What should we be singing at Mass?

This article is taken from ‘St Mungo’s Music’ – Liturgical Music in the Archdiocese of Glasgow, Summer 2014 – 2015


It may seem difficult to imagine, but until 1958, only ‘High Mass’ was sung. This was sung in Latin, using mainly Gregorian chant and tones. These Masses were celebrated in monasteries, cathedrals and in those parishes where the requisite skills existed, and then only on Sundays and Feast Days. In most parishes, however, what used to be called ‘Low Mass’ was celebrated in Latin with no singing; the congregation were in attendance but not actively participating. Hymns were only used at other liturgies, such as Benediction and Novenas.

However, in September 1958, Pope Pius XII, to enable congregations to take a more active part, encouraged hymns in the vernacular to be sung during Mass where they were appropriate for a particular part of the Mass. Later in the 1960’s the Second Vatican Council reformed the liturgy. The terms ‘High Mass’ and ‘Low Mass’ disappeared and since it would take time for parishes to create repertoires of Mass parts, with Introits, psalms, Gospel verses and Communion songs as well, parishes were encouraged to use hymns for certain parts of the mass. Very soon the Entrance Hymn replaced the Introit, the Offertory Hymn replaced the Offertory Verse, the Communion Hymn replaced the Communion Song and a Recessional Hymn appeared which, strictly speaking, is not part of the Mass at all, as Mass ends with the dismissal and “Thanks be to God!”


The 4 hymn sandwich

Thus the so-called “four-hymn sandwich” Mass which many parishes have inherited (ie the singing of four hymns but little or no singing of the liturgical parts) arose out of the pastoral efforts made in response to people’s need to take part more fully and the Church’s recognition that they had a right to do so. Unfortunately, little or no account was taken of the overall requirement that the singing of the liturgical parts of the Mass should take precedence, and there weren’t enough settings of the Mass parts in 1965 anyway!

A further complication lay not just in what should be sung, but in the form that singing should take. The Vatican Council showed respect for the beautiful music of the past – in plainsong and in classical polyphony – but it also led the national Conferences of Bishops to consider whether they should lead their churches into the vernacular. This was not as outrageous a change as it is sometimes thought to be, because Latin was a vernacular language when it became the language of our worship in the West in the 3rd and 4th centuries. The adoption of English by the National Conferences of Bishops of the English speaking world, including that of Scotland, 50 years ago, had inevitable consequences: first of all, there would be less Latin in our worship, therefore less music in Latin and less Gregorian chant! Secondly, music would be needed in the vernacular – and this would take time to create and acquire, and then to be introduced to congregations with their own expectations and cultures! After 50 years we have much to be glad about, but much still to improve and build on. ‘Full, conscious, active participation’ is not a hard and fast template to be imposed, but an ideal conscientiously to be worked towards.

The reduced demand for – not elimination of – Gregorian chant has perhaps prompted many musicians to realize that the value of that tradition arguably lay as much in the stylistic characteristics (which could equally be transferred to composing for the vernacular) as in the repertoire:
music at the service of the words and respecting the normal word accent; melodies set in the middle register of the voice with almost no difficult intervals; free rhythmic simplicity corresponding to the demands of the words and phrases.
Of course, Plainsong is not just a method – it is also a very substantial repertoire of music for prayer, and it does suit some specific communities. The delight that the monks of Pluscarden show in their singing Plainsong is an expression of their sense that what they are singing helps them to pray, to be with God. How they are singing in prayer is unlikely to be best suited to the average parish of ‘St Whoever’ in the city, town or village of ‘Whatever’, but it is a pointer for us to remember that what and how we sing is supposed to be tailored to the needs of particular local communities.


What to sing

The Mass has a rich variety of movements, types of prayers, gestures, and actions.
When we consider that the average attention span of people – including ourselves – is quite limited, then we should perhaps acknowledge Mass is very skillfully designed 
with standing, sitting, kneeling, bowing, entering as individuals or family groups, and processing at Communion as ‘church’ . . . .
with speaking in dialogue, reciting, singing, listening and responding . . . . . . .all aimed at getting attention, keeping attention, facilitating participation, and encouraging people to feel and mean what they are being asked to say or sing.
It is so structured that there are parts for a Celebrant, Servers, Readers, Eucharistic Ministers, Singers, Choir, Cantor, Psalmist, and people to bring up the gifts of bread and wine, and for such a complex service there is the presumption that there will have been cleaners, flower arrangers, welcomers and so on. When there aren’t enough readers, singers and musicians etc we need to simplify it – one size doesn’t necessarily fit all!

Music wise: There are different types of songs, different tones and moods for the various parts of the Mass that are to be sung. Some parts of the Mass are more central and important than others and they should be given priority:

1 The Four Acclamations
A) Alleluia or Gospel Acclamation
B) The Preface Dialogue and the Holy, Holy, Holy C) the memorial acclamation of faith;
D) the Great Amen.

2 The Responsorial Psalm
This should always be sung. The assembly should sing the refrain. The cantor sings the psalm and delivers the response in such a way as to encourage the congregation to respond after each verse.
There may be occasions when the use of a metrical psalm will commend itself – not too often because musically it can become ‘just another hymn.’ And, acting on the principle that half a glass of water is better than no water, we might in an emergency use a hymn securely based on a psalm – but we need to be clear that a psalm, while it may be arranged in the musical style of a hymn, is not a hymn and is the word of God, while a hymn, however worthy, is not the ‘word of God’ in the same sense.

3 The Processional Songs or chants
The Introit or Entry Song and the Communion Song are ‘very important for creating and sustaining an awareness of community.’
Too often we simply use a hymn which is 
vaguely suitable but is invariably too long!
The General Instruction lists 4 choices:
1) the antiphon from the Roman Missal 
or the psalm from the Roman Gradual. 2) the seasonal antiphon and psalm of the Simple Gradual 3) a song from another collection of psalms and antiphons approved by the Conference of Bishops 4) a suitable liturgical song approved by the Conference of Bishops. (General Instruction on the Roman Missal no 48; for choices for Communion no 87.) Unfortunately, not all the material recommended from the Roman Missal and Gradual and the Simple Gradual is yet available, and what is available is of a very uneven quality.
Introits in chant style can be attractive but the free rhythm of prose can be difficult for congregations to get used to, though where there is a will, there often is a way! However, an Introit or Entry Song with a suitable text, a clearly defined melody, and set mainly in the middle register has the distinct advantage of being designed to be accessible. Examples can be found on the web – including at stmungomusic.org under Mass settings, then under Introits.
It should go without saying that there are many occasions when a well chosen hymn will be the best choice, but it shouldn’t outstay its welcome – it is introductory and should not hold back the smooth progress of the rest of the liturgy.

4 The Kyrie, the Gloria, the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed:
These parts can be sung as the occasion suggests, and particularly with the Kyrie and Gloria music can add a lot of feeling. Sometimes it is practical to sing the opening of the Gloria and speak the rest.

5 Supplementary songs during the Preparation of the Gifts, after Communion and at the end of Mass – these are the least significant and often the least useful!

6 Litany forms: the Penitential Rite, the Prayer of the Faithful and the Lamb of God.
Music can add a lot of feeling to the appeal for mercy and peace, and since they are set in litany form they are very easy to sing.!