Friday, June 05, 2009

Female Cantors?

The other day I overheard someone (who shall remain nameless to protect the innocent) say that female cantors were not welcome at the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, even if the female cantor could do all the propers for the Mass and thus provide for a sung/high Mass. At the time, and since it wasn't my conversation, I let the observation slide, but it has resurfaced to bother me, like a splinter that goes in at the ball of your foot but later erupts through your toe. That really happened to someone I know, by the way. I digress. The main question is whether this statement, that it is better to have no music at all (i.e. to have a low mass) rather than succumb to the snare of a female cantor, no matter how good she may be, is correct. What is the feeling on all-women's choirs singing for the TLM? And if both women cantors and women choirs are to be shunned, how is this not simply misogyny and stuffiness of the worst degree? :-)


The Black Fox said...

Well the argument could be made that convents are an extraordinary case, and the exception to the rule. I daresay you may find female sacristans, etc here as well, but normally, from a traditional standpoint, you would not find female "lectors" and sacristans, and any other positions generally fulfilled by men, whether they be seminarians or boys in the parish, a sexton, etc outside of convents.

I would say then, the convent argument is moot.

I do not believe there is a vocational precedent set for cantors at Mass, ie., priests are men because Christ chose twelve male apostles as His first priests, and altar boys are male because they have been traditionally seminarians who are preparing for the priesthood, and boys outside of seminary are used there along a similar vein, and again the male tradition is held within the deaconite, for similar reasons.

Cantors, rather, come down to a chant tradition, and not upon a ministerial vocational precedent implemented by Our Lord. Our Lord did not have 12 apostles and a male cantor, as did Robin Hood in the Quest for the Holy Grail.

Polyphony, written for three to four voices or more, is generally presumed to include the female voice--perhaps the case can be historically made that boys' choirs fulfilled the higher ranges in olden times; I would not know off the top of my head if that were a universal tradition, but surely often enough the case--but that I believe would be a parallel argument at best, as polyphony does not require the use of a cantor. Perhaps the case could be made against women in polyphonic choirs, but the fact remains we have today, as a rule, accepted their use without a problem.

Chant, however, is a different beast.

It really depends on the angle at which you approach it. If we consider our "in parish" experience to draw on the traditions of monastic chant, from whence we traditionally draw on an all male schola, perhaps there is a case to be made that we can just as well draw on the convent tradition, or that of Hildegard Von Bingen. Unless we adhere to the premise that the convent is the exception to the rule, and the exception stays where the exception is valid.

Frankly, I'm leaning toward that view now, as I was not when I began this comment. Why? Well simply, it is too easy from people of the musical world to focus solely on the music aspect. The clarity and angelic beauty of a woman's voice in song would seem simply dark and chauvinistic to ban from the musical compliment to the Holy Sacrifice.

The Black Fox said...

However, if we consider *what* the propers are, we may very well have the basic, and only, concrete argument against the woman cantor, one I doubt which the original commenter who spurred the creation of this post would have considered.

The propers are the prayers of the priest. If it is not appropriate to have a woman pray the prayers of the priest at Mass as a priest, why would it suddenly be appropriate to repeat them in song for all to hear at Mass? What is the difference then, of the priest intoning the Credo, or a female cantor intoning it? It is indeed traditional, that within the liturgy, mimicking the apostles, all "leadership" roles within the liturgy are fulfilled by men. Die-hard scholas wear cassocks and surplices to reflect the vocational connection of the very words they sing; outside the monastery, chant would be sung by seminarians--lay groups came at a much later time. I would say then, it is not far-fetched, but reasonable to believe that repeating the priestly prayers in voice loud enough that all may hear, is only appropriately sung by a male cantor. The singing of the prayers is not for the priest, but to beautifully impart to the faithful gathered for Mass--who cannot hear the words of the priest being spoken quickly and quietly in the sanctuary--what their alter-Christus is praying on their behalf.

So, no one wants to be chauvinist. (I hope.) But one really has to consider how traditional they are and where they want to draw the line. If you want to mix and match in the modern world, well outside of anything actually forbidden, sinful, or scandalous, I guess it doesn't really matter. If you are looking to be die-hard traditional in the sense of each person's role in the liturgy is specifically symbolic with traditional significance, you are going to have to treat male cantors as the rule, and females as the exception (but not forbidden) rule.

Frankly, I prefer low Mass myself. Singing is for the birds.

Joe said...

Great thoughts, Jonathan.

As this involves the Tridentine Mass, I'll not give much consideration to legislation that deals principally with the Novus Ordo, as the application of that legislation to the former rite is rather hard to pin down.

The reason for the Church's frowning upon women cantors is due to the fact that the cantor or schola has a real liturgical office. This particular office, as is understood by the Church, can only be fulfilled by men. When Pius X wrote his motu proprio on Sacred Music, he observed: "On the same principle it follows that singers in church have a real liturgical office, and that therefore women, being incapable of exercising such office, cannot be admitted to form part of the choir." He later goes on to note that because this is a liturgical office, it is fitting that the schola or choir should be dressed in a form of ecclesiastical habit.

This was later mitigated by the Sacred Congregation of Rites which allowed for mixed choirs when there was an impossibility of having the necessary parts otherwise. (Pius XII: "Where it is impossible to have schools of singers or where there are not enough choir boys, it is allowed that 'a group of men and women or girls, located in a place outside the sanctuary set apart for the exclusive use of this group, can sing the liturgical texts at Solemn Mass, as long as the men are completely separated from the women and girls and everything unbecoming is avoided. The Ordinary is bound in conscience in this matter.')

However, this raises a question that I really wonder about. As Pius X teaches, it is not that women are forbidden to fulfill the liturgical office, it is that they are incapable of doing so. Does this mean that a men's schola and a women's schola actually serve different purposes? Does one connect deeply with the liturgy in a sort of quasi-clerical manner, and the other serve as a sort of gloss on the currently read liturgical text? It seems that is the only way the mitigation would have been possible. Any thoughts there?

lover of beauty said...

I suppose it might be helpful, for the purpose of continuing this conversation, if we were to have a church definition of the liturgical function of the cantor/schola. Joe, can you post such? Frankly, I am in favor of Jonathan's argument, namely that the propers are the prayers of the priest, acting as an "alter Christus", and as such, should not be sung by women. Otherwise, it would seem as if Pius X and others of the same outlook would simply be saying that women are incapable of praying as well as men, which is a manifestly false and stupid assertion, insulting to women, and insulting to the intelligence of Pius X, if we were to maintain he had said as much.

The Black Fox said...

Cool information Joe, very enlightening.

healthily sanguine said...

To sum up, those who would prefer not to have a female schola at the Tridentine Mass rest on the backing of much of the Church's tradition in seeing the choir as having a liturgical or at least quasi-liturgical function. However, Joe's supposition that it's hard to pin down how newer legislation applies to the old mass notwithstanding, the instruction Musicam Sacram (1967) states, "The choir can consist, according to the customs of each country and other circumstances, of either men and boys, or men and boys only, or men and women, or even, where there is a genuine case for it, of women only." I quote this here merely to interject that the Church's tradition, and our understanding of it, can occasionally unfold in new ways, especially with regard to disciplinary matters. Without insulting the intelligence of Pope St. Pius X, or of any other person, I don't consider the choir as having anything of a clerical function, first simply from never having experienced it that way (either as a chorister or in the pews) and second because, growing up after the liturgical reforms, I never received such an idea as part of my catechesis (until the other day!). Obviously, the question of whether/how/why Musicam Sacram and other post-conciliar liturgical instruction, applies to the 1962 Missal as allowed for by Pope Benedict's Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum is a separate discussion, which better educated minds than my own would be more qualified to evaluate. Nevertheless, I think that there can be a harmonious conjunction of older and newer instructions, which perhaps may include an allowance for a women's schola or woman cantor, when needed.