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The Forth in Praise Organists' Blog

The personal views of a Catholic parish organist

February 21, 2020

What did we do?

evelyn @ 3:24 pm

When you become elderly, your early memories are supposed to become sharper.  Mine haven’t.  I’ve been trying my hardest to remember what we sang in church pre-Vatican II, that is, in the 1950s and early 60s.  A good friend who was at school with me says there was no congregational singing at all, which is why I don’t remember any.

However, certain plainchant melodies, such as ‘Salve Regina’ or the Gloria from the Missa de Angelis, will still be sung heartily today by the older members of the congregation, given the chance.  The same goes for popular Marian hymns, such as ‘Hail, Queen of heaven’, or Communion hymns like ‘Soul of my Saviour’.  Even without personal recollection, everything points to these old favourites having been sung in the remote pre-Vatican II past.

And I do have a few flash-backs, memories of Marian hymns other than those we hear nowadays.  Hymns like ‘O purest of creatures’ or ‘The bells of the Angelus’.  These were sung in church as well as in school, I am sure, though not necessarily at Mass.  And I clearly remember learning some bits of Gregorian Mass chant in secondary school, and singing them as part of a choir in the local parish church on some special occasion or other.

Then there is a much, much earlier post-war memory (late 1940s?) of music in a London church during my brief attendance at a rather horrible Catholic school there. This memory stands out because I was caned afterwards for turning round to look at the choir.  But I can’t remember what was sung.

In conversation recently I complained that the Vatican II insistence on congregational singing of Mass parts had consigned to the concert hall all the beautiful and famous Mass music of the last thousand years.  Someone retorted, with a considerable degree of truth, that the concert hall is where this music has always been, as the average parish choir never at any period could have coped with, say, the Bach B Minor Mass or Mozart’s Requiem.

However, one shouldn’t forget  cathedral choirs.  As a student in the early 60s, I worked for two summers in London, and attended sung Mass at Westminster Cathedral whenever I could.  I particularly remember Benjamin Britten’s Missa Brevis in D (below), which was quite new then.  No question of the people joining in, of course, but how lovely to listen to this in sacred surroundings, and in context.  Would they sing it now, I wonder?

So it looks as though it was either everything (in cathedrals and major city churches) or nothing (in the average parish).  Well, almost nothing, as I do believe in my flash-backs.

This blog gets few comments, although quite a number of emails come in. Probably comments will be even fewer just now because of the recent hiatus.  Still, it would be nice to know from older readers what memories they have of church music before the Big Bang of Vatican II?  Please comment if you can, or email me here.

Did we sing?  If so, what did we sing?



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