Monday, November 21, 2022

Formal Vesture for Men and Women in a Parish Choir: A Solution

In honor of St. Cecilia

Guercino, St. Cecilia (looking somewhat as if she’s wearing an alb, cincture, and cope)

Those who have been involved in high-level parish music programs have often wondered how to solve a particular problem that arises when one tries to take seriously the truth that singers are making a formal, if not ministerial, contribution to the liturgy — in other words, that they occupy a special designated place in the unfolding of the action that deserves to be distinguished in a way that is not necessary or fitting for the laity in the pews. The problem is simply: How to clothe the musicians?

I see three main reasons for using a uniform choir garb:

(1) It recognizes, with appropriate symbolism, the choir’s liturgical role of furnishing sacred music and leading the congregation. This kind of symbolism is the reason we have all the vestments we have, such as the priest’s and the server’s. (In fact, there even exists a “Ritual for Choir Investiture” that could be utilized at the start of an academic year.) The Second Vatican Council seems to support this point when it says:

Servers, lectors commentators, and members of the choir also exercise a genuine liturgical function. They ought, therefore, to discharge their office with the sincere piety and decorum demanded by so exalted a ministry and rightly expected of them by God’s people. Consequently they must all be deeply imbued with the spirit of the liturgy, each in his own measure, and they must be trained to perform their functions in a correct and orderly manner.  (Sacrosanctum Concilium 29)
As one commentator notes:
The choir is a constituent member in the liturgical action, whether in stalls in a chancel, or a loft above the nave. Like the lay servers at the Altar, they are liturgical ministers, though not sacred ministers. Accordingly, they should be vested as lay liturgical servers.
(2) It gives the choir a greater external beauty of appearance, which is appropriate both for the choir’s procession at Communion time and for when the choir travels, if that is part of its program.

(3) It helps the choir members themselves be more focused and serious about their role in the liturgy, and thus gives them a more tangible sense of purpose and service. This is a widely known phenomenon that explains why choirs generally perform better when in uniform (something analogous can be seen in business, academic, and military settings as well).

Now, if one is talking about a men’s schola that can be situated in the choir area of the transept or near the sanctuary, the question is easy to answer: they should wear the classic cassock and surplice.

But if one is talking about a mixed choir of men and women (a practice I have defended elsewhere) located elsewhere in the church, usually in a choir loft, the solution is not so obvious. For if the men in the ensemble wear cassock and surplice, it looks odd for the women to wear diverse lay clothing; and if they all dress in black or some other agreed-upon color, there is still perhaps an aesthetic mismatch.

Various solutions have been proposed. One of them is to dress the entire ensemble in cassocks without surplices, usually red or blue:

Another and better solution, in my opinion, can be seen in the St. John the Baptist Schola Cantorum from Allentown, New Jersey, which I had the privilege of singing with last year. The photos have been shared with me by the estimable director Peter Carter. The current format is for boy and girl choristers to alternate every week in singing with the Schola Cantorum (mixed adult choir). Also, the women and girls’ vestments are still a work in progress, as there will be a matching veil for the women and girls. The robes for the men and women are technically cassocks, but Carter refers to them as “robes,” with the men wearing surplices and the women mantles. The “cassocks” are double-breasted and do not have the clerical collar which, with the color, differentiates them in style from the cassocks of the clergy and servers. 

First, the mixed ensemble:

The men and boys:

The women and girls:

The mantles were crafted by a seamstress at my parish from surplices and are modeled after the historic mantle of St. Clare of Assisi:

The cassocks and surplices were purchased at Watts and Co.

While Carter likes the solution he came up with (and I agree that it is elegant and suitable for the purpose, without violating any liturgical conventions), it’s not terribly easy to replicate at the moment, because the robes and surplices from Watts and Co. are expensive, their fulfillment of orders is slow, and the surplices have to be reworked into mantles by a seamstress at St. John’s. Perhaps this post will inspire an American vestment maker to make a similar solution more easily available! 

(Here's the photo of when I visited the Schola. What a great group to sing with!)

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