Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Cantor as Insufferable Liturgical Dictator

Awhile back, Michael Lawrence blogged a short item on how a cantor ought to manage his or her role. He suggested that the cantor should sing the Lectionary Psalm (if used), the Alleuia, and any needed incipits. Otherwise, the cantor should be a nearly invisible figure in liturgy so that the celebrant and people can assume their roles. Let the role of the cantor decrease so that the prayer of the liturgy can increase. And what a relief this would be!

Now, on the opposite side, here is a parish website in Lakewood, Ohio, with its organist and choirmaster Jeffrey Moellman instructing cantors in a way that inadvertently demonstrates the wisdom of Lawrence's post on this topic. In Moellman's parish, and at his insistence, the cantor would dominate from the first to the last, telling people what to do, staring at people during the singing, waving his or her arms around from the sanctuary, never letting anyone have a moment's peace (that would be a "lull"), and generally being omnipresent.

Let us quote in full:

Strive for eye contact with the congregation, especially when they are singing. To achieve this, the refrains of hymns and acclamations should be memorized as much as possible.

In addition to leading the sung portions of the Mass, the cantor, in effect, suggests gesture for the congregation. Thus, stand and sit according to the regular practices of Mass. Exceptions to this occur when hymns or acclamations are sung while the congregation is seated or kneeling. Otherwise, be seated with the congregation.

Please use the following terms and suggestions when announcing the hymns:

Processional Hymn: This hymn accompanies the entrance procession, an event that originally involved all who attended Mass. The Presider will give a signal to begin Mass. This is the cue to stand and wait for the prelude to end (if it is still in progress). Possible announcements for this hymn are: “Let us begin our worship by singing…” or “As we come together to worship God, let us sing…”

Hymn during the Presentation of the Gifts or Hymn of Preparation: The term ‘offertory’ is to be avoided here because the true offering occurs in the Eucharistic Prayer to follow. This hymn ends with the verse in which the priest washes his hands. Possible announcements for this hymn are: “As our gifts are being presented, let us sing…’ (please note the word “our”) “During the Presentation of the Gifts, please join in singing…”

Communion Hymn or Hymn during the Communion Procession: This hymn accompanies the procession to receive the Sacrament. It should be announced as early as possibly after the Presider receives Communion. Communion begins with the priest, so do not wait for the other ministers to leave the altar. Receive the Sacrament and return to lead the hymn. This avoids an unnecessary lull in the flow of this portion of the liturgy. This is especially important now that the congregation is asked to remain standing and actively participate in the communion procession and hymn.
Possible announcements for this hymn are: “As the united Body of Christ, let us sing…” or “Our hymn during the Communion Procession can be found in…”

Recessional Hymn: This hymn is not a ‘closing hymn,’ for what we experience in the Mass must be taken out of the church and incorporated into our everyday lives. Thus, the congregation only ‘recesses,’ that is, leaves the church building. Possible announcements for this hymn are: “May we take the spirit of our celebration into the world as we sing…” and “We take Christ with, singing…”

The announcement for all hymns should be made slowly and clearly, and should be enunciated. Please use the following form: hymnal, number, name. For example: “…in the blue Gather hymnal, number four hundred forty-three, Where Charity and Love Prevail.” This allows the congregation to decide which book to pick-up, and then proceed to find the correct page.

Role of Cantor with and without Choir: During liturgies without choir, the cantor is to sing in the sanctuary (front) and is to sing all sung portions of the Mass, including the intonation and verses of the Responsorial Psalm and Gospel Acclamation. It is very important that the congregation is made aware of when to commence singing by a brief arm motion and good eye contact.

During liturgies at which the choir is singing, the cantor positioned in the sanctuary (front) acts as a leader of song. Thus, only those portions of the acclamations which are sung by the congregation are to be sung by the leader of song. Portions such as the intonation and verses of the Responsorial Psalm and Gospel Acclamation are to be sung by either the choir, a cantor in the choir loft or the organist. Again, it is very important that the congregation is made aware of when to commence singing by a brief arm motion and good eye contact.

The liturgical misstatements are many of course (e.g., there is indeed such a thing as an offertory; see the Graduale). He must be unaware that his point of view on the role of the cantor seems to be borrowed from an evangelical and not a Catholic tradition. And have you ever seen a more vivid illustration of the "four-hymn sandwich" that musical portion of Mass has become?

I blog this not to be mean to this person, who seems to be an accomplished organist and a trained musician who has actual experience in singing and performing serious music, but to highlight the unfortunate quality of instruction and guidance that so many people are getting in their parishes. And no doubt he picked up some of these tips (and the didactic tone) from some workshop somewhere, and I'm sure it's also true that the people who ran this workshop were similarly misled to what Catholic liturgical music consists in and how a liturgical space is to be managed. They probably all mean well, but thus does error pile on error until you get the result that you have in so many parishes around the country, places where you just want to tell the song leader to let the liturgy manage itself so the people can pray.

One final point about directing with one's arms: If you have never actually observed leaderless song take place, perhaps you do not believe it is true, but it is an actual fact: people can and do start and stop singing, and do quite well at it, without being told to do so by an arm-waving, heavily amplified, front-and-center "director."

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