Sunday, October 17, 2010

Gyrovagues in the key of G

Bless, O Lord, us Thy servants,who minister in Thy temple.Grant that what we sing with our lips,we may believe in our hearts, and what we believe in our hearts,we may show forth in our lives.Through Jesus Christ our Lord.Amen.

The RSCM chorister's prayer.

If you've sung in choirs since you were small, you may well have prayed this prayer. It's a right and proper prayer for a chorister to pray. I find, however, that it is that very prayer that, these days, keeps me out of church choirs. Why should someone who loves singing be forced out of church choirs for praying this prayer?

The Anglican Church has a wonderful Choral Tradition which, to all intents and purposes, is still alive. Regularly in Anglican Cathedrals one can hear Choral Evensong and Mattins executed very well. The excellence of the Anglican Choral tradition has lasted longer than Rome's by several centuries. One can compare the music as sung for the funeral of His Holiness Pope John-Paul II and the recent services in Westminster Abbey and Cathedral at which the current Holy Father was present.

Until recently, I was, for many years, part of a Parish Church Choir which was of a cathedral standard. We would regularly sing Evensong in the Parish and frequently elsewhere in cathedrals and abbeys and the like. However, what used to be weekly was, by the time I was asked to leave, monthly but the standard remained.

These days I sing in the school choir which, although brilliant in standard, is not a Church choir. When I do go to Church, I very rarely sing. Why?

I used to pray the prayer above assiduously. Reading it carefully, you can see that we are asking to believe the words that we sing and live them out in our lives. The problem begins if the words that a Christian is being required to sing are not those that the Christian should be believing. If the words of a hymn are pretty but actually say nothing at all, then by virtue of the Chorister's Prayer, what substance is there for me to believe, and subsequently, what substance is there for the way that I live life?

The chorister, as the prayer intimates, is a Church minister. The orders may be at best minor, but it is still an important ministry to fulfill for it is how the chorister leads the congregation in song that helps reinforce the belief of the Church in the faithful in attendance. The chorister must be disciplined to obey the direction of the choirmaster at all times. When the choirmaster says sing, we must sing. As he waves his hands, so must we keep time with him so that our song is excellent in its execution and clear in its promulgation of the message. The choirmaster is under the direction of the Parish priest, and the music chosen is at the whim of the priest under the advice of the choirmaster, though the former will usually devolve much of the choice to the latter, and whatever music is put in front of the chorister, that is what the chorister is bound to sing.

This, then, is where the Christian Chorister comes unstuck. How can one who believes in the Orthodox faith be obedient to a choirmaster when what is put in front of him is something that actually contains nothing for him to believe and thus practice, or worse goes against what the Church teaches? Further, what is the effect on a congregation of a choir singing a hymn that is riddled with vapidity and nonsense? It can be the most beautiful sound imaginable with stirring chords from the organ, sixteen-part harmonies executed by a choir that would make Kings College Cambridge sound like a box of angry cats and a fox, but if it is not singing the words of Truth which are the words of love, then St Paul's words in the first letter to the Corinthians come into play: their speech is as sounding brass or tinkling cymbal.

There is also the danger that Anglican Choirs become too "good" and then go professional. Why is this bad? Well...

Quartum vero genus est monachorum quod nominatur gyrovagum, qui tota vita sua per diversas provincias ternis aut quaternis diebus per diversorum cellas hospitantur, semper vagi et numquam stabiles, et propriis voluntatibus et gulae illecebris servientes, et per omnia deteriores sarabaitis. De quorum omnium horum miserrima conversatione melius est silere quam loqui.

The fourth kind of monks are those called Gyrovagues.These spend their whole lives tramping from province to province, staying as guests in different monasteries for three or four days at a time. Always on the move, with no stability, they indulge their own wills and succumb to the allurements of gluttony, and are in every way worse than the Sarabaites. Of the miserable conduct of all such it is better to be silent than to speak.

As St Benedict intimates in his description of the gyrovague, the choir that destabilises itself by ceasing to provide a vehicle for worship in a Church service and by becoming "performers" of Church music to be heard for their beauty rather than point to the greater Glory of God are damaging the faith of those who hear them. The Mass is not a concert platform, neither are Mattins and Evensong which are solemn offerings of prayer to God.

A good voice is necessary but simply not sufficient reason to be entered into a Church choir. A good tune is necessary but simply not sufficient reason for a song to be sung in Church. The Chorister must be committed to personal discipline and growth: as a minister of the Church he must work hard to improve the mastery of his instrument and of his personal subscription to the Faith that the music should express. All church choirs should seek the best in execution and belief. The choir should see itself in the role of a group of educators (literally ones-who-draw-out) by allowing the congregation to have their worship drawn from them and directed Godward.

As St Thomas Aquinas says:

Hymnus est laus Dei cum cantico; canticum autem exultatio mentis de aeternis habita, prorumpens in vocem.

The hymn is the Praise of God with song; but a song is the exultation of the mind dwelling on Eternal things, bursting forth in the voice.

Demanding? Yes. But then, isn't the life of a Christian necessarily sacrificial in nature? Why should a choir be any less sacrificial?

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