Friday, August 23, 2013

Altogether Now - How Can We Sing Together When Singing for the Liturgy

7211744496_a94cd43bf1_zWhy singing in a choir is a demonstration of the three aspects of beauty - integrity, due proportion and clarity.
When I was at the Sacra Liturgia 2013 conference in Rome, we had two Latin Masses and two Solemn Vespers all with a wonderful choir leading the congregation in chant. This was a congregation that knew their chant. Many were experienced in leading and teaching and I'm guessing that pretty much all would be in accord with the idea that Latin is the norm for the Mass and that chant and polyphony are the highest forms in which it should be sung. Not surprisingly many people joined in. What was surprising though, given the company, was how poorly the congregational members (which included me!) managed to unify their voices with each other and the choir. We really were a fragmented collection of individuals, so much so that one of the speakers - a Benedictine - remarked upon it. One wonders if this is the reason that some communities request that members of the congregation request that guests do not join in the singing of the liturgy, even for which it would be generally encourage, say the Ordinaries of the Mass. 
So here are my thoughts on how one might achieve this in a congregation. This another reflection written originally for Catholic Education Daily, who sponsored me to go the conference. The full article called chant tips for colleges and parishes from a member of the congregation, is here.
It has since struck me how singing in a choir and aiming for a beautiful unified voice requires us to think about each of the three aspects of beauty -  due proportion, integrity and clarity - simultaneously and therefore is a discipline that will form us in an understanding of beauty very deeply. I have written elsewhere of how I believe that singing modal music develops our sensibilities, here; but I am talking now of an additional aspect that arises by virtue of singing with others.
Due proportion means that each part in in the right relationship to the others. In this case we work in unision to the singer must listen to the voices of those around him so that his voice blends. Even if he knows the piece perfectly he cannot blend unless he considers how his voice relates to the unified voice of the choir. This is true at any instant, but accross the extended time period of the piece sung, all parts must be in right relation to all others. 
Cleve_Four-monks-singingIntegrity is the degree to which the whole conforms to the purpose intended for it. In a choir even beyond the choice of the music and the words, there has to be a consideration of how it is interpreted. In order for this to happen, the director must decide upon an interpretation that all subscribe to. It would be hopeless if each singer interpreted individually and then sang accordingly. So aside from singing in unity, we must accept the authority of the leader to direct that unified voice to a purpose that is appropriate to the choir (this is also a good exercise in humility!). The choice of the piece is relevant here too. We may sing something perfectly, but if the piece is not appropriate in its setting, say it is not appropriate for the Feast in question, then it does not fulfill this criterion.
Claritas can be thought of as the radiance of truth. For something to be beautiful it must communicate to us clearly what it is. So this means a clear articulation of the words and music and it must be heard by congregation.
All these things are essential, I would suggest, when we sing in the liturgy...and probably a good idea everywhere else too!
coro origini

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