Monday, April 17, 2006

Seeing the Choir during Easter

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal does not have much specific to say about where the choir should be during a Mass:

The Arrangement and Furnishing of Churches for
the Celebration of the Eucharist

I. General Principles

. . .

294. The People of God, gathered for Mass, has a coherent and hierarchical structure, which finds its expression in the variety of ministries and the variety of actions according to the different parts of the celebration. The general ordering of the sacred building must be such that in some way it conveys the image of the gathered assembly and allows the appropriate ordering of all the participants, as well as facilitating each in the proper carrying out of his function.

The faithful and the choir should have a place that facilitates their active participation.

The priest celebrant, the deacon, and the other ministers have places in the sanctuary. Seats for concelebrants should also be prepared there. If, however, their number is great, seats should be arranged in another part of the church, but near the altar.

All these elements, even though they must express the hierarchical structure and the diversity of ministries, should nevertheless bring about a close and coherent unity that is clearly expressive of the unity of the entire holy people. Indeed, the character and beauty of the place and all its furnishings should foster devotion and show forth the holiness of the mysteries celebrated there.

. . .

The Place for the Choir and the Musical Instruments

312. The choir should be positioned with respect to the design of each church so as to make clearly evident its character as a part of the gathered community of the faithful fulfilling a specific function. The location should also assist the choir to exercise its function more easily and conveniently allow each choir member full, sacramental participation in the Mass.

313. The organ and other lawfully approved musical instruments are to be placed in an appropriate place so that they can sustain the singing of both the choir and the congregation and be heard with ease by all if they are played alone. It is appropriate that, before being put into liturgical use, the organ be blessed according to the rite described in the Roman Ritual.

What is clear is the the celebrant and the other ministers have places in the sanctuary or at least near the altar, while the choir is a part of the gathered community of faithful. An exception would be the cantor, who like the lector and the acolyte assists the celebrant and who in performing his function faces the people “from the ambo or from some other suitable place” (GIRM, 138).

Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture and Worship adds details affirming that apart from the “cantors and song leaders&rdquo, the choir and other ministers of music “are most appropriately located in a place where they can be part of the assembly”, and only if “occasions or physical situations . . . necessitate” should the choir “be placed in or near the sancuary” and “in such circumstances, placement of the choir should never crowd or overshadow the other ministers in the sanctuary nor should it distract from the liturgical action”:

The Place for the Pastoral Musicians

§ 88 § Music is integral to the liturgy. It unifies those gathered to worship, supports the song of the congregation, highlights significant parts of the liturgical action, and helps to set the tone for each celebration.108

§ 89 § It is important to recognize that the building must support the music and song of the entire worshiping assembly. In addition, "some members of the community [have] special gifts [for] leading the [assembly in] musical praise and thanksgiving."109 The skills and talents of these pastoral musicians, choirs, and instrumentalists are especially valued by the Church. Because the roles of the choirs and cantors are exercised within the liturgical community, the space chosen for the musicians should clearly express that they are part of the assembly of worshipers.110 In addition, cantors and song leaders need visual contact with the music director while they themselves are visible to the rest of the congregation.111 Apart from the singing of the Responsorial Psalm, which normally occurs at the ambo, the stand for the cantor or song leader is distinct from the ambo, which is reserved for the proclamation of the word of God.

§ 90 § The directives concerning music found in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and the guidance offered by Music in Catholic Worship and Liturgical Music Today112 can assist the parish in planning appropriate space for musicians. The placement and prayerful decorum of the choir members can help the rest of the community to focus on the liturgical action taking place at the ambo, the altar, and the chair. The ministers of music are most appropriately located in a place where they can be part of the assembly and have the ability to be heard. Occasions or physical situations may necessitate that the choir be placed in or near the sanctuary. In such circumstances, the placement of the choir should never crowd or overshadow the other ministers in the sanctuary nor should it distract from the liturgical action.

During Easter Triduum celebrated at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the choir was placed near the far end of the sanctuary by necessity, since the cathedral's only organ, an electronic Rogers, is there, along with its console, where sat the organist / music director.

I observed the following:

1. The choir seemed much more placed with the ministers than placed with the congregation, being even farther from the congregation than the ministers, wearing robes like the ministers, and like the concelebrants seeing the back of the celebrant, who faced the people. The choir also received Communion apart from the congregation. This was in contrast with the lectors, who were dressed in regular clothes and were placed in the pews except for the one lector who was currently reading.

2. The choir outnumbered the ministers, were very visible during the whole of each of the liturgies, and though very well behaved, were noticeable by their turning of pages, wiping of noses, etc.

3. The organist / music director was conspicuous by the waving of his hands to lead the choir’s singing. This, however, did not distract from the liturgical action except at those moments when the congregation was not singing, and no significant liturgical action was occuring in the sanctuary.

A word about choir lofts and balconies: they apparently do not separate their occupants from the rest of the congregation. Indeed, some of the congregation prefer to be there. On Easter Sunday, we went to visit Dot at the St. Joseph Provincial House in Latham. The Easter Vigil and the Easter Sunday Mass there are very popular—too popular in the eyes of the sisters. One thing they did this year was to post signs asking the attendees not to go up to the choir loft (no longer used by the choir) like the year before, where they took up places that many of the sisters are used to having. The preference of some church goers for balconies is confirmed in our experience at other churches with balconies. And I came across this in a piece about the 1963 tracker organ in the Memorial Chapel at Harvard University:

For a while it seemed the best place [for the new organ] would be the gallery but the idea was vetoed. “The services were so well attended, that the gallery was often full. Placing the organ there meant the loss of seats.” Instead, the difficult decision was made to place it in front of the Palladian window at the east end of Appleton Chapel.
A Manual Labor of Love

It may be doubted that everyone in the gallery was there because they could not find a place below.


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