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The Wedding: How to Be a Catholic Music Patron, at Least Once

When we hear the term “music patronage,” we think of the Medicis, the Esterhazys, the Benedict XVI Institute. We don’t think of the middle class. Yet there is a form of patronage that was once so popular and extravagant that sumptuary laws were passed to regulate it, a form open to most young people and their parents, a form usually practiced with blurry intentionality, but capable of being a great force for liturgical music. I refer to weddings.

If you’re getting married or are the parent of somebody getting married, you’re going to spend money on music. Weddings can be ridiculously expensive, especially if you have a party with many guests. People will hire a band for the reception, if they can afford it, or at least a D.J., but generally don’t pay equal attention to the liturgy, even though that’s the actual “getting hitched” part, and can stay in the memory longer than the rubber chicken or the Chicken Dance. It makes sense to move some of the investment into decent music, even if it means skimping on that sixth bridesmaid. And if you aren’t getting married and have no children, you can contribute financially to somebody else’s wedding.

Let’s say the parish hosting the wedding is the Faith Community of St. Philistina, where “All Are Welcome” rotates back every six weeks. You want traditional Catholic music (not the “tradition” of the past 50 years) but have had no luck working with the pastor and the music director to make that happen.  With a wedding, that can happen at least once, because nobody wants to deny anyone (especially a bride) anything on Her Special Day, especially if that anyone is paying the bills. If you have excellent Catholic music, done well, it’s going to impress people, even those captive audience members who would never go to a good-music parish on their own. If they aren’t impressed, they’ll complain to the bride and groom, not to the pastor or music director, who thus will have no interest in fighting you.

The first thing you will need is a competent music adviser and director. That can be you, if you’re a musician. It could be the music director of the church, but be aware that not all such are created equal. If the organist has classical training, he will probably welcome the chance to do some decent music, or indeed anything out of the ordinary. If not, he’ll try to work within his comfort zone, which may not be your comfort zone. The music director might even fight you. If this is the case, you’ll need a different organist. Note that this decision is not without financial cost: churches generally change a bench fee for not using their organist. This is not just the featherbedding for the organist that it appears to be; the organist generally has to open up for rehearsals and the service, so he is actually working for the money. But it will be easier for everyone if you aren’t at loggerheads with a participant. The adviser does not have to be an organist, but can be a singer. You may choose not to use an organist at all, but it’s usual and customary, and useful for getting the wedding party on and off. Presumably, your adviser will be a performing participant and will be paid for that, but you should offer more money for his organizational time.

There are several things you will need your adviser for, even if you have clear ideas of what you want. One is his knowledge of repertoire. Chances are that he knows a lot more music than you do. If you’re doing a traditional Latin Mass, he should know the very few polyphonic settings of the propers of the Nuptial Mass, and the larger repertoire of motets on the Bible passages that the nuptial propers are taken from. If you’re doing a Novus Ordo Mass, he should know appropriate English repertoire as well and be able to navigate the various textual options of the Missal of Paul VI. Not only can he suggest pieces you may not know, but he can advise on which pieces will work together to be able to be sung by the same group of singers. For example, Renaissance music tends to be for alto/countertenor, high and low tenors, and bass, or for mixed choir in a high tessitura. You may want two pieces that can’t be successfully sung by the same group of people, in which case you will either have to hire another singer or select a different piece. He will be able to gauge how much music will be needed for a wedding Communion, how difficult the music will be to put together before the Mass, and whether an extra rehearsal will be required (which will cost more).

The other thing your music adviser can help with is procuring singers. He’ll generally know which singers in his area are good for this sort of thing. You need to favor literacy and musicianship over vocal technique and beauty, though of course you’ll need some of that as well. Your singers may miss some notes at the first run-through. They should not miss any on the second run-through, or at least be ready and able to be set straight. Do not skimp on this element; if a singer can’t solo-sing a motet part accurately, in tune, and with a pleasing tone, he is useless to you. You may be tempted to find people who will work cheap(er). You will get what you paid for, at most. If you and your adviser don’t live in the area where the wedding will take place, you’ll either have to pay transportation and time to your local singers (which gets expensive quickly) or rely on the local music director to suggest people. This may make you nervous, but it needn’t; if they’re no good, the director will look bad, so he has an interest in pointing you to the best people he can, who will in turn like that he has steered work their way.

If you want to do Renaissance polyphony, you will really need at least four singers, though by the time of Palestrina, five parts are normative. In my particular Midwest market, this will cost you about $500; count on $100–200 more if there’s a separate rehearsal. It’s not too much. But if it is? There is plenty of (mostly later than Renaissance) music for three equal voices, often accompanied. Decent music for two equal voices and organ also exists but is much scarcer. Good solo motets and Masses also exist if you can really afford only a cantor. If you must consider these lesser options, I strongly urge you to consider hiring only men. At least nine times out of ten, the cantor (more properly cantrix) in a Catholic church is female. There is barely a tradition at all of women singing the non-conventual Mass before the 20th century, and certainly not of proclaiming sacred text from the sanctuary. (The female Jewish cantorial tradition goes back to 1955 and is thus roughly contemporary with Vatican II.) I have no personal objection to a modestly dressed cantrix, if that’s the decent voice that’s available, but using men affirms tradition and also works against the notion that religion is “a women’s thing.” If a man hears men singing at Mass, he understands that it’s a man’s job and is more likely to take it on, to the benefit of volunteer choirs who are short of men.

The next problem concerns liturgical politics. If both the bride and groom are members of a Tridentine Rite community, there should be no problem. There aren’t a whole lot of options: you have perhaps a prelude, music to bring the wedding party in, the Ordinary and Propers and a few motets, a Latin hymn, or organ music for the Offertory and Communion. It’s fairly hard to go wrong. If all you have is Gregorian chant, people will either think you have good taste but are poor or admire your noble simplicity, and anything you do above and beyond redounds to your glory. You might raise a few eyebrows by the ostentation of programming Striggio’s 40-voice Mass or a Viennese orchestral Mass, but nobody will really be offended.

Then there is the Novus Ordo, the rite in which most weddings occur and where your musical demonstration of Tradition can do the most good. Many, maybe most Catholics are still bought in to the Vatican II liturgical paradigm as they have come to understand it. The key concept is “full, active, conscious participation” in the post-conciliar understanding, which is “sing everything, do everything, understand everything.”  People by and large will not go to bat for post–Vatican 2 music. Oh, they might have a personal connection to some hymn or Mass setting, but that’s just sentimentality. They will, however, go to bat for singing the Ordinary, or for English. (If the groom strongly advocates for the typical missalette repertoire in general, Bridedaddy might want to hire a detective to make sure that his future son-in-law doesn’t have a history in Castro Street bars.)

The bride is in the stronger position here, since the wedding is traditionally the responsibility of her family, and because “Bridezilla” is a concept with referents in the real world. Of course, the couple should be of one mind about their wedding and its music. As a friend once said, “I knew it wouldn’t work between you two; you don’t listen to the same music.” If a couple can work out any aesthetic disagreements here, it bodes well for their future marital happiness and ability to deal with serious problems. If the groom or his family advocates for more elaborate music than the bride’s family is interested in, he should offer to pay the added expense; unfunded mandates are no way to start a lifelong relationship. In any case, whoever is advocating for traditional music at Mass should be well acquainted with Church teaching on the subject, especially Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Vatican II document on the liturgy.

People accept that wedding music is special, and there to be heard, and might not be in English. If the in-laws are a little weird, hey, it’s their day, and we don’t have to do this every Sunday. If you provide translations of the texts, people will be put at ease. And this is going to be very beautiful, and beauty evangelizes.

In conclusion, what have you accomplished for yourself through your patronage? You’ve established that you are Very Catholic (whether you’re particularly devout or not) and that you have exquisite taste and have the generosity to share it with people. More importantly, what have you accomplished for the Church? You’ve affirmed that Latin is the language of the Church and Gregorian chant is its music; that men can sing, too; that one sings the Mass instead of singing at Mass by using texts proper to a specific Mass; that the Church has a patrimony of gorgeous music that is relevant today; and that nothing is too good for Our Lord. You’ve nudged the Overton Window of liturgical music a hair, making it easier for the next person to implement positive musical change in his parish. Even Susan from the Parish Council might admit that the music at Teresa’s wedding was really nice, and we could have something like that once a year.

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