Communion Songs

Well it does to the people who post here... dispassionate and reasoned debate, with a good deal of humour thrown in for good measure.

Moderators: Dom Perignon, Casimir

User avatar
Nick Baty
Posts: 2178
Joined: Sat Jul 22, 2006 11:27 am
Parish / Diocese: Formerly Our Lady Immaculate, Everton, Liverpool
Contact:

Communion Songs

Post by Nick Baty »

I have something of a thing about Communion Processionals – if they can be described as “A Thing”. And I’m just fact-checking here. Comments and discussion more than welcome.

From what I know about music during the Communion procession:
• Psalms in early centuries
• Later antiphon and psalm
• Somewhere between 10th and 14th centuries, the psalm verses fell out of use, leaving just the antiphons.
• Many of antiphons became polyphonic choral pieces up to the 19th century and into more recent times.
• By 1969/1970, the antiphon had become something which was said (usually by the priest) if there was no singing.
• 1970s/80s: Communion hymns began to take hold.
• 1981: Bishops of England and Wales mention a Communion “processional”, with a refrain “sung easily by everyone” and verses by the choir.
• 1997: In “Singing the Mass”, bishops mention that, during Communion, “a song is sung” but make no reference to genre.
• 2005: The bishops say the “Communion Song” should begin straight after “Lord I am not worthy…” and continue until everyone has received Communion.

And this last bit tends to be my usual practice – it works and helps create a silence after Communion. But I’m beginning to realise that this is not wide-spread practice. Is this because it’s not well-known or many parishes would find it difficult to do?
High Peak
Posts: 200
Joined: Wed Apr 09, 2014 10:49 pm
Parish / Diocese: Diocese of Nottingham
Location: Derbyshire

Re: Communion Songs

Post by High Peak »

It's certainly not well known, from what I can tell. Before I was aware of Communion Songs I was never comfortable with hymn singing during the Communion Procession - I find it intrusive to be expected to open my hymnal and certainly can not do that when actually going up to receive. I began to introduce Communion Songs at the Masses for which I have responsibility and, after a while, asked some people in the pews what they thought of them. One answer was telling: "They're okay, but I prefer the traditional hymns." Of the four or five other churches that I sometimes visit, not one makes use of a Communion Song.

I suspect, also, that several places lack resources. I am fortunate enough to call on up to three Cantors who can lead a Communion Song but the leader at another Mass has no Cantors/Psalmists to call on.
Hare
Posts: 622
Joined: Fri Jun 18, 2004 12:12 pm
Parish / Diocese: Angouleme Diocese, France.

Re: Communion Songs

Post by Hare »

At my last gaff I used to play an organ piece (always chosen and prepared) until the choir and/or cantor(s) had been for Communion. We would then have the "song" - usually with a refrain, but sometimes a hymn - as the last few rows of the assembly went for Communion.
Southern Comfort
Posts: 1994
Joined: Sat Feb 23, 2008 12:31 pm

Re: Communion Songs

Post by Southern Comfort »

GIRM 86:
While the Priest is receiving the Sacrament, the Communion Chant is begun, its purpose being to express the spiritual union of the
communicants by means of the unity of their voices, to show gladness of heart, and to bring out more clearly the ‘communitarian’ character
of the procession to receive the Eucharist. The singing is prolonged for as long as the Sacrament is being administered to the faithful.
However, if there is to be a hymn after Communion, the Communion Chant should be ended in a timely manner.
Care should be taken that singers, too, can receive Communion with ease.
Comments:

(1) The Communion Song begins "While the Priest is receiving", not some time after, and "is prolonged for as long as the Sacrament is being administered to the faithful". This means that this song is the ritual accompaniment to a liturgical action, the receiving of Communion, first by the priest, then by all. It's not an optional add-on.

(2) The fact that at the beginning of Communion for a while the people are "captives" in their pews means that they have nothing else to do except sing!

(3) The Latin cantus is here translated as "Chant", but actually just means "a thing that is sung", so "song" is perfectly acceptable as a term.

(4) The theological rationale is the expression of the "spiritual union of the communicants by means of the unity of their voices" — in other words, everyone is supposed to be part of the singing, not just a cantor or choir. This doesn't mean that everyone has to be singing all the time, but it does mean that everyone needs to be engaged in vocal participation.

(5) The reason for this is that Communion is precisely that: Com-union, something that we all do together as a celebrating body. It's not an individual "me and Jesus" time, but rather a communal "we and Jesus" time.

(6) Traditional hymns do not fit well here. It's difficult to receive Communion with a hymnbook tucked under your arm, particularly when it comes to Communion from the chalice. It's also more difficult to be visually aware of the communal action that's taking place when you have your head buried in a hymnbook in the procession. That's why composers, following the antiphon + psalm format of the Missal, have been providing Communion songs with refrains for everyone, easily memorizable refrains that don't require the carrying of books or pieces of paper.

(7) From a ritual point of view, the Communion Song is a processional. It accompanies the one procession that most or all of us can take part in, the only procession with this character in the Roman Rite (in all the others, a few people process but the majority remain in their places, hopefully following the procession with their eyes and their heart). The music that accompanies it is what makes it a procession, rather than a silent queue. Once the congregation understands that, they are much more likely to enter into the singing.

(8) It needs to be "walking music". Many people are under the impression that because a Communion psalm has the same kind of form as the Responsorial Psalm, the two are interchangeable. But one is sung while processing, the other while people are sitting down. It makes (or should make) a difference to the kind of music you use.

(9) So — when can the choir sing their Ave verum or whatever? The best place is during the presentation of the gifts and the preparation of the altar, a natural scene-shift between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

(10) If the musicians start the Communion Song while the priest is receiving and continue it until everyone has received, when do the musicians receive? At the end, which of course has the side-effect of producing the silence for thanksgiving and reflection that we are always asking for. The role of musicians during the distribution of Communion is to support the sung prayer of the people. By receiving at the end, they show that they are true ministers of music. Musicians who receive at the beginning of Communion leaving the congregation in silence accompanied by shuffling feet are not fulfilling a ministerial role. Background organ (or choral) music is really not much more than "liturgical wallpaper" and not what the rite expects will be happening.

(11) Comments so far indicate that Communion Songs are seen as rare birds in parishes. In my experience, this is not the case, and most of the parishes that I see do have a Communion Song or hymn. Alas, many of them don't begin it until the servers and musicians have received.

(12) One logistical problem, already referred to above, is what happens if there is no cantor or choir to keep the song going during the time of distribution? What sort of music should one use? Tribal hymns like "Soul of my Saviour" that people can sing from memory? Taizé chants (though without verses these can become somewhat tedious) ?

(13) GIRM 86 refers to a "hymn after Communion". GIRM 88 elaborates on this: "When the distribution of Communion is over, if appropriate, the Priest and faithful pray quietly for some time. If desired, a Psalm or other canticle of praise or a hymn may also be sung by the whole congregation." I have found in practice that beginning this canticle or hymn after Communion towards the end of the time of distribution can work well (most people are back in their places and ready to sing more lustily), and can generate a good silence while the "clearing up" is going on and the musicians are receiving. [Often in the US, but also occasionally in the UK, there is also the practice of the choir singing a "Communion Meditation" after the distribution is over. This is not what the rite calls for — what happens after Communion "may be sung by the whole congregation" — and feels a bit like entertainment while the choir shows off.]

(14) GIRM 87 does refer to the possibility of using music from the Graduale Romanum and Simplex. With the former, the choir only would sing, which contradicts the theological rationale set out in GIRM 86 which calls for everyone to be involved with the singing. Here, it is good to be aware of internal contradictions in GIRM. These came about because the theological rationale was drafted first, and was then added to by others with, shall we say, a more retrogressive agenda. Thus GIRM 86 came first, and 87 was added later, in the same way as GIRM 47 came first and 48 later. There are several other examples, too.
User avatar
Nick Baty
Posts: 2178
Joined: Sat Jul 22, 2006 11:27 am
Parish / Diocese: Formerly Our Lady Immaculate, Everton, Liverpool
Contact:

Re: Communion Songs

Post by Nick Baty »

Excellent and thorough reply from SC, as usual.
Southern Comfort wrote: Wed Apr 20, 2022 9:31 am One logistical problem, already referred to above, is what happens if there is no cantor or choir to keep the song going during the time of distribution?
With the exception of the Cantor, our musicians receive with everyone else and, therefore, help to lead the singing within the procession. The cantor then receives at the end as the others repeat the refrain two or three times.Of course, we never know exactly how long Communion will take which means being aware of what's going on.
alan29
Posts: 1225
Joined: Fri May 27, 2005 8:04 pm
Location: Wirral

Re: Communion Songs

Post by alan29 »

With a mixed band of musicians it is possible to stagger communion so that instrumental support is always there. With a solitary organist the choices are limited to some unaccompanied singing, or a non communicating organist. Neither are ideal.
A modern song with a strong memorable refrain is easier for processing communicants than a trad hymn. But I wouldn't underestimate the ability of people to recall well known hymns if there is a strong vocal lead.
Hare
Posts: 622
Joined: Fri Jun 18, 2004 12:12 pm
Parish / Diocese: Angouleme Diocese, France.

Re: Communion Songs

Post by Hare »

I chose not to communicate to avoid shuffling silences
Hare
Posts: 622
Joined: Fri Jun 18, 2004 12:12 pm
Parish / Diocese: Angouleme Diocese, France.

Re: Communion Songs

Post by Hare »

alan29 wrote: Wed Apr 20, 2022 4:23 pm With a mixed band of musicians it is possible to stagger communion so that instrumental support is always there. With a solitary organist the choices are limited to some unaccompanied singing, or a non communicating organist. Neither are ideal.
A modern song with a strong memorable refrain is easier for processing communicants than a trad hymn. But I wouldn't underestimate the ability of people to recall well known hymns if there is a strong vocal lead.
Out of curiosity, what is actually "less than ideal" about a non-communicating organist" ?
alan29
Posts: 1225
Joined: Fri May 27, 2005 8:04 pm
Location: Wirral

Re: Communion Songs

Post by alan29 »

Hare wrote: Sun Apr 24, 2022 5:04 pm
alan29 wrote: Wed Apr 20, 2022 4:23 pm With a mixed band of musicians it is possible to stagger communion so that instrumental support is always there. With a solitary organist the choices are limited to some unaccompanied singing, or a non communicating organist. Neither are ideal.
A modern song with a strong memorable refrain is easier for processing communicants than a trad hymn. But I wouldn't underestimate the ability of people to recall well known hymns if there is a strong vocal lead.
Out of curiosity, what is actually "less than ideal" about a non-communicating organist" ?
Well, if the organist is a parishioner, they might well want to communicate along with their friends. That would be my situation.
Hare
Posts: 622
Joined: Fri Jun 18, 2004 12:12 pm
Parish / Diocese: Angouleme Diocese, France.

Re: Communion Songs

Post by Hare »

Fair enough. I just accepted that in my last situation, it was impracticable without leaving a shuffling hiatus!

Where I attend Mass now, the choir and organist go first, with the congregation following closely in a rush to get out after receiving, so most of the Communion time is just a shuffle with the song at the end. Not good.
User avatar
keitha
Posts: 361
Joined: Mon Jan 19, 2009 7:23 pm

Re: Communion Songs

Post by keitha »

It's particularly difficult where, as at our church, the organ and cantors are on a 'West' gallery with a long spiral staircase. In the end, having tried all the options discussed here, we decided to continue the Communion Chant until we are as far advanced as possible then head down to receive Holy Communion as fast as is possible. That enables there to be a sacred silence without significant foot shuffling being heard which continues until the ablutions start, at which point we have the thanksgiving hymn. It seems to work at the moment, but we are only receiving under one kind and we may need a rethink when receiving under both kinds comes back and we have a choir again. I suspect we will continue what we do now.
Keith Ainsworth
Southern Comfort
Posts: 1994
Joined: Sat Feb 23, 2008 12:31 pm

Re: Communion Songs

Post by Southern Comfort »

One of the sacrifices that organists are called upon to make to fulfil their ministerial role during the distribution of Communion is being unable to receive Communion themselves. It goes with the territory.

Sometimes it arises from a lack of thoughtfulness on the part of the ministers, who overlook the fact that the organist may need to have Communion brought to them. Sometimes it happens because distributing ministers look only to the front and not to the sides. There have been occasions when I have slipped off the organ bench at the end of Communion and approached from the side, only to see the distributing party swing round, turn their backs to me and retreat back into the sanctuary. When that happens, I simply retreat myself, rather than causing any embarrassament to the people.

In response to keitha's comment, I would say that having the choir descend a long spiral staircase and then troop up to Communion is far more distracting to the rest of the congregation than if a minister of Communion were to ascend to the choir loft and distribute Communion unobtrusively up there.

And combining these two thoughts together, I remember an occasion when, playing for a diocesan liturgy, up in a loft, far away from congregation, choir and people, I suddenly became aware of the Bishop himself standing next to me, waiting quietly to give me Communion when the music had ended.
User avatar
keitha
Posts: 361
Joined: Mon Jan 19, 2009 7:23 pm

Re: Communion Songs

Post by keitha »

I agree with SC - choirs descending stairs can be a noisy distraction, but at our place sound doesn't travel much from the spiral staircase, but we will be keeping an eye on it.

Continuing the 'organist and Communion' reminiscing, on more than one occasion another organist has kindly swapped places with me mid-communion hymn so that we were both able to receive, but keep the music. going. I rather suspect/hope that no-one noticed as I slid off one end of the bench and my substitute slid on at the other end... :D
Keith Ainsworth
alan29
Posts: 1225
Joined: Fri May 27, 2005 8:04 pm
Location: Wirral

Re: Communion Songs

Post by alan29 »

Are there any other ministers at the eucharist who are expected to forgo communion?
User avatar
keitha
Posts: 361
Joined: Mon Jan 19, 2009 7:23 pm

Re: Communion Songs

Post by keitha »

I have to say that no-one has ever expected me to forego Communion - I suspect it's simply that on occasions it gets forgotten or something like what happened to SC happens. Many clergy have made efforts to ensure that I can go. My all time winner was when I was playing an 'away gig' and I jumped in shock as someone suddenly leaned over me while I was playing...it was a deacon trying to give me Communion mid-hymn!
Keith Ainsworth
Post Reply