The sight of the liturgical cantor is a familiar one… some man or woman, usually planted in the sanctuary with raised hand, beckoning us to song. In all fairness to these much maligned people, the vast majority do offer their gifts back to God and others in a spirit of generosity. They simply wish to serve and I am eternally grateful for that. At the same time, I wonder if we haven’t lost sight of the cantor’s original purpose of fostering congregational singing. Is it possible that the cantor is actually at odds with the goal of congregational singing? I wonder.
Regarding the Cantor, we find in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal the following: (104) It is fitting that there be a cantor or a choir director to lead and sustain the people’s singing. When in fact there is no choir, it is up to the cantor to lead the different chants, with the people taking part. Thus, the role of cantor is succinctly summed up in two words, leading and sustaining, but does the cantor succeed in these two roles?
It goes without saying that someone or something must establish the pitch and rhythm of the congregation’s sung prayer, otherwise cacophony would ensue, and the cantor is certainly capable. It is also true that someone or something needs to sustain the congregation’s sung prayer. Again, the cantor is suitable. But is the cantor the best candidate? Here we need to remember that this honor belongs first and foremost to the choir, and cultivating excellent choirs we must. The choir represents all of Heaven (and earth) present at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and a single cantor fails, at least symbolically, to convey this reality. You might well agree, but what about in the absence of a choir? Even in those rare parishes where the highest ideals of liturgical prayer are sought after and practiced, it is unlikely that the choirmaster possesses the ability to convince his choir to sing for multiple Masses 52 Sundays of the year, not to mention Holy Days and ferial days. Not even Westminster Cathedral, the London Oratory or St. John Cantius are capable of producing such a rara avis. There must be an alternative to the choir, and so we are given the cantor.
A well trained cantor is undoubtedly able to communicate pitch and rhythm, at least to a small group of parishioners, and should be able to sustain their singing, but this becomes extremely difficult in all but the smallest churches without the aid of the microphone and here is where I believe the role of the cantor fails. The cantor as we know it within the Ordinary Form wouldn’t be possible without the aid of amplified sound and I am convinced that electronic amplification kills congregational singing. First, it creates the impression that the church is filled with singing, which is rarely the case (if you doubt me, try turning off your sound system in the middle of any hymn and LISTEN). More often than not, the cantor masks the fact that many have stopped singing. Second, which is probably the reason for the first, cantors regularly lead music unsuitable for congregational use, music that is pitched too high, requires too wide a range and demands what is rhythmically impossible (this is apart from questions regarding theological soundness and principles of beauty). Third, even when suitable music has been chosen, the nature of amplified sound overpowers even the greatest amount of congregational participation. No matter how gustily the congregation sings, the cantor can and usually will sing louder. Lastly, amplification rids us of the necessity to build acoustically live and resonant churches.
This last point reminds me of a certain stairwell in my college’s library that amplified even the smallest whisper into a force of nature. One day at lunch it came out around the table that all of us seated there (I believe I was the only music student at the table) loved to sing in that space when we found ourselves alone in it because the sound seemed to come alive. Resonant churches provide that same impetus to many faithful who otherwise feel exposed and vulnerable singing in dry spaces where their individual voices and mistakes are readily noticed, especially by themselves. A live acoustic is somewhat like grace, it takes the earnest, but often modest, vocal offering of the Christian and transforms it into something beautiful.
Resonant acoustics aside, this leaves us with two main questions. 1) Does the cantor fulfill its role in the Ordinary Form? and 2) If not, then who, or what, can? For the moment, I want suspend judgment on the first question and tackle the second.
If not, then who, or what? First, we need to remember that congregational singing pre-dates the Second Vatican Council and even the advent of amplified sound. Congregational singing in the Germanic and Slavic nations runs deep and certainly wasn’t predicated on the presence of the cantor.
The pipe organ is the only other living thing that could possibly fill the void left in the absence of a choir. No other instrument on earth can sing as high or low, as loud or soft, or with as much gentleness, passion or majesty as the Sacred Liturgy demands (and all without amplification). If we look at the history of the pipe organ, long before it ever accompanied the congregation it was used to establish pitch and sometimes tempo for the singers. A good organist today can easily end his introduction in such a way that the congregation knows it has come to an end and that the hymn or chant will begin NOW, on THIS pitch, at THIS tempo. As a matter of fact, I have done it many times. The organist should be able to adjust his registration, timbre, tempo and key to fit the congregation’s needs without the unnatural aide of the microphone. To lead and sustain via the organ, coupled with good, singable music, is to place the responsibility for congregational singing in the hands of the congregation. As with anything else in life, if you want someone to succeed, you have to first give him the tools and then step back and let him do it.
Now I can tackle the question of the cantor’s necessity. If the organ/organist is able to lead and sustain congregational singing in a purely natural way (without amplification), is the cantor no longer necessary? In a perfect world every parish would have an organist capable of leading from the organ and all the music used would be known and loved, but that simply isn’t the case. Nevertheless, there are ways we can place the responsibility for congregation singing back in the hands of the congregation while making concessions for a cantor when necessary.
- Move your cantor out of the sanctuary and into the organ loft if possible. Before anyone objects that in the older form of the Roman Rite the liturgical cantor would have been both vested AND in the choir/sanctuary, we must remember that the cantor as envisioned by the GIRM is very different from the traditional cantor in the Roman Rite. It is simply too easy for the modern cantor to become the star of the show as opposed to the servant of the liturgy and liturgical song.
- Ask your cantor to begin well-known music and then step away from the microphone.
- Ask your cantor to lead all new music, but only until the congregation is capable of sustaining it themselves. If the congregation isn’t able to do so after a reasonable amount of time, perhaps the music you’ve chosen is simply not suitable.
- Ask your cantor to sing the proper antiphons. Since these change weekly, it can be difficult for your congregation to learn all but the simplest settings of them.
- Do NOT, I repeat do NOT!!! ask a cantor to sing at the same time as the choir.
- Find smaller groups of musicians, perhaps two strong singers, to lead the music, without microphones, in the absence of your choir.
We need to be honest and ask if what we are doing supports or hinders our sung prayer. Such honesty can be brutal, but ultimately life giving.