Behold, I Tell You a Mystery

A couple of months ago, I sang in a community chorus presentation of John Rutter’s Requiem. Like the Deutches Requiem of Brahms, Rutter didn’t stick strictly to the liturgical outline or texts of a particular tradition, but largely cobbled together his own series of movements for the work, from the pre-conciliar Roman rite and the Book of Common Prayer (1662).

This was the fifth time in my musical life that I’ve performed this piece, and one thing that has consistently struck me as odd is that Rutter—a man who’s made his livelihood in the world of choral music—did not set the In Paradisum, a text featuring a choir of angels. He doesn’t set the Dies Irae either, which has led me to wonder—since Rutter has publicly acknowledged his atheism and atheistic upbringing—if those texts that necessitate a stronger use of the religious imagination would be avoided by a post-Enlightenment/rational humanist composer. (The big caveat, of course, being his evocative setting of the twenty-third psalm in the work.)

This all was very much on my mind when I encountered the March article in Baptist News about the mysterious disconnect between the ongoing—and increasing—popularity of choral singing in the U.S. alongside a statistical decline in church choirs. (The Baptist News article drew upon a lengthier, more in-depth report from Chorus America on the various impacts and benefits of lifelong singing.)

Part of this decrease in church choirs—but only part of the decrease—can be explained by the overall decrease in churches and church attendance, perhaps even by the decrease in the general population belonging to any type of social organization or club. Another substantive contributor is the widespread rise of praise band ministries in white evangelical Protestant churches as normative. This may be why Roman Catholic churches, along with Black Protestant churches, rank highest in having choirs. Yet there is still a mysterious disconnect.

Some of my musical colleagues whose ministry includes the recruitment, formation, rehearsal, and overall guidance of choirs have spoken about the difficulty of getting volunteer singers to make and maintain an ongoing commitment. (Though the Chorus America study found that people who commit to choirs also commit more readily to other volunteer roles.) It’s no secret that our day-to-day lives (even pre-pandemic) place enormous demands on time, and household schedules frequently have a daunting complexity to them. I’ll admit that I’ve wondered from time to time what would happen if other liturgical ministries—lector, eucharistic minister—had the commitment of an hour or two per week of rehearsal or preparation time.

Beyond some of the nuts ‘n’ bolts issues like time and scheduling, I have found myself looking to less tangible things, especially the effects of the surrounding culture. TV and other media certainly have promoted the literal idolization of solo singers and—in the best U.S. fashion—have pitted them in competition against each other. Two things that run 180 degrees counter to the group cooperation a church choir demands. Individuals also increasingly come to the conclusion that if they don’t have a voice of idolization caliber, then they have nothing to contribute (including singing in the pews on Sunday). We also have become a culture that consumes music much more often and readily than we make it—I’d suspect that even the 54 million chorus singers mentioned in the study spend more time in passive consumption of music (from public spaces to hours with earbuds in) than they do in the making of music. As far back as the late 80s, after dinner with choir members and their three kids (all five in the household sang in my choirs), I suggested we gather at the piano and sing a few songs together. They looked at me as though I’d said we all should ride our bicycles through the car wash.

The Baptist News article also mentions the visual element that choirs provide, in being a visible (as well as sonic) sign of the unities that should characterize Christian life overall. In addition to being an ongoing visible sign of unity, choirs can also be a sonic foretaste (“Metaphors are for mixing.” Robert Hovda) of the heavenly choirs to come, and our own full, conscious, active, and eternal participation in them. I fear that for many of the faithful, as for Mr. Rutter, the choral aspect of the afterlife isn’t engaging their imaginations. While the imagination may still engage in sensate understandings of heaven, it is often as the fulfillment of earthly personal tastes.

When Shakespeare wrote of “bare, ruined choirs” he was likely thinking of churches emptied and destroyed by Henry VIII. There is a current likelihood that a monarchy of a different kind may be at work today, setting about the same task at a slower pace. Ironically, while those around us still continue to sing as choirs, in our own houses there may be greater risk of them becoming bare and ruined.

8 thoughts on “Behold, I Tell You a Mystery

  1. Music-making has been in decline for a century, I’d wager. There’s been a steady progression of playing and singing to listening on the victrola and radio, to hi-fi stereo vinyl, to the portability of the car stereo and walkmans, then to watching music on MTV, and now streaming whatever we want whenever we want it. In sum: playing to listening to watching music. And all in about a hundred years.

    The only recent positive development (and I don’t know how much of a bump it is) might be the popularity of the Glee and Pitch Perfect franchises. Singing is tremendously fun and invigorating. These media offerings show it. And garage bands are still in existence, so there’s that.

  2. Another problem is designing worship spaces primarily for amplified speech rather than for the space to be an instrument of a natural acoustic in which human and instrumental voices sound together musically. A tendency exacerbated by reviews of said spaces that treat the visual dimension as the overwhelmingly most important dimension, and failing to appreciate how vital the aural dimension is. And, when it comes to singing in our culture, should we neglect to consider the distorting effects of…Auto-Tune?

    I can’t help but think of my own archdiocese’s (Boston) cathedral’s restoration as a case in counterpoint, except that most reviews and many awards appear to focus on the dramatic visual improvements, but neglect the more profound positive transformation – nay, a transfiguration! – of the aural space, with removal of vast carpeting and complete rebuilding of the flooring and surfacing in stone tiles, creating a lively acoustic where even a single cantor can be heard rather well un-amplified if need be, as was the case early on after reopening in spring 2019 before sound systems were fully calibrated. We have many visitors who gush in surprised delight at the transformation of what was formerly a very different visual-aural spatial experience. And I can hear it in the gradual increase in congregational singing – though the pandemic-induced period where that was interdicted (March 2020 – Pentecost 2021) was painful.

    Visual before/after:

    1. Thank you so much, Karl, for raising this very important aspect of the relentless primacy of the visual over the sonic, and/or thinking the sonic is accomplished through technology alone.

      The first time I sang the Rutter, I noted that he chose to conclude the work with the visual (Lux Aeterna).

    1. Absolutely that is my experience.

      I have served in two parishes long enough to get people singing the Mass – and other rites too. In the first parish when I arived there was practically no singing at all; in the second they were singing all the wrong things and participation was not good.

      It takes a lot of work, much humour, patience and above all confidence that what one is doing is what the Church (that is, the Vatican II Instruction ‘Musicam Sacram’ and the GIRM) says we should aim to achieve. That is often not what people think ‘singing at Mass’ is all about.

      The most important thing to keep on saying is that the rules of praying together and singing togather are the same. Be aware of one another, try to do without books or paper (that’s not too easy!), make changes slowly (musicians get bored easily, people don’t) and keep saying that this is not trying to be a choir, but trying to praise God in God’s way.

      Above all, over a good many years I can say that it was also great fun!

      (If anyone is interested, I wrote all this up last year in the Journal of the UK Society of Saint Gregory, ‘Music and Liturgy.’)


      1. My fellow correctly-spelled Alan:

        You gave me a good chuckle with

        “musicians get bored easily, people don’t”

        I understand your intent, but it made me smile nevertheless. And a mere 30 min. or so later, I discovered that I had written “composers and musicians” in music notes for my Sunday order of worship!

  3. Rutter himself is more nuanced about his religious beliefs, or absence of them – definitely agnostic rather than atheist. He describes himself as a “friend, fellow traveller, and agnostic supporter of the Christian faith”.

    We should be careful with language here. Calling all non-believers “atheist” is a bit like referring to “non-Catholics” or even “non-whites”: as if either term referred to a coherent group of people, rather than just being a marker of exclusion from the chosen group.

    1. Thank you, Martin – I did make a highly un-nuanced statement; even when he refers to himself with the term “atheist” (and he has, in addition to agnostic, fellow traveler, etc.) he is usually quick to point out that he was significantly shaped by Christian values.

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