Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
April 6, 2009
Liturgical music must reflect the singers' heart
Budding composers write music that serves the proclamation of God's word
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
CALGARY — To be liturgical music, a song must be able to be sung by the congregation and the words must reflect their heart.
Speaking to a group of aspiring liturgical composers in Calgary recently, prolific liturgical songwriter Marty Haugen says liturgical music needs to be the servant of the ritual.
“The primary musical voice at the Eucharistic celebration is the assembly, not the choir or the soloist. The congregation is doing the proclaiming of the word in song and they must feel an ownership of it.”
Haugen, composer-in-residence at Mayflower United Church of Christ in Minneapolis, and, occasionally, adjunct instructor at United Theological Seminary in New Brighton, Minn., says songs must be written from the standpoint of the assembly’s corporate voice.
To be liturgical, a song must also reflect, and be consistent with, the Scripture that is being proclaimed. It is not meant to be an expression of the thoughts or ideas of the composer, or even the person or choir singing the song.
“Music for worship has to be ‘functional’ art, rather than fine art. It has to work in the liturgical setting and it must be based on the assembly’s voice, first.”
When writing liturgically, Haugen always begins with the text, then adds the music.
“The music is there to support the text. I stay close to Scripture, using that as the starting point. The melody makes the text come alive. It can break the text open, or obscure and destroy it.”
In his earlier years, he always wrote using his guitar, but now he prefers working with a keyboard. As he writes, he sings the melody over and over, a cappella, to see if the congregation will be able to sing the song.
“If the instrument drives the melody, the congregation may not be able to sing it. If it doesn’t work a cappella, the instrument is not going to help it.”
Then when a piece is nearly complete, he leaves it and goes for a walk or engages in some other activity. He lets the whole composition sit with him for a while to see if it really works and says what he intends it to say.
“As a craft, writing is not just dependent on inspiration. Any piece of music needs to be revised and re-written to come up with the best product possible. It always needs to be worked on.”
Christine Mader, director of liturgy and adult formation for the Diocese of Calgary, the sponsors of the composers’ workshop, concurs with Haugen’s assessment of liturgical music.
As a caution to the composers, Mader advised that the requirements of the Canadian bishops’ Commission for Liturgy set limits on what is acceptable for use in the liturgy, and what might be included in any future hymnals for use in the Catholic Church in Canada.
Haugen shared his expertise and experience with more than 30 aspiring liturgical composers from across the Calgary Diocese. He gave technical pointers to nine of the participants who offered their original works for scrutiny and analysis by Haugen, Mader and their peers.
Michelle Gall, from Brooks, who is involved in music at St. Mary’s Parish, said attending the workshop and having one of her songs critiqued was worthwhile. It was encouraging for her to hear the array of work done by other composers in the diocese.
Eileen Wotschell, from Holy Family Parish in Medicine Hat, liked the setting that was informal, and not high pressure, in which to share her own composition and receive feedback.
She said the setting wasn’t like Canadian Idol with the threat of being voted out. It was an eye opener to her that songs could be re-worked, rather than accepted as the finished product immediately.
HUNGER FOR COMMUNITY
For Mark Caldwell with St. Pius X Parish in Calgary, one of the younger presenters, having the opportunity to meet with other composers was a bonus.
“Songwriting and composing can be a very solitary endeavour. I have never been involved with a group this big, discussing the craft. This only scratched the surface. I’d be interested in being part of a group of composers, to meet as a community to master our craft.”
Haugen himself says he doesn’t think of himself so much as a composer as a craftsperson.
In a career that has spanned more than 25 years, and produced over 400 compositions and more than 30 recordings, he is one of North America’s most prolific writers of liturgical music. His songs include Gather Us In, How Can I Keep From Singing? and Canticle of the Sun.
Letter to the Editor - 05/18/09