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To Sing is to Pray Twice!

Over the past twelve months, you may have noticed a few patterns emerging among the Mass settings used by the Cathedral Choir at the Solemn Mass on Sundays.

Usually on Sundays the Cathedral Choir sings the Kyrie (‘Lord have mercy’) and Gloria (‘Glory to God in the Highest’), and the assembly joins in for the Sanctus (‘Holy, Holy’) and the Lamb of God (‘Agnus Dei’). But we are also growing a repertoire of Masses in which the assembly alternates with the Choir to sing both the Kyrie and the Gloria. This is done by singing Gregorian Chant (also known as plainchant) in alternation with polyphony (multi-part music).

Why are we doing this?

The most important reason is to build bridges.

Over the last 200 years or so liturgical music for the Roman Rite has tended to develop on two separate islands – one for the congregation, and one for the choir. Often in practice, these have come to be treated as mutually exclusive. Many musicians have been forced to choose between the two – either we choose music that everyone can sing along with all the time, or we can draw upon the Church’s vast heritage of sacred music (the Second Vatican Council called it a ‘treasury’), and let the choir do all the singing.

Here at St. Stephen’s, we feel that there is no reason why we should have to make these choices. We can – and should – do both.

If we consider the Church’s sacred music to be a treasure, then it is our collective treasure. It is not for small elites, or concertgoers, or only a select few. It belongs to all of us, and all of us should be able to feel a sense of ownership in it. The Church calls on Cathedrals both to preserve and to grow this heritage (SC#114) – for the Church is neither a museum nor a fashion outlet. We look to the past and to the future. Jesus Christ – the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb13:8).

While it is true that there is some plainchant music that is beyond the ability of many churchgoers (and unsurprisingly so, as some of it was written for specially trained singers), there is also a good deal that is easy to sing. I was deeply moved by the sound of our priests, en masse, singing the ‘Salve Regina’ at Bishop Gerry’s funeral in December last year. It has been wonderful to hear the Cathedral assembly taking up the parts of Missa de Angelis, Missa Orbis Factor and the Missa Simplex with such gusto when we have used these plainchant settings in alternation with polyphony at the Cathedral’s solemn Masses.

Plainchant is a bridge. It is not the only bridge, but it is one of our very special, very own Roman Catholic bridges. It is a bridge that has carried not only the Church for over a thousand years, but has been pivotal in the development of music as we know it. The music you hear on the radio, on television, at concerts, on your favourite CDs, your best-loved tunes – can all be traced back through history to plainchant. The Church’s musicians were responsible for developing multiple strands of simultaneous musical lines – which today appear as chord charts or riffs and are actually the most recent stage of over a millennium of musical evolution!

When the assembly alternates with the Cathedral Choir in singing different Mass settings, we are putting forward, in a very real way, the entire musical heritage of the Church – roots and fruits. Together, we are sharing in cultural treasures that have been over a thousand years in the making and that belong to all of us.

“The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art.” (SC #112)

Dr Andrew Cichy,

Director of Cathedral Music


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