On choirs and choir lofts

The usual modern parish choir can generally be found somewhere in the front of the church building; singers and their instruments are readily visible to the majority of the congregation. Often, this results in a situation where the main cantor or instrumentalist becomes a point of focus as he or she gives directions, with both words and gestures, to the congregation. We get an impression that the choir and instrumentalists are on a stage, and that Mass is a sort of performance or concert. How often do we, in such Novus Ordo Masses, switch our attention back and forth, to and fro, between the sanctuary and the choir? Or, how often is the choir itself placed in the sanctuary or in close proximity to the altar, as if it were a driver of the liturgical action?

Why does the choir itself have to be seen? 

In many old church buildings throughout the world, both Catholic and Protestant, one will find choir lofts almost uniformly located: they are invariably high balconies at the end of the nave opposite the altar– in the back of the church. This is no accident. Never until recent times was it thought that the choir (and/or ensemble, as the case may be) engaged in a performance during Mass. When considering sacred music, the focus was always on the text and the music itself, not on the singers and and instrumentalists. Even when the great operatic Masses of the Classical and Romantic eras came into vogue, with soloists singing the various prayers of Mass as complex, florid arias, there was no sense of performance. Generally speaking, the musicians remained out of sight while the congregation looked straight forward, toward the altar, toward the true Sacrifice of Christ.

I am reminded of a story taking place in a church during Mass, during which beautiful liturgical music filled the place. A little girl, hearing the heavenly melodies but unable to see the choir (for they were in the choir loft) asked, “Mommy, who is singing?” The mother replied, “The angels, my dear”.

As fanciful as this may seem at first glance, the mother is actually right in a sense; for what happens at Mass is a union of heaven and earth, a cosmic foretaste of the eternal heavenly liturgy which, God willing, we will one day join. For this reason we join our voices with the choirs of angels and sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God of Hosts”. We tend to lose sight of this awesome transcendence when a cantor or musician is dictating directions to the choir and congregation to the point that even the priest’s actions– which are ultimately the actions of Christ– have to compete for our attention.

Situating choirs in choir lofts has practical purposes. Especially in older, well-constructed churches, music projected from the loft carries a strength that fills the church without need for external amplification; the architecture of the place accentuates the power and beauty of the human voice. Next, the congregation is free from distractions from the choir, and the choir is free from distractions from the congregation. Choirmasters can deliver their instructions to the singers without the congregation noticing, and on the other hand, singers can more easily ignore things like fidgety children from the loft. Here, each element of the worshiping community plays its own unique part in the corporate worship of God. This separation does not imply a superiority of the choir over the congregation nor vice versa. Finally, singers (especially soloists) are far less prone to stage fright when the appearance of face-to-face performance is removed altogether.

Unfortunately, many choirmasters and musicians place their choirs in the front precisely to be seen. Implicit in this mindset is that those “in front” are “doing more” or “participating more actively” in the liturgy than other people. Of course, this is not the Church’s idea of actuosa participatio as explained by Popes Pius X, Pius XII, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and the Second Vatican Council. Merely participating in external activity does not necessarily signify a true alignment of one’s soul in accordance with the liturgical action. Actuosa participatio is first and foremost internal and ontological, not external and active (if it were, the Council would have called for participatio activa).

At Mass, we do not exalt ourselves; we exalt God. Practices which introduce performatory elements inevitably deflect our attention from God and onto ourselves. Likewise, choirs should consciously exalt the venerable liturgical texts and the music, not themselves. A step in the right direction would be to use choir lofts for their intended purpose.

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