the church that is rarely conducive to working with the organist. In addition, the cantor usually makes use of a microphone for every word that is sung.

Unfortunately, this list contains a number of things which are completely unnecessary and perhaps even inimical to congregational singing.

We might start by looking at the hymns and the Ordinary. It is highly undesirable for the cantor to dominate this music, as, unless music solely for the choir or schola is employed (such as the Propers), it truly belongs to the people to sing. A cantor's dominance here, usually with the aid of a microphone which is turned up too high, is similarly as disturbing as the priest's speaking every word of the Credo into his mic. (Do you ever wonder why they think they have to do that?) Microphones are truly necessary in only a small percentage of churches. From every other place they should be removed. At the very least they should never be used while the congregation is singing. It is far better to learn vocal projection than to rely on a microphone which becomes vexing and which, as Thomas Day explained in his book Why Catholics Can't Sing, competes with the congregation and ultimately discourages them. Moreover, if the cantor's voice is constantly soaring out over the sound of the congregation, it tends to create a kind of musical monotony: an hour of hearing the same voice over and over again gets old fast. This cantatorial dominance is also, in many places, the replacement for real congregational singing--hardly the situation envisaged by the liturgical constitution of the most recent Vatican council. It doesn't seem to be any better, either, to employ music which leaves the congregation with only a refrain and expects the cantor to be a soloist throughout much of the Mass.

There are instances, however, in which cantors might lead the hymns or the Ordinary profitably. Generally this would be in the absence of the organ. Even still, the cantor should not dominate the whole piece, but should rather get the music started by singing the first few notes or the first line of the song. The same applies in much of the Gregorian chant repertoire, where, traditionally, the music is begun by a cantor or a smaller group of singers. For our convenience, let us file both of these situations under the category of "incipits."

The music that is more pertinent to the cantor's role in the liturgy consists of the interlectionary chants--the Psalm and the Alleluia. If the Gradual and Alleluia from the Graduale Romanum--which many would find to be the superior choice--would happen to be used, the cantor could conceivably sing these as solos, although this would not be the norm for this music. More typical and to the point would be the Responsorial Psalm and Alleluias found in the lectionary. These contain legitimate duties for the cantor to carry out. In fact, the singing of the Responsorial Psalm would seem to be the cantor's most important duty.

What about all of those announcements? This writer considers them to be an unnecessary intrusion into the liturgy, most particularly when announcing the Communion hymn. This always rudely interrupts the blessed silence that comes over the church after the Agnus Dei. It seems far better to put the parish bulletin to good use and actually include an order of worship, which would happen to include the hymns, therein. Every other Christian denomination does this; why Catholic churches have not adopted this sensible custom escapes logic. Hymn boards can also be used as is already the case in many places.

The announcing of hymns also sends another interesting message. It's not all that rare for such a thing to begin thusly: "Please join in singing...." This seems to suggest that we're being begged to sing. It is another attempted shortcut at real congregational singing. If the people really knew and treasured their repertoire, these kinds of things wouldn't be perceived as necessary.

Going hand in hand with the announcements is the regrettable custom of using bodily gestures to try to encourage people to sing. (In my notes for this essay, I nicknamed this "directing traffic.") Oftentimes these gestures are executed in ways that are difficult or impossible to interpret and prove to be unproductive in addition to being often exceptionally unsuited to the character of the liturgy, in this author's opinion. Again, if the congregation knew the repertoire, this would not be perceived as necessary.

The final step of this examination section involves the study of the location of the cantor. The General Instruction on the Roman Missal says that the cantor should sing the Psalm from the "ambo" (sic) or some other suitable place. This is a worthy attempt at a reasonable restoration of a lost tradition. However, at least one inconvenient fact has been ignored in the implementation of this idea. It is true that a cantor or a small group of cantors would sing the Psalm from the steps (Lat: "gradus," from which we get "gradual") of the ambo, but there would have been no accompaniment involved as there is today. The fact that the "ambo" (sic) and the organist are often at opposite ends of our churches today makes this a very difficult feat to accomplish, and the larger the church is, the worse the problem gets, not only in terms of acoustical delay, but also in terms of the ability of the organist and cantor to communicate to each other and to therefore sing better and, to be truthful, more easily avoid potential catastrophes. The methods to mitigate this problem with which this author is familiar do considerable violence to the music. In circumstances in which it is difficult to sing the Psalm well from the "ambo" (sic), the music director should feel free to have the cantor sing from "some other suitable place," as the GIRM says, so that the quality of the music will be first rate and therefore will be a more efficacious and worthy means of worship. Those in authority over the musicians ought to respect their competence to make this decision.

It is far worse when, as in many places, the cantor sings not only the Psalm from the front of the church but the rest of the music as well. It seems that this practice should be ended as soon as possible. Often a kind of "three ring circus effect" happens here, with the priest, cantor, and lector all taking turns at the same podium. In addition, this methodology extends the burden of the logistical difficulties mentioned in the above paragraph to the entire Mass rather than limiting them to the Psalm.

After all of these reflections, what is left for the cantor to do? If we synthesize all that has been discussed, there are three functions for a cantor according to this author's proposal:

1. Sing the Responsorial Psalm from the lectionary, if it is used.
2. Sing the Alleluia from the lectionary, if it is used.
3. Sing those things which we have generically entitled "incipits" above.

These three tasks should be undertaken while keeping the other considerations in mind: a) avoiding every extraneous use of the microphone, and getting rid of it completely if possible; b) singing only the Responsorial Psalm from the pulpit and doing this only if it allows for appropriate communication with the organist; and c) doing all of this without in any way dominating the congregational singing. Finally, there is no need for the cantor to lead the hymns which replace the Propers or the Ordinary. Nor is there any need for announcing the hymns or for employing gestures to try to encourage congregational singing.

In spite of all that has been criticized, it is important to realize that even the most unlikeable practices discussed above often arise out of perceived needs, and that these perceptions may well exist for good reasons, such as the fact that most Roman Catholic congregations do not sing very well. Therefore, in addition to pruning the role of the cantor, action must be taken to ensure that the congregation can truly sing when it is asked to do so. There are no shortcuts to this ideal.

Here are three ideas to improve congregational singing over the course of the next several decades:

1) Form a schola to sing at least some of the Propers of the Mass. The mistaken idea that the congregation has to sing everything is overburdening them as well as the music directors who are often unfairly held responsible for the people's instinctive "conservatism." In this writer's experience, congregational singing is better when they have a chance to meditatively listen to music as well as to sing it.

2) (This is the really hard one that a lot of pastors aren't going want to read.) Invest the time, effort, and money necessary to teach music to all levels of the congregation. Msgr. Schuler recounts how he went to the meetings of the various organizations of his parish and taught them the music of the Mass. Hire parochial school music teachers who are capable of teaching the students to sing the timeless repertoire of the Catholic liturgy. Hire a competent music director who will be able to foster congregational singing in the many ways that a good musician can do this. Finally, the ultimate responsibility for these efforts belongs to the pastor, who will probably have to lead the charge, judging from the way that music directors (and the music itself) are regarded in most places. The pastor's supportive involvement communicates the fact that liturgical singing is an important part of the life of the parish. This author's own pastor has "choir nights" in which he himself teaches the various chants of the Mass.

3.) Schedule good, singable music. Traditional chorales work for a reason: they're singable. Avoid the "authentic" versions of chorales that have tricky rhythms in them, and avoid the repertoire of more recent times which often employs disjunct melodies and rhythms with which even some musicians struggle. Teach Gregorian chant, beginning with the simpler repertoire but not being afraid to progress as time moves along.

If these three ideas are followed, it seems plausible that the perceived need for a cantor who dominates the music at Mass will eventually dissolve. These long term ideas may have to be employed in some places before the role of the cantor can be pruned. Every place is different. However, no matter where one starts, it is clear where we must all end up: with congregations that can make their own genuine musical contributions to the liturgy without the interference of a single dominant voice. Let us pray that we will all--priest, musician, and layman--grow in our capacity to add our voices to the New Song of salvation.


*The term ambo, technically speaking, is incorrect. Hence the scare quote and the (sic).