Thursday, March 27, 2008

The choir loft question

On this thread, I discussed the positioning of the choir.

I just received this response in my inbox, and it is worth sharing:

The issue of the proper (and older, that is, ancient) placement of the choir goes far deeper than the proposed continued use of the choir loft; in fact, such a proposition is based upon a generally-held misconception, especially in the United States. For starters, in the States choir lofts in "Pre-Vatican II churches" have been of course the norm. In Europe however, choir lofts were not the norm in ancient churches (i.e., far older than 200 years, the age of the oldest substantially-sized church in the United States) for simply the fact that the location of the choir (referring to the space, aka the presbyterium or chancel) was properly located within the sanctuary. Unfortunately in the United States, most sanctuaries were designed and constructed without a chancel, as opposed to those in England, which as a matter of course, even the smallest of slipper chapels had a chancel, if only able to accommodate a prie dieu on each side!

During the Baroque period, the placement of the choir (meaning the people) was forcibly and drastically changed when mixed choirs of men and women replaced scholas formed of men and boys (males) in order to accommodate the operatic music that unfortunately came into vogue (and which subsequently was thankfully prescribed under St. Pius X's reform of sacred music). As women were prohibited from the sanctuary during the liturgical services, the placement of the choir (people) was required to be shifted outside of the sanctuary, thus the creation of the choir loft, of which formerly, the only such structure in a church was normally an organ loft.

One could digress on how this unfortunate state of affairs had disastrous consequences for the Roman liturgy, but suffice it to state here that the most crucial negative effect was the practical abolishment of the choir as a liturgical office in parishes and even in cathedrals (other than a few cathedral choirs, the only substantial parochial holdout against this state of affairs was in England, thankfully to their liturgical sensibilities of "the dogma of good taste").

It was Pope St. Pius X per his motu proprio on the restoration of sacred music (Tra le sollecitudini), particularly of Gregorian chant, who worked to have mixed choirs replaced by actual scholas of men and boys (a desire reiterated by Pope Pius XII in his decree on sacred music in the liturgy in 1958), who as males, could exercise this role as a liturgical office as was intended (i.e., vested in cassock and surplice and situated within the sanctuary). The women meanwhile, could of course sing the Kyriale and other hymns from their proper places in the pews (obviously an exception exists for female religious in their own convents). There were some tolerances made as to mixed choirs and even women executing the propers (clearly stated for extraordinary situations only), but again, these were supposed to be exceptions to the rule, not the norm.

Finally, in essence I agree with Bishop Herzog's assessment of the inadequacy of the choir loft for purposes of proper participation of the faithful during the liturgy. It is a proven fact that from the chancel a schola meister can effectively direct the faithful for their parts of the Kyriale, etc., as witnessed in many churches where this proper arrangement has been restored. And as His Excellency rightfully points out, the faithful are better united ─visibly, directionally and acoustically ─to the schola, and thereby the official liturgical actions. Also, the proper use of the chancel has acoustical benefits that a choir loft does not, usually in the form of enclosing walls (or even a rounded apse), which prevents the "singing in a wind tunnel" effect that choir lofts always seem to have, especially in larger churches. A very small, but well-trained schola can actually sound louder situated in the chancel, then a choir of 50 in a choir loft located at the far end of the nave (we actually experienced this scenario at St. Vincent de Paul Church, where we do have a chancel, and a choir loft at the rear of the large church). I would finally add that from a practical standpoint, when such a schola sings from the chancel, microphones are completely unnecessary, both for those in the nave, and even more importantly, to the ministers in the sanctuary (with whom the schola is more closely united and thereby coordinated with).

My 2 cents worth.

Louis J. Tofari
Kansas City, MO

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