The Words (plus a bonus Hymn!)

 I keep saying, in various posts, that the primary job of the liturgical musician is The Words (yes, even the organist). What does that mean, and how does it work?

My first organ teacher (who was a fabulous teacher) told me that my job as organist in a Catholic parish was to provide "auditory wallpaper" to provide a devout and prayerful ambiance to the liturgy. She was wrong. Such an approach trivializes the liturgy as a mood or feeling to experience. Were this to be true, then the current "anything goes" attitude towards liturgical music would be valid; personal taste and changing moods would force the liturgy to be subject to the whims of the music director, depriving it of its universal character, making it more or less valid according to how much or how little that particular musical style moved each participant. The liturgy would cease to be a Thing That Is Given, and instead would become a Look What I Made, Yay Me. (That's clearly not the way it is, therefore, etc, QED. For all you Euclid fans.)

Instead, the very notes themselves must point out the meaning of the words set to them. If you peek inside the Roman Missal, you will see some of the ways in which this is done.* There are chant tones for various parts of the Mass, and they have differing forms - the Collect is simpler, with clear, single-tone recitative phrases connected by a flex; the Preface still follows a pattern of single-note lines, but has a more complex cadence at the end of each line; the Our Father moves into one-note-per-word format, though the lines remain simple and singable. These forms, in turn, link different actions together by having similar things carry similar notes - when the Our Father is sung, then the second acclamation ("For the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory etc...") is more clearly made a part of the preceding prayer by using the same cadences. In fact, a little less than a year ago, I attended a Mass where the newly-ordained priest sang the text of the Consecration, using tones so clearly connected to the Memorial Acclamation that for the first time ever, I was able to think of that Acclamation as the conclusion to the Consecration instead of as a transitional phrase to move on from it. (Thank you, Fr. Michael!)

So. For everyone involved in the music, from the organist to the singers to the celebrant, any music must point to The Words. Obviously, for the singer, this means that enunciation is top priority. The choir must listen well to each other, the better to unite their voices that they may be understood, especially if chanting in harmony, as in Anglican Chant. Furthermore, try to choose those pieces of music that pair words and notes together more perfectly - and this especially applies to translations from other languages, as changes in word order, if not treated with care, often cause the English version to place unimportant words on emphasized notes. And finally, the organist should take care not to overwhelm The Words in volume of sound, nor contradict The Words with the wrong change of tone. Instead, the organ can bring out changes of focus between verses by changing to brighter or softer registrations, alternating use of pedal, or changing harmonizations for the last verse as The Words dictate. Of course, this means making sure you know what The Words are in each different verse - and this makes it an act of prayer to accompany the singing.

An Example:

In a book I linked to in a previous post, Free Organ Accompaniments to 100 Well-Known Hymn Tunes by T. Tertius Noble, there are two alternate verse settings for the hymn tune HEINLEIN. Our hymnal sets the hymn Forty Days and Forty Nights to this tune. The verses go as follows:

Forty days and forty nights,
Thou wast fasting in the wild;
Forty days and forty nights,
Tempted and yet undefiled.

Shall not we Thy sorrow share,
And from earthly joys abstain,
Fasting with unceasing prayer,
Glad with Thee to suffer pain?

Then if Satan on us press,
Flesh or spirit to assail,
Victor in the wilderness,
Grant we may not faint nor fail.

Keep, O keep us, Saviour dear
Ever constant by your side;
That with Thee we may appear,
At the'eternal Eastertide.

The tune and choir parts from the 17th century feature a steady beat, strong and rational bass line moving mostly in 4ths and 5ths, and somewhat ominous d-minor key. It's short but complete, with its closing reference to the Final Goal (all the best hymns do this). We begin strong, with a full organ setting and the choir singing in parts. The second verse can be tempered a little, either dropping the pedal from the organ or scaling back to a less bright setting, nothing higher than a 4' stop.

Then, the organist switches to the Noble book, the choir switches to unison singing; the first of the two alternate verses plays a threatening progression, with chords high above the melody, evoking a swirling storm of trials and temptations. Now, go read that third verse again. Awesome, right?

In the final verse, the organ accompaniment shifts abruptly into F-Major, which, being the relative to d-minor, does not at all conflict with the opening cadence of the melody (the choir is still singing in unison). The organ begin low, and builds up higher and higher, evoking the Lord's strong support, and finishes with a triumphant burst of D-Major, like a glorious shaft of sunlight flooding the previously dark backdrop of the hymn, as we look forward to the Beatific Vision.

Now that is how everyone involved in the music, including the organist, can emphasize The Words.


*I owe a great deal of my knowledge on this topic to the book The Musical Shape of the Liturgy by William Peter Mahrt, editor of the Sacred Music journal. I highly recommend diving deeper into both.

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