Composer Peter Togni suggests that further musical adaptations of the liturgy might draw more from Gregorian chant.


Composer Peter Togni suggests that further musical adaptations of the liturgy might draw more from Gregorian chant.

September 17, 2012

Sept. 25, 2011 marked the launch of the newly minted musical settings that followed the complete liturgical overhaul of the Roman Missal.

In parishes across Canada, congregants were greeted with the small, floppy Celebrate in Song hymnal - a book that contains three freshly commissioned musical settings of the Mass.

Much like the often overlapping of the spoken "and with your spirit" with the erstwhile "and also with you," the musical settings presented congregants with a fresh challenge - adapting responses that had been previously learned by rote to a completely different, and sometimes complex, vocal line.

"I think that for people, change is death. Change is a metaphor for death. Nobody likes change," said Peter Togni.

Togni is one of Canada's most noted composers, and his choral works are heard in parishes across the world. Having set the Mass to music before, Togni provides an interesting view on the music to which Catholics are still adapting.

"I think the language that they're using, in many cases, is more elegant and more directly translated from the original Latin, which goes back to what Paul VI really wanted," said Togni.

"But, I understand the paradox, because in some ways there's kind of a wooden link to Latin for some people - the sacralization of Latin, almost, just for its own sake and I understand that this gets in the way of ecumenism for some people.

"But, from an artistic standpoint, setting the text to those words is in some ways easier and prettier, you know? 'Lord, God of Hosts' is easier than 'Lord, God of Power and Might.' I like that from a purely artistic standpoint."


However, despite the poetry, there is an imperfect synthesis of text and music which undermines the participation of the congregation.

"One of them that I've heard, I find very awkward," said Togni. "In the congregation that I go to now, the congregation doesn't sing very much with one of the Mass parts because there's so much for them to do that I find it's overwhelming for them.

"I think it's the integration with the music and that text," Togni said. "I think different composers might have done different things with that text. Not that the text is perfect."

Looking forward, Togni suggests that perhaps the music will adopt a more Gregorian tradition and create a solid chant-like structure that would accommodate and highlight textual changes.

"Even if you read the Vatican documents, the chant is supposed to have lots of room. We had an opportunity to write an English setting that I think could have been more people friendly and more chant-like," said Togni.

He sees some successes. In particular, the Lamb of God by composer Geoffrey Angeles has been well received by congregations that Togni has witnessed and has been musically well executed.

Perhaps the root of any musical problem in the liturgy lies with a lagging musical culture in the Catholic tradition.

"Church choir attendance is getting smaller and smaller and smaller, in some places," said Togni.


"We're not a singing people. We're just not. . . . I think we need to find a Mass setting that's more people friendly, melodically; simpler rhythmically."

Another factor of the tradition that could be remedied is a less performance-like aspect to the melodic line, which would allow the cantor to interact more with the congregants, he said.

"It's just so much easier. If you're going to have the entire text, then you better make it singer friendly, and it's not."

Hopefully, the new settings will entrench themselves in the musical tradition. That, or adapt to what the congregants need. "It doesn't sound like an entirely successful experiment, artistically, so far. Not yet."