Music at Mass – more to it than you might think!

Until singing the Mass and other liturgies is permissible, along with many other churches around the world, we are using instrumental music (keyboard/organ in our case) to illustrate particular points of the Mass. There is a vast quantity of this ready-composed and spanning the last 500 years of church composition. It seems we may have been here before – albeit without a pandemic to trigger things!

Different Types of Music

Music which is just abstract music and not themed is one sort. Another sort is music which is based on a familiar (or not!) melody, and that melody brings with it the context and messages of the text to which it’s usually sung, where known. A third type is music which doesn’t quote a tune, but does portray a subject. For example, it may be titled “offertory” or “communion” or “elevation” and is written to set the mood for those moments. In many places, purpose-written organ music is a part of the liturgy and listed each week, so that congregations are neither kept in the dark about its intentionality, nor expected to have that knowledge already.

Fr Anthony has held meetings with those musicians who are able to join in the present circumstances.  Together, we considered the guidelines set by the Bishops’ Conference, the Roman Missal’s “how to do it” (GIRM) pages, and our own resources – i.e. our various musicians’ proficiency levels, and the various instruments we have at our disposal.  We came up with a plan to illustrate the Masses with music before Mass begins, at the Entrance, around the Alleluia/verse, during the Offertory and at Communion, and as the priest and people leave.

Whilst Covid is around, the guidelines make clear that music should not delay the total time that parishioners spend in the church.  The only “hold-up” is the Alleluia-Introduction which is timed to between 15 and 20 seconds. Non-seasonal music is rotatable, but the Alleluia-introductions are themed with the verse of the week. A bold entrance and exit, prayerful music during Communion, and a sense of purpose about these changes of mood, rather than an apologetic background at all times, is the order of the day. Since our livestream ‘congregation’ increased tenfold (from a Sunday average of 150 viewing hours pre-Covid to in excess of 1,400 hours on Sundays during lockdown), parishioners have expressed a huge hunger for transcendence having logged on and found the relaxed, reverent and thoughtful worship a blessing.

Our musicians need time to source, learn, and prepare this music. The task includes timing it all; marking up cuts and splices to sync the liturgical and musical action; choosing the stops on the relevant organs/keyboard, and learning about how that should be done for best effect; learning and employing playing techniques which create the moods needed and gives the music its character; and of course, travelling to the churches which may not be nearby. This represents an offering of time and personal effort which is part of the vocation of the church musician.  We are very grateful to our musicians for adapting to these changes so readily and quickly and for their co-operation with one another.

Lastly, the coverage: another change that you may have noticed is that our organists are migrating around the different Masses more than previously was the case – with fewer musicians available, this willingness to roam has meant that the music is evenly ‘shared’ around the Masses.  Those who value music and those who value silence are both be served.   It also means that all of our organists become increasingly comfortable and confident with the various locations, instruments and congregations.  Rotation also facilitates the musicians learning ahead whilst repeating non-specific items for different congregations.  Sharing the lists and the rationale is something the website can allow us to do, too and we may look to that in the future if there is interest.

Out of the crisis of this pandemic has come an opportunity to refocus the vision of music at our Masses and to work more closely together as a music ministry team.  We are very grateful to all our musicians.