21 November 2007

Sliding downhill

My recent posts on the music at our church has lead to several questions asked. Rather than give several separate answers, I will describe something of the music program, such as it is, and how we got to this point.

There are two choirs at the church. The larger and superior is the choir for the 10:30 Italian Mass. Many of the members of that choir have been singing together for decades. They also have a few younger members coming up as well. The other Sunday Masses are generally served by a cantor and organ, or sometimes by the organist alone, who then provides the singing as well. Then there is the choir to which I belong, the noon Sunday choir.

I joined around the end of the recent ordinand's time as director. He was a good director, and played a fair variety of music. He was strict, insisted people be one time, and so on. He would also stop practice, and go after one or two people who were not getting the music, and would not proceed until they began to get it right.

His replacement was a relative of someone on the parish council. According to legend, the job was more or less handed to him, as no one else was interviewed. First thing of note: He was a piano player, not an organist. Secondly, in spite of his claim to "years" of vocal training, he showed no evidence and little inclination to share the fruit of his training. In contrast with the ordinand's insistence on technical proficiency, this one was constantly telling us to sing with feeling, and feeling was the order of the day. It was his constant refrain, and no other help was available from him. Third thing of note: he was a student; he was using the choir to pay his way through university, and he was coming to the end of his career as a student. I believe his field was marketing, or administration.

At first things were all right under him, but in retrospect, that was merely inertia from the ordinand's time. We were coasting, and there would come a time when we would stop. It began slowly. His choices of hymns became odder. He relied more and more heavily on modern pieces. We began playing the same music over and over again, relentlessly. By which I mean, we would play almost the exact same music for two or three weeks in a row. He had finished his time as a student, and was looking for a job. Practices were cancelled frequently. On several occasions I seemed to be the only person not told of the cancellation. The fact that I was coming the farthest to the practice only made it more irritating.

People had started to leave the choir. They all had good reasons. Busy. Work. Too far. Too late. And so on. People were no longer willing to make time in their schedule to sing this music. I was the last man, and I was on borrowed time. The last straw came when we began to prepare for Christmas. Unsatisfied with the meagre selection of Christmas music already approved by the Church, he brought in a piece that he really liked, called: Mary, didja know? He introduced it with words I never thought to hear a choir director say in church: "Kenny Rogers does a really great version of this!" I quit the choir on the spot. My last words to him were: "Are we singing for a Mass or a hootenanny?" He looked at me blankly. I don't think he knew what a hootenanny was. He later took a vote. The majority of the choir wanted to do the piece. It wasn't just him.

Through all this, I should add, we had a good soprano acting as cantor and choir leader. She was the backbone of the choir. She had been trained, unlike the rest of us. And, miracle, she was a volunteer.

Eventually he left. For various reasons, the church got two music directors: one for us, and one for everything else. I rejoined the choir in the hopes of improvement. A few other people joined up, including another man. Ours was an excellent organist- concert quality. He began by trying to introduce new music. There was a brief stretch where we were trying to learn the Gloria from Mozart's Missa Brevis, but that was soon quenched. I never found out why. Possibly we weren't good enough- very possibly. Possibly something else. We began to try and learn new Mass settings, but that got stifled mostly: It's Mass of Creation. Sometimes we are allowed to do something different, but not often.

Then the Soprano let us know she would be marrying and leaving. The director tried to find a replacement among the choir. During the summer months, when the soprano wouldn't be with us, he had a series of us try to do the cantoring for the Mass. I myself was one of them. He even allowed us to choose our own music. (My choices included Jesu Dulcis Memoria and the Gregorian Ave Verum Corpus). In the middle of all this, we had one woman who seemed to be a decent alto in choir try her hand. Her nerves got the better of her and she was a disaster. Shortly after that father cancelled that program, and decreed that only trained singers were alowed to cantor and sing the psalms. There weren't any. The organist took over that part, but he was not a trained singer. While his singing couldn't be said to be bad, it couldn't be said to be good either.

Somewhere in here another decision was made: anyone who wanted to sing in the choir could sing in the choir. We couldn't turn anyone away. We couldn't even turn away someone who had not come to practice if they showed up on Sunday to sing. Not that they were coming in droves, mind.

We also tried to sing the communion antiphon, just a small group of men. At first we weren't too bad. Then one of the men left, and two others came, who were not of the calibre of the first. Rock bottom was Easter Vigil. We hadn't had time to practice the antiphon at practice before- as our time had been taken by Holy Week Masses- so we went over it before Mass. I was the only one who had looked at it during the week. The two new men weren't getting it. The director was stumbling occasionally. I suggested we drop it. He insisted they would be okay for Mass. They weren't, and we stank. Shortly after that a new decision came down to us: No more antiphons, and no more chant. The other two men, for unrelated reasons, left the choir a few months later. Once again, I was the only male.

This year, the priest finally realized that another trained soprano volunteer was unlikely, and found the money to hire one. On the other hand, we are losing people still. All efforts to draw back the old members who came to the ordination failed. More decisions: the noon Mass will be best serviced by the music of Haas, Haugen, Schutte, et al. Father has been giving the director lists of music he would like to hear, and new songs. I have an idea he would have guitars up in the loft if he could, but I can't back that up. It just seems to be the direction.

Meanwhile, the Italian choir continues to sing traditional hymns and even sings in Latin. So the priest is not adverse to it per se. Simply put, he sincerely believes that the noon congregation is better served by the more modern folky pieces. That belief is carrying more and more force as time goes on.

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