choosing music

I was talking with a friend on Monday night—an excellent bass whom I’d like to pull into the schola—about what sort of music we’ll be singing. I’ve been musing on the topic and will try to give you the nutshell version of my thoughts.

The blurbs I’ve been publishing say the schola will sing Gregorian chant (aka “plainsong”) and polyphony. But that’s not really very specific. The primary framework for my music decisions is the Mass: the proper texts for the Mass, the Scriptures for a specific Mass, and finally, the liturgical season.

What are the propers? These are settings of very specific scriptural texts for each Mass and feast day, as presented in the Graduale Romanum, or Roman Gradual. The propers may also be found in the Gregorian Missal, which has the virtue of offering English translations (for comprehension, not for singing).

The propers are not songs to sing at Mass—they are the Mass, an integral part of the liturgy.

Of course, if you’ve gone to Mass in the past 40 or 50 years, you could be forgiven for not knowing that.

The propers consist of an Introit (traveling music for the priest, deacon, and servers at the beginning of Mass); a Gradual (what we ought to be singing between the first and second readings at Mass); a Tract, which precedes the Gospel; an Offertory; and a Communio, which begins after the priest consumes the sacred species.

The propers as found in the Gradual or the Gregorian Missal are all in chant notation. But hundreds (probably thousands) of polyphonic settings of the propers also exist.

The ideal music to sing at Mass is some version of the proper texts—the chants or polyphonic settings or both. Moreover, if we had to choose between beautiful music with unworthy text and mediocre music with text that is theologically and scripturally sound, my vote is for the latter.

Fortunately, we won’t have to sing mediocre music because much of the finest music ever written employs the text of the propers, which comes straight from the Scriptures.

The point I’m trying to make—albeit in a very windy way—is that text matters. I’m not averse to singing modern polyphony. A number of composers—including my friend Jim Carlson—are creating settings of fitting texts.

I have copies of some things I’m itching to try. So—in answer to my friend David—as often as possible we’ll be singing the propers of the Mass: chant and polyphony, whether the latter is 500 years old or brand new. By the way—if you want to see the propers for any given Sunday or feast and you don’t have a copy of the Graduale, visit and click on the appropriate day.