The experiment concerned the Lenten Gospel acclamations which replace the usual Alleluia. There are four different texts for the people to sing, all of which appear in no apparent sequence in missals and Mass sheets the year. It can’t just be a form of Lenten penance, surely?
However, you don’t have to stick to what is in the missal for any particular week. It is acceptable to select another of the four instead, and in the heady but confusing times following Vatican II, many parishes took the easy way out and adopted the custom of singing the same Gospel Acclamation – music and words – all the way through Lent. The most popular choice for this purpose was an acclamation which had originated in Glasgow shortly after Vatican II, but soon became known everywhere. Priests especially liked it, because it was easy to lead the people with when there wasn’t an organ.
It is still widely used, and our parish tended to go in for it quite a bit. But this year, parish priest Father Paul Kelly demanded a change. He was very precise about it. He wanted a chant, which the popular tune wasn’t. He knew which chant he wanted:
and he wanted it used for the cantor’s versicle as well.
This was an opportunity to address something that had always bothered me: the fact that if the same acclamation was used for every week in Lent, there was only a one in four chance of the words in the people’s hands coinciding with those which they would actually sing. So the acclamation was duly arranged each week in this form.
At first, the people were a bit wary, but by about Week 3 they had got the idea. Using the cantor to introduce the people’s line helped them to see how the words fitted.
Here’s an example for Lent 2016. This one is for the first Sunday in Lent:
The rest can be freely downloaded from our Publications page, together with easy organ accompaniments and chords.
I know it’s all very boring, but Lent isn’t supposed to be fun, is it?
Bring me my bow of burning gold! Bring me my arrows of desire!
‘Bring me my organ shoes! I’ve forgotten them, and it’s Jerusalem!’ Thus went out the cry of panic, and my husband had to leap into his chariot of fire and bring the shoes over to the church.
Normally, forgetting the shoes just means rather more manuals-only stuff, and some careful, easy, quick-look-down pedalling. But not when the tune is Jerusalem. Not only is the pedalling fairly intense, but it is such a wonderful piece of music that one wants to do it justice. The shoes are essential.
Although the original words aren’t really relevant in our Scottish environment, other texts have been set to Parry’s glorious tune. The two in our hymn book are highly popular, not least with the organ itself, as it peals out with everything blazing.
As it happens, William Blake’s inspiring poetry doesn’t always feature even in English hymnals. When it came to putting the text to music, it was seen as an anthem or a song rather than a hymn. Apparently Sir Hubert Parry, when asked to set the poem in 1916, had misgivings, due to contemporary war-related politics. However, he eventually wrote his famous melody at the request of Walford Davies, who commented:
We looked at [the manuscript] together in his room at the Royal College of Music, and I recall vividly his unwonted happiness over it … He ceased to speak, and put his finger on the note D in the second stanza where the words ‘O clouds unfold’ break his rhythm. I do not think any word passed about it. Yet he made it perfectly clear that this was the one note and one moment of the song which he treasured …
Of course, Jerusalem is now currently the front runner in the quest for an English national anthem, and the English half of me rejoices in that. Most refer to it as ‘Blake’s Jerusalem’; many musicians, myself included, as ‘Parry’s Jerusalem’. There is no doubt, however, that it is one of the best combinations of words and music of all time.
And I do so like sentences beginning with ‘And’.
William Blake 1757-1827
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
A colleague who plays in the Church of Scotland told me today that her church’s word-screen had failed half-way through the service, causing considerable confusion.
Word-screens seem strange to me. I’ve never liked them, but haven’t until now thought why. Arguments in favour of them include:
No fiddling around to find pages in hymn books.
No need to juggle books and money during the collection.
There isn’t the problem of people forgetting to pick up a hymn book as they come in.
Economy – once screen is bought, no need for pew hymn books (although there would have to be licensing, I imagine).
You are not limited to the hymns in a particular book.
The singing is better because people don’t have heads buried in books.
But I still most definitely do not like them. I’ve now given it a bit of thought, and have produced some reasons:
First, any spiritual effect of the church architecture is lost. This contraption rarely harmonises with its surroundings. I won’t easily forget experiencing one in a sixteenth-century Spanish church.
Secondly, the screen is large and attention-demanding, even when not operating. It sits there, dominating and distracting. This is especially awkward in Catholic churches, where the focus of attention should be what is taking place at the altar.
Thirdly, I don’t like being mentally organised by a machine.
Lastly, not everyone’s eyesight can cope with peering up at a fairly distant screen. Glare can be a problem, too.
Once, and only once, did I have to play for one of these things, at a C of S service. I could see the screen, and found it quite unnerving, as it changed for each verse. I kept feeling a need to check it against the hymn book to be sure I was on the right verse. Needless to say, I got hopelessly mixed up and finished the second last verse with a flourish. I then had to pick up again when the last verse came up.
Word-screens are certainly not among my favourite things.
It seems that the news that ‘O Holy Night’ might be left out this year has spread from the choir into the parish. The jungle drums started beating, and our priest received a stream of complaints. I told him that although we had bowed to pressure and decided to have it as a choir piece, I didn’t think this would appease the protestors. They would want the words, so that they could sing it themselves.
So he has kindly agreed to run off the words in time for Christmas Eve. The anti-Holy-Nighters have been routed, but have accepted the inevitable with a good grace.
Finishing now with a wonderful clip from Michael’s comment on the previous post. Couldn’t resist it!
(If it doesn’t work go from this link and scroll down)
I thought I was being clever, but it has backfired on me. There’s a good chance that by Christmas Eve I will have alienated the entire congregation.
‘O Holy Night’ is one of those songs which people either adore or hate. First performed in France in 1847 to music by Adolphe Adam, it is Romantic and operatic in style. A real period piece, but a jolly good congregational belt. However, it doesn’t feature in hymn books as the traditional carols do, and the aria-like melody and slightly political overtones do turn many people off. But whether it is loved or loathed, those on both sides of the argument are passionate about it.
Dedicated supporters from our congregation had ensured its being on the menu for the last five or six years. This year, however, there was a determined fight-back from some of the ladies in the choir:
‘Oh no, not that one again!‘
‘Can’t we give it a break for once?’
‘It’s just so corny!‘
I suggested to our priest that we leave it out this year. ‘That seems a shame’, he said, ‘O Holy Night is a wonderful song which we only get to sing on Christmas Eve’. I hadn’t realised he was in the pro-Holy-Night camp.
I persevered, however, pointing out that as the words weren’t in the hymn book, they would have to be printed off specially, and it was that argument which persuaded him to give it a miss this year. The anti-Holy-Nighters rejoiced.
When the decision was announced to the choir by email, one of the men replied that he was greatly disappointed. Then, at last week’s practice, all the men ganged up and declared that they were in rebellion.
Well, we can’t upset our men. Nor can we expect our priest to print out a new leaflet at this stage. So to placate the men we’ll sing ‘O Holy Night’ as a choir piece during the carol service. This will annoy both camps for different reasons, and I’ll probably get the blame.
A few days ago I was asked to do a small slot in a concert given in our church by a local choir. The choir were superb and a joy to listen to. There was just one little part that didn’t go too well – mine!
All I had to play was a few minutes of solo organ between two of the choral items, on a Christmassy theme. I had chosen a handful of Noëls au tambourin by Charpentier, which were straightforward to play and good for illustrating the different organ sounds. I was a bit nervous because this sort of performance isn’t something I do very often. As the church filled up, my nervousness increased.
As it turned out, I needn’t have worried.
Perhaps unfortunately, the choir leader announced, just before my spot, that the choir would take a break while the church organist played. This seemed to be the cue for the audience to start chatting. And even though the Charpentier was part of the programme they held in their hands, they continued to chat right though my ‘performance’, just as wedding guests do while waiting for the bride to arrive.
I ploughed on to the finish, and there was some applause, but I didn’t do any bowing. Then the audience quietened down for the reappearance of the choir.
‘Why is it,’ I said to our priest, who had joined me in the gallery as the audience filed out at the end, ‘why is it that hearing the organ is always a signal for people to start talking among themselves? Why is the organ automatically assumed to be a background instrument? Wallpaper! That’s all we organists are! Just wallpaper!’
At that point in my harangue the technical person who had been recording the entire concert on behalf of the choir came up to switch off and remove his highly sensitive microphone pickup …
Oh well, I don’t care. No doubt he’ll edit it out. He’ll probably have to remove the Charpentier as well because of all the racket going on.
Our priest, taking a positive view, suggested we have an organ recital, open to the town. I went straight home, got on the phone and signed up a well-known recitalist.
Well, the original eleven went down to seven then up to eight, which is excellent. Of these, one has already been a church organist and can read easily the full music edition of the hymnal. Then we have two with high piano grades, one with middling piano grades, one with a high theory qualification, one who is also a guitarist and understands chords, and two with basic piano technique.
Quite a variety, much wider than the last batch in 2010, but all of them have some technique and experience. One of the 2010 group, Martin, is giving them encouragement. His career is a lesson in itself. He started with less than any of the newcomers, in fact with nothing. He couldn’t even read music. To learn the basics he took lessons from a sympathetic piano teacher, then persevered with the organ until he is now more or less running the music at the early-morning Mass. Obviously, strength of character is as important as technique.
I’ve distributed a number of copies of the Forth in Praise 100 Hymns for Organ Beginners, including a new one for Martin, who has worn out his first copy! With luck, some of the new trainees will be playing carols this Christmas.
Another two Sundays have passed since we introduced our new refrain-less Gloria.
Last week, the reaction was still general bemusement from the congregation. Our priest was despondent. ‘Can’t you introduce a refrain somewhere?’ he asked. I had to explain that I would have to consult the composer. Most composers don’t like other people interfering with their music, although with a bit of arm-twisting they might consider changing it themselves. This was my hope, as I was darned if I could see how a refrain could be fitted in.
During the week, however, our priest phoned with another idea. Could one of the choir lead the people from the lectern? Now this had definite possibilities. Though singing with the choir, this person would give the people someone to focus on, and the amplified voice would help at this learning stage.
So on the Feast of Christ the King, our ‘cantor’, supported by the choir, led the Gloria, and there was definitely a response from the people this time. Father was optimistic. ‘I really think it’s working at last’, he said. I had also played it over as a pre-Mass voluntary, and I played them out with it at the end.
Afterwards, one lady said ‘I just can’t get that melody out of my head. It will be going round and round all day’. I almost said, ‘That’s excellent’, then realised she was complaining.
Priest: We don’t sing any Mass parts in this church, so you don’t need to worry about that.
Me: (aghast) Is it a Mass ?
Priest: Oh, yes.
Me: (sighing with relief as the no-Mass-parts realisation sinks in) It just didn’t look like a Mass on the Order of Service.
The priest agreed.
I had arrived at this fairly distant church to play at a wedding, which I had assumed from the information given to be in the short service form – entrance and exit music, two hymns and something for the register. One should never assume anything, of course, and after all these years I should know that.
Me: So what is to happen at the Offertory and Communion? We’ve no more hymns on the Order of Service.
Priest was puzzled about this, too. He decided the second hymn could be stretched to cover the Offertory, but Communion was still a problem.
‘I could always just tootle on the organ’, I offered, and he brightened up considerably.
Meanwhile, an organist friend playing for a wedding on the same day had had exactly the opposite experience. The bride had booked the church choir and had asked for the MacMillan St Anne Sanctus and Agnus Dei, which the choir had dutifully practised. A couple of days before the wedding my friend learned that it was to be the short service – no Sanctus or Agnus required.
In both these cases the bride was not Catholic and had been given the choice of the music, which was no doubt a nice gesture on the part of her Catholic fiancé. However, she had then been left to work out herself how it should all fit in.
Like many organists, I have a music checklist which I email to brides to help them sort out their music, but it doesn’t go into the full detail of Nuptial Mass. Maybe this needs re-thinking.