Like many people at the beginning of the first lockdown I was lured by this idea of free time to watch tv and catch up on all the jobs one has forgotten. One of which was this blog - to fill in the missing the Sundays. I know I have the information - though sometimes it is on bits of paper. But this, like the other aspects of this new leisure, was not to be. Since March I have continued to work, from home, and it is been a busy time. Therefore at the moment I am not going to mind the gap but shift to now, or at least September. To offer a record of what we have done - and some reflections along the way. Others will have had different solutions and had a variety of practical issues to consider.
We did not stream liturgy from St Mary’s. Our sacristan took on the role of keeping in touch with people with a weekly email including a reflection from Fr Rod and a wish that we will be together again soon.
Soon was not as early as other places. For most parishes Mass began in July (?) whereas we did not begin again until September. An advantage was that we were able to learn from others. The key thing that I picked up was the importance of some music. I would suggest that what music is adding is ‘ritual texture’. It is lifting the liturgy in some way and making it a celebration - so that it feels like Sunday. So in some ways it is not a question of liturgical function but something deeper.
Through out this time it has not been possible for the congregation to sing. For myself, and many others, this seems to be completely the opposite of what we have been working for. At St Mary’s the congregation does sing - maybe not at the decibel level presumably imagined by government advisers - and so there is concern that one may be setting up new patterns of behaviour. For a long time my hope would be that, because we sing the Mass every Sunday, the congregation would find it odd to say, for example, the Memorial Acclamation because we do not do that. My overall hope/ observation is that the congregation have a sense still that what we are doing in the liturgy as a whole is the exception.
- to sing things that were not known
- that parts that the congregation might sing be sung by a solo voice rather than a group
The result of the first was even more Foster!
Space-wise we have managed with a number of singers - socially distanced from one another and the congregation - i.e. spread out in the usual place.
- Entrance Antiphon
- Gospel Acclamation
- Preparation - keyboard
- Communion Antiphon
- Recessional - keyboard
We have being doing communion antiphons for a long time. We carried on as before. It is difficult to know how much the congregation ever sang these - but without the words or melody on a Mass sheet there was much less chance. The Entrance Antiphons are part of the same collection of music - but we have never sung them. They follow the same musical pattern. We sang the antiphon in unison, lightly accompanied, and the verses in parts.
One of the general points was that Mass should not be overlong. In this the way the music was functional - fitting the action and no more. (I suspect that this aspect has been lost sight of occasionaly)
Sometimes the music one writes has possibilities which one did not realise at the point of conception. For my Common Psalms Project I had a short interlude after each psalm verse. The idea was to provide both a space for reflection but also to allow non-keyboard instruments to pick up the tempo before going back into the response. It so happened that our first 3 Sundays were taken from this project. This meant we chose the following method of singing the psalm:
- Introduction - response on keyboard
- verses followed by interlude
- after last verse - response sung by choir
The interlude served as a space for reflection, a chance for the psalmist to breathe and gave a pace and shape to the whole.
This seems to have worked well - such that other settings have been either written or adapted to this pattern. Having now done for a number of months I wondered about introducing the sung response at the beginning - rather than just at the end. On reflection my thought has been to leave it so that it is distinct from normal practice - so the singing of the response at the start will be a sign of a return to normality.
What I have found interesting as a cantor is how different it feels to sing the verse straight through. Though I would try to aware of the ‘narrative’ of the psalm it is much clearer when there is no response. This has been enjoyable. It reminds of an MC in a diocese I worked who held that the role of psalmist and animator were distinct ministries and could not be done by the same person - therefore, the psalmist neither sang or animated the response. With this recent experience I would be in more sympathy with this view - the psalm more as a dialogue. However the practical question would remain - a congregation is so used to the visual and aural cues from the psalmist to sing the response if they saw the psalmist silent at that point what would they do? The solution would seem to be a cantor/animator for response and psalmist for psalm - but that does sound complex…
My general view was not sing Mass parts. For example the Acclamations in the Eucharistic Prayer are clearly the people’s part in the prayer and integral to it. From our usual Sunday practice it would have been odd for just a small group to sing it. The same argument could be used for the Gospel Acclamation but I found this far harder. I think partly because it is almost pure Acclamation. Whereas the Sanctus can be said - the various ways of saying the Alleluia and verse seem to contradict the moment. I did briefly consider the congregation saying the verse together with a sung Alleluia - but the practical was against this: there was no need for a leaflet so where would they get the words…
My decision was that it was better sung, even if by small group than all, and keeping the place of music at this moment. The implication of this was to sing an Alleluia which was unknown to the congregation - so they would not be tempted to join in (how odd this still sounds!). My problem with the ones I looked at was that they all seemed too big (triumphant, pompous?) - fine for a full congregation but too much for a solo cantor. In the end I remembered that for the Common Psalms Project I did a series of Alleluias - one for each psalm tone. 7 in total, each in a different key. To be honest I had never used them. They are all, basically, 3 Alleluias in 4 bars - so short and to the point.
Our practice has become: sing the Alleluia which is the same key as the psalm (so it changes week by week so the congregation don’t get too familiar!!). Alleluia sung by male cantor, verse sung by women, alleluia sung by male cantor. The 2nd Alleluia is a reflection of my view that if a body of voices sing something which should be congregational and they could easily pick up - it is to be avoided, so solo cantor.
I commend the Alleluias - they are nothing too great but they are short and singable. Back in normality they would work for a weekday Mass or a simple Sunday Mass with cantor.
Not surprisingly the University Choir has struggled to get off the ground this term. A brave few did come and sing for the beginning of term Mass and the Feast Day (8 December). For this the pattern changed to Keyboard for the Entrance, Psalm and Gospel Acclamation as above and the choir singing a motet at Preparation and Communion. This was a workable solution.
With the return to Mass on the 2nd Sunday of Advent after the 2nd lockdown we added a choir piece at Preparation. it had to either be short or flexible as without a procession the time was less than normal. I also added the ‘Advent Lamb of God’ - this quotes from Rorate Caeli and Veni Emmanuel and so gave a sound for the season.2
In a similar way for Christmas we have sung the Paul Gibson Gloria. For Christmas (Night & Day) we did sing carols with solo verses. I did invite the congregation at the beginning to join in by either singing inwardly or even humming - I am not sure how many took up the idea. It did feel odd singing the carols by ourselves and we reverted to our usual current pattern for Holy Family.
As the restrictions continue I suspect that thought will need to be given to how we re-introduce normal good practice and not just assume that it will happen and go immediately back to as it was. But that may be the subject of a future post.