How do we choose the music for mass?

The mass is part of the liturgy of the Church. The liturgy starts with the Trinity, not with us humans. So how does the schola director plan the music for mass?

It is important to keep in mind that we do not plan Holy Mass; the Church has already provided us with a plan. We prepare to celebrate the Mass. This is a subtle yet important distinction. The plan is found in the liturgical calendar and the official liturgical books: the Ordo, the Missal, the Lectionary and the Graduale. Our celebrations should faithfully carry out the Church’s plan as far as we are able, according to the resources and talents of the community, formed by knowledge of the norms and Catholic worship tradition.

Sing to the Lord a new song, pastoral letter from Archbishop Sample (2019)

So the music director starts with the Graduale Romanum (Roman Gradual, see Books, Books, Books to download a copy). In the Graduale, the text of the mass for each Sunday is set to music, and divided in three categories :

  • the dialogues
  • the ordinary (ex: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei)
  • the proper (ex: Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory, Communion)

SS Pope Pius X, in his Motu Proprio “Tra Le Sollicitudine” in 1903, reminded the Church how Gregorian Chant fosters active participation. This resulted in the current form of the Graduale Romanum.

Special efforts are to be made to restore the use of the Gregorian Chant by the people, so that the
faithful may again take a more active part in the ecclesiastical offices, as was the case in ancient times.

Tra Le Sollicitudine , SS Pope Pius X 1903

The three sections of the Gradual Romanum correspond to “degrees of participation” of the faithful at Mass:

Dialogues: simplest chant, repeating every Sunday, so that all the faithful must participate in the response (1st degree)

Ordinary: syllabic chant (one note per syllable), easy to learn with a small effort, the texts never change, so that most of the faithful can participate in singing (2nd degree). For more on the Ordinary, see the short video below.

Proper: often melismatic chant (several notes per syllable) requiring more vocal training (ex: breath support) as well as some reading of music notation, as the texts change with every mass. This is the part of the mass sung by the schola (3rd degree).

So for the schola director, choosing the music for mass consists in 1- preparing “the resources and talents of the community” to sing as much as possible from the Graduale Romanum. 2- Choosing complementary music (= not from the Graduale Romanum) that will help both the schola and the congregation prepare to sing from the Graduale Romanum in the future.

As Archbishop Sample wrote, “the Church already provided us with a plan”… In our next post, we will see where the “plan” (the Graduale Romanum) comes from…. To be informed of future posts, consider subscribing:

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