Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Ascension Thursday: Where is the Cantor?

This evening, one of my favorite feasts of the year begins. This feast offers some of the best music in the repertoire, which is, naturally, one of the reasons why it's one of my favorites. I went looking for some things to share with you. I was really hoping that there would be a video of Ascendens Christum by Tomas Victoria. No such luck.

What I did end up with, however, were two very different takes on my favorite vernacular hymn for this day, neither of which totally satisfies me, but both of which offer some food for thought. One comes from a Protestant church in the UK. The other, from a Catholic Church in California. Here they are:

[The second video was removed from YouTube...]

What we have here, dear friends, is a study of people who sing contrasted with people who don't. Notice that in the first clip, everyone is singing, and yet there is no cantor. In the second clip, the reverse is true. (I won't get into instrumental "accompaniment," as this issue is secondary, although certainly important.)

As one prominent American musician said, cantors are Catholicism's "pretend congregational music." This is a real crisis, and it can't all be blamed on the way the role of the cantor has been mis-used. There are serious cultural issues here that run deep. (Notice how most people no longer sing the National Anthem at the ball park!) I'll be talking about them this year at the CMAA colloquium in Chicago.

UPDATE: Some took issue with my selection of the first video. So here is another to consider. Again, there is no cantor, and the singing is far better than in 99% of Catholic parishes. We have a problem, and we need to fix it.

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