Tuesday 27 January 2015

The New Soprano


It's Traddy Tuesday, so I will be writing about my beloved Extraordinary Form of the Mass, aka the Traditional Latin Mass. Apparently at least two people have been assisted on their journey home to the Catholic faith by my writing about it, so I think I should keep it up.

One of the great aesthetic attractions of the Traditional Latin Mass is the glorious corpus of music written for it. Sadly very few people have the chance to worship with the assistance of the most sublime music ever written for worship. And indeed very few people are allowed to sing the traditional plainchant that almost everyone can learn, despite the sincere wish of the Second Vatican Council that the laity learn it. This is a terrible shame, for ignorance of our liturgical traditions cuts off most Catholics from the experiences and help of previous generations of Catholics, who still make up the bulk of the Church. You don't stop belonging to the Church once you're dead. Au contraire.

Yesterday Benedict Ambrose and I ambled through art galleries after lunch, and to my great enjoyment, B.A. spotted the sheet music painted on a 15th century altar triptych and sang the chant. Yes, he is cool like that. My brothers both went to a Cathedral choir school, so when I discovered B.A. could sing traditional Church music, I admired him more than ever.  

B.A. is in our church choir, which I like to call "the Men's Schola", despite the growls of the Master of the Men's Schola that it is not just for men. That was just the way it had turned out, for more men than women are attracted to our Mass, and so more men than women there can sight-read music. The Schola never rehearses, and the Master writes new music within the the classical Catholic tradition, so sight-reading is necessary to membership.

Happily, our newest converts are musicians, and one is a singer. She is training for the opera and appeared in the Schola for the first time this past Sunday. Her rich and beautiful voice rang out, somewhat effacing the four male voices.

"I tried to hold back so we wouldn't drown her out," said B.A. afterwards.

"Ah," said his loyal but truthful wife, "I don't think you need to do that."

Normally I don't like hearing women's voices predominate at Mass--oh, I know. Shocking of me. Shocking, shocking, shocking. I got fired from a Catholic newspaper once for writing that I now find women's voices at Mass strange. Well, if she had heard no-one but a priest speak from the sanctuary for two years, my editor would have found women's readings strange too.

But my objection to female voices at Mass is primarily because of female cantors I have encountered at the Ordinary Form (Novus Ordo), including ones who caused my most musical brother acute pain. Of course, I have heard terrible male cantors too, most notably an elderly man who always wore a pontifical medal but whose voice was at least a decade past its best. However, even the lousiest male cantors do not distract as much as female cantors from the prayers at the altar. Even the best female cantor is a distracting contrast to the priest, and if she is young, pretty, personable, humble, and saintly, I think "Oh, what a LOVELY girl," which makes me think about her, not God. And if a lousy one smiles pityingly at us for not singing along to her own special tempo, I think "Oh, what a [rhymes with witchy] show-off," which leaves me in no fit frame of mind to receive communion.

The solution to the cantor problem is to put the cantor at the BACK of the church, and the back of the church is where our Schola, with its new beautiful soprano, is. As a cantor should lead with his/her voice, not by lifting a commanding hand, he/she could lead very well from the back, even if he/she were to sit in the back pew.

That said, cantors are not people I have to worry about--except when I am worried about hurting cantor-readers' feelings--as we don't have cantors at TLMs. We have choirs, and they generally sit behind the congregation where we can't see them. We can hear them, and their song assists our meditative prayer. 

But I am getting away from my joy that we have a gorgeous new voice in the Schola. Women who have real musical talent and training certainly have a place to use their gifts for God in the Traditional Latin Mass. And I think the new singer "sends out a message," as it were, to the girls of the parish that trained women singers' gifts--rich sopranos and altos--are welcome as an aid to (not a distraction from) worship. I was very sensitive on this point when I was a child, for I couldn't understand why only boys got to go to my brothers' special music school.

Update: Oh, how exciting! I have found official papal sanction for women in mixed choirs. In his 1958 encyclical Musicae Sacrae Pius XII said:

74. Where it is impossible to have schools of singers or where there are not enough choir boys, it is allowed that "a group of men and women or girls, located in a place outside the sanctuary set apart for the exclusive use of this group, can sing the liturgical texts at Solemn Mass, as long as the men are completely separated from the women and girls and everything unbecoming is avoided. The Ordinary is bound in conscience in this matter."[26]  

Update 2: Here is a stirring article about Catholicism and the TLM by a convert at One Peter Five.


  1. I sing in our 'Girls Choir' the only schola in the only EF parish here - just a group of my sisters and friends. Like your Men's Schola we don't rehearse together, and we are all female because the younger men and boys are serving, and those who aren't serving, aren't committing (to singing, anyway). I like Gregorian chant best when it's either all males or all females chanting - for me, a mix is often distracting (but not as bad as any group of any gender who can't chant together - that is when it's better to only have one or two voices IMO). And I understand too your point about not liking women's voices to predominate at Mass (thereby insulting myself and my choir) - often it does sound to high and too shrill and tooooo 'Nun-like' which was a comment we once received, although I still don't know it it was intended as a compliment or not....

  2. Nun-like is a wonderful compliment! :-O I have heard the Benedictine Sisters of Saint Cecilia at Ryde sing, and they sing beautifully! Not shrill at all, but then they sing every day! (It's their job, after all.) "Too nun-like" indeed! Who better for a woman's choir to emulate at Mass, I wonder?

    That's interesting about Gregorian Chant. Our schola sings a lot of polyphony. And the whole congregation joins in for part of the singing (and we sing the whole Missa de Angelis when the schola is away). I know that in some parishes, the congregation never sing.

  3. While I must respect your opinions on female cantors, for they are your own, I feel I must disagree slightly. Perhaps I am biased as I am a female cantor myself (also in training myself for the opera- yay fellow opera lovers!), but I have to say that in my experience more often than not people comment that my singing positively impacted their experience of the liturgy. Perhaps this is because of our pastor's and music director's insistence that only properly trained (both vocally and ministerially) cantors can sing, and our deportment should be like that of the altar servers.

    However I suppose my comment digresses from the point, as your post is about the EF. My overwhelming feeling is that I am sorry you have been subjected to bad cantors either male or female, which are as distracting to liturgy as a bad choir.

  4. Me too, me too! I am also a female cantor, and studied opera.
    In my last few churches, I have sung unamplified, from the choir loft. That's the best place for any church musicians, as far as I'm concerned.
    I wish our EF parish had attracted more men, but unfortunately, I didn't notice they were any more predominant there than anywhere else. And those that are there sometimes have rather odd ideas...
    Men in general seem to be less attracted to singing. It's a problem in any church choir I've ever seen, and it's a problem in my community theatre group, where there are 2 or 3 male choristers drowning in a sea of sopranos.

  5. How exciting! Another thing to look forward to during the next visit.


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