söndag 31 mars 2013

Victimae Paschalae Laudes


Eventually went to Mass at the Franciscan monastery chapel at Jonsered where for the first time for many years I got the opportunity to join in the singing of Mass I (Lux et Origo), the Ordinary for the Easter season. All of the Proper was sung by the cantor to the full setting as in the Liber Usualis, exactly as should be, including the sequence Victimae Paschalae Laudes. If only this could happen in our own parish. It isn't asking a great deal and takes just a little bit of practice for a choir, but what could once be taken for granted has become a rarity.

lördag 30 mars 2013

Why I did not go to the Easter Vigil

I have been singing in Catholic choirs since 1976. We always sang at the main festivals such as Midnight Mass, Christmas Day, the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday, and spent many weeks preparing the music. This consisted mostly of Gregorian chant and some of the easier polyphonic pieces. Apart from a bleak period during the 1990s when the parish priest was an out-and-out philistine, this has been the pattern for over three decades.

Assuming the same would be required this year, I set the time aside and did not take the opportunity I had to go away. But on Good Friday our new choir director, who, since taking over at the start of the year, has never bothered to find out what music the choir are familiar with - they have about 300 years' experience between them - told us that we would not be required for the most important church feast of the year and that the liturgy would consist of congregational singing ie mostly protestant hymns.

Had I attended the liturgy I would have been constantly reminded how much better I have experienced in the past, and how much better it could have been this evening if this musical director had thought to use the talent, experience, enthusiasm and committment at his disposal. Seeing the effects of this remarkable skill at rubbing people up the wrong way would have made me very angry indeed, an unworthy emotion for the most holy day of the year.

I remain at a loss for words. Have I done the wrong thing? Other churches are a long way away, the liturgies began late, the clocks go forwards this weekend and I want to be up in time to get to an Extraordinary Form Mass on Easter Sunday. The latter will be sung properly by a very competent young cantor, whose considerable skills could also be put to better use than singing to a tiny congregation at on out-of-town chapel. It was a miserable way to spend Easter Saturday. The situation in the parish needs to be resolved, and quickly.

Pope Francis

There has been a surprising amount of criticism of the Pope since he was elected less than a month ago. As Catholics were are supposed to believe that the election was the work of the Holy Spirit. Since it is impossible to assess the performance of someone in the situation of a Pope for at least fifty years after they have died, how about relaxing, keeping quiet, watching and getting on with the business that we can actually attend to on our own doorsteps? Obviously what happens in Rome is important but it does no harm to take our eyes off what is happening there for a while.

fredag 29 mars 2013

O Sacred Head

We have spent about five hours over the past couple of weeks trying to learn this piece for the Good Friday liturgy and eventually got it right. But for a couple of minutes of music? It is a fine piece, but there is no shortage of opportunities to hear it, as it forms part of the St Matthew Passion. It is an adaptation of part of a Latin poem, Salve mundi salutare, a long meditation on the sufferings of Christ on the cross. The music was written by Hans Leo Hassler, around 1600, for a secular love song. The tune was adopted and simplified for a German translation of the poem by Johann Crüger in 1656.

Whether it belongs in a Catholic liturgy is a moot point. There seems, unfortunately, to be no original setting for the music. The music itself has a distinct Lutheran flavour, both by association and in spirit. A parish church choir is not going to match King's College, Cambridge (above), and to sing it is to invite the comparison. Given the difficulty of the music, there must be better ways of investing a choir's time and energy. There is an ample selection of Gregorian chant music for the occasion. The Palestrina setting of Adoramus te Christe is surprisingly easy, as is Crux fidelis by King John of Portugal (bottom).



There is no necessity to drive a choir to distraction to get them to master a piece of music which is at the limit of their ability, but so widely played as to have become almost background sound. Most people who would want to hear it have probably got it already somewhere in their CD collection.

Responsibilities of a choir director

We have a new choir director, which has got me thinking about what the position entails. Some of the essential requirements are so basic and practical that they get taken for granted.
  • The director should know what pieces of music each of the choir members has learned and can sing reliably.
  • The director should have a good idea of the capabilities of the choir and select music which is just within the members' comfort zone, so that they are challenged without being unduly stressed or becoming demoralised due to over-reaching.
  • If it is apparent that a piece of music is close to the limits of a choir's capability, the director should recognise this promptly and not waste endless amounts of time trying to get the choir to master it.
  • The choir should be supplied with clear and legible music to sing from. A lot of musical scores leave much to be desired; singing from them can be like trying to find a path through an overgrown wood. A particular difficulty can be when the music is written out for the first verse, but the other verses are not quite the same.
  • Gregorian chant scores should be in the correct Gregorian chant notation.
  • Ensure that older singers have legible scores since they may have difficulty in reading smaller sizes of type.
  • The choir should be supplied with a calendar of events and times well in advance.
  • The members of the choir should know exactly what they are going to sing, oagain in advance so that they can put their music in order before they arrive for the final rehearsal. This information should be provided clearly and on paper.
  • Where multi-verse pieces are sung alternately between men and women, clear instructions should be given regarding who is supposed to be singing what.
  • When music is being sung in parts, the choir director should make sure that all of those singing the parts actually know the music, otherwise those who have learnt them can end up losing their parts through being led astray by those who have not learnt them, standing alongside.
  • The choir director should listen to and be sensitive to choir members' requirements and need for clarification, in particular when they are lacking in confidence about their ability to sing their parts.
  • A choir director should be sensitive to the selection of music. Cliche music (classic favourites) or music which has suffered from over-exposure should be avoided. Difficult cliche music should be avoided like the plague. People are going to get to hear this music somewhere, whether they want to or not, and if they really want to hear it they can go to a concert or buy a CD.
Good artistic performance is grounded in sound basic practicalities. Anyone taking on the job must be prepared to put in quite a lot of preparation time, so it is quite a demanding task - probably not one that can be done voluntarily or single-handed by anyone who also has to earn a livelihood.

tisdag 19 mars 2013

Four decades of Catholic music - 3

At the end of 1976 I moved to Hove where my parish church was St Peter's, Portland Road. The Parish Priest was Fr Dickerson, a big man with a severe limp, possibly a war wound. He was of fearsome aspect and in his sixties. There were two curates, Fr Chris Benyon, and a big amiable Dutchman, Fr van der Most, both in their early thirties. Fr Dickerson was clearly not enthused by the changes of Vatican Two. The altar remained in its original position and Mass was celebrated facing the liturgical east, which was also true east. The building was a basilica in the classical style with a barrel-vaulted ceiling, built in 1915, when the neighbourhood had been developed and the congregation had grown out of its smaller church which then became a church hall.

The main Sunday 11 am Mass was in the Novus Ordo, entirely in Latin apart from the readings and sermon, and there was also a folk mass at 12 o'clock, with a group of young guitar players. This was, I would think, the initiative of Fr Benyon. I would imagine that Fr Dickerson was tolerant rather than actively supportive. It was a good arrangement. Members of the congregation had options and the liturgy was probably what the authors of the Vatican Two documents actually had in mind.

The choir was run by a chain-smoking woman in her fifties. During rehearsals in the church hall, she could sing a long Easter season alleluia without taking the cigarette out of the corner of her mouth, indeed, without disturbing a half-inch of accumulated ash. I told her that I had sung a little bit of Gregorian chant and was accepted as a member. She worked on the principle of keeping the music just within the limit of the choir's abilities and being very strict about how it was performed, in tune and in proper unison, with no straggling allowed.

The core of the repertoire was the Ordinary plus a couple of dozen seasonal and occasional Latin hymns. The Propers were normally sung to psalm tones, carefully arranged, and possibly inherited from long before. There were also a couple of dozen of the simpler Introits and Communion antiphons in the repertoire, including those for Easter, Ascension, Whitsun, Corpus Christi and Trinity Sunday, plus the sequences. We sang these from Liber Usualis, of which there were a dozen or so copies in the choir loft. We had a few simpler four-part motets in the repertoire, stretching to some Elgar, Mozart, Byrd, Palestrina and Victoria. We did not stagnate but constantly extended this repertoire, though always with regard to the singers' abilities and limitations, and always with an insistence on the highest standards - that we were an amateur choir was not an excuse for sloppy performance.

The result of this strategy was that the choir got the reputation of being one of the best parish choirs in the Arundel and Brighton Diocese. The quality of the liturgy was far above what might have been expected in a medium-sized parish in an undistinguished neighbourhood of a south coast seaside resort. It was a living proof of the success of this approach. There was a stable and reliable membership which also helped keep up the musical standards. The choir had its share of parties and social events at which a little too much could be drunk but it help to cement the social fabric and the committment that went with that.

Once Mary Berry's Gregorian Chant days were up and running, members of the choir would often attend these within easy travelling distance and develop their knowledge of the music.

Vexilla Regis



Vexilla regis is the classic Latin hymn for the last two weeks leading up to Good Friday. It did not feature last Sunday at St Lars, Uppsala, and I will be pleasantly surprised if I will get to hear it at all this year. The Catholic faith and teaching is built up by, amongst other things, the succession of traditional hymns that are heard in the course of the succession of the church's seasons, and in turn play their part in marking those seasons. Without them, faith ebbs away. One has to wonder whether the clergy know what they are doing and what kind of instruction they received at their seminaries.

måndag 11 mars 2013

Cecilia shortcomings and solutions

The shortcomings of the new Cecilia are starting to emerge. In our parish, it seems that some people will want to continue to sing music that has been weeded out. Others will find the 1300-page books cumbersome or will want to protect them from excessive use. The Franciscans of Jonköping have already produced an 8-page booklet with the mass tax. There is still no musical setting for the Swedish translation of the Creed. The "flying eggs" notation system for the Swedish and Latin Gregorian chants is difficult to read and leads to flat and expressionless singing.

There are remedies for all of these, but they mean that parishes will continue to produce their own material, which partly defeats the object of the publication. As regards the Latin, the easiest solution is either to buy sets of Liber Cantualis at €8.40 from Solemnes, or to produce leaflets, one with the Creed, Pater Noster and responses, and others with the most-used Ordinaries ie Lux et Origo, De Angelis, Cum jubilo, Orbis factor, Simplex and XVII. Each of these fits nicely on four sides of A5 on a folded A4 sheet. Speaking from experience, I would suggest that they are printed on tinted paper so that they do not get mixed up.

Re-setting the Swedish translations of the Ordinary would lead to a better standard of singing but whether it is worthwhile is another question. Most people know the Latin and everyone knows what the texts mean even if they cannot do a word-for-word translation, so there is not really an issue of comprehension. Personally I think it is worth the effort but quite a lot of work is involved to re-write the music and check for accuracy.

Please respect copyright
And please don't photocopy Solemnes' copyright material! It is the monks' livelihood. There is plenty of free or old stuff out available, it is not quite so sharp or clear but it is perfectly usable. Liber Usualis is on the internet, there is material from the Church Music Association of America, and there are still old copies of Plainsong for Schools floating around, which are probably out of copyright by now.

Laetare Sunday went off nicely

Mass yesterday went better than I expected, with the introduction of the new translations and the new Cecilia. We got off to a bad start with "Den kärlek du till världen bar" (Cecilia 276), which is not right for the fourth Sunday in Lent, when the rigours of the season are relaxed, with the Introit Laetare Jerusalem (Rejoice Jerusalem). But we had the Swedish version of Mass XVII to sing from in Gregorian chant notation (unfortunately not how it is written in Cecilia), and that sounded fine. The high point was a rendering of Illumina oculos meos at the Communion, sung by the director of the Gosskör, who has studied the additional neum notation to the chant in the Graduale Triplex. It gives an exciting, exotic and slightly oriental edge to the music which lifts it a level above the ordinary method of singing Gregorian chant. When Gregorian chant was put into the notation invented by Guido d'Arrezi 1000 years ago, a lot of the ornamental detail could not be written down. There was probably even more, such as the quarter-tones used in music in the Middle East. Perhaps it was remembered for many years but eventually got lost or forgotten.

Resurrection of Jesus a myth

02Apr2010
Revelations of outrageous behaviour by senior Catholic prelates, and now the Papal election naturally leads to the assertion that the Resurrection is delusion, or a myth, or an ancient confidence trick. That begs many questions, two of which are "what is the gain?" and why would anyone persist in asserting something that would mean they could end up as cat food?

söndag 10 mars 2013

Is it worth setting Gregorian chant tunes to the vernacular?

I have just spent three hours trying to put a Swedish version of Mass XVII for Advent and Lent, into the correct Gregorian chant notation, using the Meinrad font sets. The music is in the new Cecilia as items 516 to 518.

Cecilia, as mentioned in a previous entry, uses a flying egg notation which is not only exceptionally difficult to read, but also wipes out the nuances of the music. The choir noticed this the moment we started to sing these pieces. The sound was dead.

The deficiencies of the new Cecilia is very apparent in the settings of the Latin texts, especially to anyone familiar with the conventional four line/square note system. Musical vandalism, one might say, but it easy enough to get hold of Gregorian chant in the traditional notation. But so far as I am aware, the Swedish settings have never been done. So the job is possible, the music becomes easier to read and the use of the system would lead to a better standard of singing.

Whether it is worth the effort is another matter. It is clumsy compared to the original Latin, and since everyone knows what is being sung and are meant to know it anyway, what is the point of doing the Ordinary of the Mass in the vernacular? But if anyone wants a pdf of the piece to see how it works, contact me on henry.bn(at)gmail.com

fredag 8 mars 2013

4de söndag under fastan



Den 4de söndag under fastan kallas för Laetare söndag. Ingångsantifonen är en av den vackraste i kyrkans år. Tyvärr ska vi inte sjunga musiken i vår församling, varken på latin eller svenska. Den motsvarande ingångsantifonen är

"Glad dig Israel, och fröjdas över henne,

alla ni som har henne kär;
jubla högt med henne, alla ni som har sörjt över henne.
Ni skall få tröst och skall få mätta er vid hennes bröst."


Antifonen på svenska kan helt enkelt sjungas på Gregoriansk psalm ton 5, liksom den ursprungligen Latin, och den kan låter ganske bra.



Ingångsantifonen ingår i dagens läsningar, samt evangelium och bör helt enkelt inte ersättas av en psalm.

torsdag 7 mars 2013

A slight understatement?

Cardinal O'Brien confessed that his “sexual conduct has fallen below the standards expected”.

onsdag 6 mars 2013

Four decades of Catholic music - 2

In the autumn of 1975 I started a PGCE course at Digby Stuart College at Roehampton. This was a Catholic College, with the redoubtable Sister Dorothy Bell RSCJ as head. It had been founded as a secondary school for girls, by two Victorian upper class ladies who had joined the Sacred Heart Order. It is the original of the Convent of the Five Wounds referred to in Antonia White's autobiographical novel Frost in May.

The Victorian Gothic chapel had been destroyed in the Second World and replaced, probably in the 1950s, by the rather dull concrete structure in the picture. By the time that I arrived, the post-Vatican Two reforms were in full swing. The students, then mostly in their early 20s, were keen on guitars and folk masses in English. I was about fifteen years older, like most of those in the group, and we complained to our tutor, who was fully in agreement with our sentiments. This led, somehow, to a meeting being set up with another of the nuns, a Sister Margaret Byrne. I have an idea that she may previously have had some kind of responsibility for music in the convent. She told us, very firmly, that if we did not like the music and the liturgy it was up to us to do better. And then she offered to teach us to sing Gregorian chant. Well worn copies of Plainsong for School were handed out and we were told that we would be expected to sing the Requiem on Remembrance Sunday, including the Dies Irae.

That went off quite well and it was about the same time that Dr Mary Berry had established the Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge. Mary Berry had been a Canoness of St Augustine but the order had problems after the Second Vatican Council, so she got herself a teaching post in the music department at Newnham College, Cambridge. That brought her into contact with the monks of Solemnes, who, under the direction of Dom Eugene Cardin, were studying the ancient manuscripts in the monastery libraries of St Gallen and Laon, a project which eventually resulted in the publication of the Graduale Triplex.

The Schola began by running weekend course at Cambridge colleges, starting on Friday evening and ending after lunch on the Sunday. Sr Byrne had got hold of the information and suggested that we might go on one of the weekend courses, in fact the second in the series, in March 1976, at St John's College These included the singing of Vespers and ended with a full sung Latin Mass on the Sunday morning, at a time when these events were starting to become rare. The celebrant was Dom Alberic Fowler ODC who had been in Iraq for a while.

They were convivial occasions but since they inevitably on the expensive side, Mary Berry soon began to travel around the country and give Saturday courses, as well as five-day residential courses at other, less costly locations. For her, it was the beginning of an arduous, late-life career which continued almost until her death in 2008 at the age of 89, having been honoured with a CBE.

At Digby Stuart College, we succeeded in persuading the reluctant Jesuit chaplains to celebrate a couple more Latin Masses in the course of the year, but what we were trying to do was against a tide running strongly in the opposite direction.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor

Please pray for the repose of the soul of Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor Bishop of the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton for 23 years ...