I keep a choir diary. It does not make terribly interesting reading and is unlikely to hit the bestsellers at anytime soon but I keep it chiefly as an aid to getting things right the following year. I jot down what we sang, who sang in the choir that week and who played the organ, and I note down (no pun intended) which pieces went well and which should never be attempted again. I might additionally scribble some thoughts on how the choir are developing or how we can improve for future Masses.
Why am I telling you this? Because I thought today, Palm Sunday went exceptionally well and from experience, which is basically from the diary as I have an appalling memory, it doesn’t always, especially when the combination of singing outside, and walking at the same time, and no organ accompaniment comes into the equation.
This was my fifth Palm Sunday running the choir at St Mary Magdalen’s. Looking back it is extraordinary how much the music of the liturgy has changed or rather my understanding of correct liturgical practice has changed. When I started I had no idea what should be sung. The last time I had been a Church Musician I was a teenager playing the keyboard at a folk Mass when we probably sang ‘Majesty’ for Palm Sunday – sadly there is no rubric about a silent 12 string guitar during Passiontide. I also think the focus on ‘singing the Mass, rather than singing at Mass’ was not as widely considered five years ago as it is now. On Sunday 16th March 2008, we had a choir of nine (the same number as at today’s Mass) but we just sang hymns. No Hosannah filio, at the Offertory the Taize chant Jesus Remember Me was sung, at Communion the Passion Chorale O sacred Head Sore Wounded and the Stabat Mater was sung in English as the Recessional. The ordinary was Mass XVIII with Credo III.
In 2009, we sang the Hosannah Filio but the choir got stuck in the crowd leaving the church and Father Ray had started singing it by the time half the men of the choir had managed to get outside. Note in diary to make sure the following year, the choir are outside before the celebrant leaves the church. We also sang the Passiontide office hymn Vexilla Regis for the first time. I stumbled upon it looking on the internet and was blown away with the beauty of the text. I could not understand why a piece like this which is so integral to the liturgy of Passiontide was not known by everyone. None of the propers were sung.
2010. There is a note in my diary that I intoned the Hosannah too low and no one could find their notes. We also sang the Gradual Christus Factus Est for the first time but for some reason I sang it alone – none of the other propers were sung. We ended the Mass with silence rather than a hymn but I had noted that ‘silence’ is a concept rather than a feasible reality at a loud Sunday morning family Mass. We had thirteen in the choir that Sunday.
By 2011, things were starting to change. The Hosannah, a Schubert polyphonic setting of Pueri Hebraeroum (note in diary “bad tuning”), the Tract sung in latin to a psalm tone, the Gradual this year sung polyphonically to Anerio’s setting, the Vexilla at Communion and the Communion Proper sung in Latin and ending with silence. Note about silence “didn’t work – people were leaving the church before Priest and servers had even got down the aisle.”
And then there was 2012. Today we had a choir of nine, five men, four women. We were ready to sing the Hosannah filio as the celebrant left the church and the choir were note perfect. Thankfully our organist Adam has perfect pitch so you can always rely on him to intone anything at the correct pitch, unlike me. The Pueri Hebraeorum was sung by a quartet to the Schubert setting. For the procession we sang the new ICEL translation of Glory, Laus et honor, Glory and Honour and Praise be to You. It took a long time to get the hang of it during the rehearsal the other night but the choir sang it really well. The congregation had the refrain on their service sheets but it was difficult to join in until the choir were back in the church (we ended up at the back of the procession.) The tract was sung this year in English, set to a Psalm tone by Aristotle Esguerra. The men took it in turns to cantor the first half of each psalm with the whole choir singing the second half. The gradual Christus Factus Est was sung to the Gregorian melody by the entire choir. Credo III was sung unaccompanied (infact the organ remained silent for the entire Mass) the Offertory Proper from the Graduale Simplex set in English by Aristotle Esguerra was sung with the choir singing the verses in parts. Sanctus from Mass XVII and the Agnus Dei from Mass XVIII (the children have been learning AD XVIII in their children’s liturgy.) Communion was a three part setting of Stainer’s God so loved the World followed by the entire choir singing the Vexilla Regis and the Recessional was When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.
Finally after five years, we did it, we sang the Mass and I thought it was beautiful. Well done to the choir who worked very hard this week/this year to produce such a competent and prayerful sound.