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Location of the Choir

Date: October 30, 2021
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I am relatively new in the Catholic faith, and it would be my desire to learn the right things from the word go. I recently found myself confused regarding the location of the choir with respect to the ambo and the sanctuary. The information I've heard doesn't have historical backing. It keeps changing, and I wish for some clarity on this issue. -- A.N., Nairobi, Kenya

A: Since the Church’s liturgical practice has suffered many, albeit gradual, changes over the centuries, it is not surprising that historical information might seem patchy and confusing.

First, we need to clarify the terms. Choir can signify several related but distinct realities both as a group of people and as a location within a church building.

With respect to the members of a choir, it can refer to an entire community of monks or nuns who together chant the Divine Office and the Mass liturgy. It can also refer to a group of clerics, usually called canons, who recite the liturgy together in major churches such as cathedrals and basilicas.

Finally, it can refer to a group of cantors, lay or clerical, who sing more complex settings at solemn liturgies or who support the singing of the assembly. This last meaning is the one we usually use today when we refer to the choir, although the others still exist.

Historically, the choirs were sometimes composed of men and boys and sometimes of male and female singers. In the early 20th century a papal decree attempted to forbid mixed choirs, but it was never fully implemented, and today most liturgical choirs are mixed.

The location of the choir has changed over time, based on what kind of choir it was, the kind of music used, the concept of the choir’s role, and the manner of liturgical celebrations.

Thus, we find various historical locations for the choir. In religious communities and cathedrals, the choir is often arranged in choir stalls before or even behind the high altar. These are often richly decorated and are separated in some way from the body of the church. In some countries, notably in Spanish cathedrals, the choir is almost a building within the building and was reserved for the canons with the people gathered outside.

The other form of choir has also found several locations. At first, the choir supported the peoples singing the Mass texts and were located close to the congregation to carry out this role.

However, as the music for the proper liturgical texts became increasingly complex the choir took over this role from the seventh century onward. Gradually the choir also took over the ordinary parts of the Mass as well and, with the increasing use of the organ, from the 1600s it gradually transferred to the choir loft high up at the back of the church and completely separate from the rest of the congregation.

Although choirs may still use the choir loft, especially for complex classical or polyphonic pieces, this is not the preferred location in current liturgical law.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says the following:

“The Place for the Choir and the Musical Instruments

“312. The choir should be positioned with respect to the design of each church so as to make clearly evident its character as a part of the gathered community of the faithful fulfilling a specific role. The location should also assist the choir to exercise its role more easily and conveniently allow each choir member full, sacramental participation in the Mass.

“313. The organ and other lawfully approved musical instruments are to be placed in an appropriate place so that they can sustain the singing of both the choir and the congregation and be heard with ease by all if they are played alone ….”

The above norms are based on the 1967 instruction “Musicam Sacram”:

“19. Because of the liturgical ministry it performs, the choir—or the Capella musica, or schola cantorum—deserves particular mention. Its role has become something of yet greater importance and weight by reason of the norms of the Council concerning the liturgical renewal. Its duty is, in effect, to ensure the proper performance of the parts which belong to it, according to the different kinds of music sung, and to encourage the active participation of the faithful in the singing. Therefore:

“(a) There should be choirs, or Capellae, or scholae cantorum, especially in cathedrals and other major churches, in seminaries and religious houses of studies, and they should be carefully encouraged.

“(b) It would also be desirable for similar choirs to be set up in smaller churches.

“20. Large choirs (Capellae musicae) existing in basilicas, cathedrals, monasteries and other major churches, which have in the course of centuries earned for themselves high renown by preserving and developing a musical heritage of inestimable value, should be retained for sacred celebrations of a more elaborate kind, according to their own traditional norms, recognized and approved by the Ordinary.

“However, the directors of these choirs and the rectors of the churches should take care that the people always associate themselves with the singing by performing at least the easier sections of those parts which belong to them.

“21. Provision should be made for at least one or two properly trained singers, especially where there is no possibility of setting up even a small choir. The singer will present some simpler musical settings, with the people taking part, and can lead and support the faithful as far as is needed. The presence of such a singer is desirable even in churches which have a choir, for those celebrations in which the choir cannot take part but which may fittingly be performed with some solemnity and therefore with singing.

“22. 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.

“23. Taking into account the layout of each church, the choir should be placed in such a way:

“(a) That its nature should be clearly apparent—namely, that it is a part of the whole congregation, and that it fulfills a special role;

“(b) That it is easier for it to fulfill its liturgical function;

“(c) That each of its members may be able to participate easily in the Mass, that is to say by sacramental participation.

“Whenever the choir also includes women, it should be placed outside the sanctuary (presbyterium).

“24. Besides musical formation, suitable liturgical and spiritual formation must also be given to the members of the choir, in such a way that the proper performance of their liturgical role will not only enhance the beauty of the celebration and be an excellent example for the faithful, but will bring spiritual benefit to the choir-members themselves.”

Some aspects of this document, such as the exclusion of women from the sanctuary, have been superseded by later practice and law.

Therefore, as can be seen, there are no rigid laws regarding the location of the choir, but there are valid principles which should guide those designing new churches or adapting older buildings.

Several bishops’ conferences have also given concrete directions for current practice; for example, the U.S. bishops in the document “Built of Living Stones”:

“The Place for the Pastoral Musicians

“§ 88 § Music is integral to the liturgy. It unifies those gathered to worship, supports the song of the congregation, highlights significant parts of the liturgical action, and helps to set the tone for each celebration.

“§ 89 § It is important to recognize that the building must support the music and song of the entire worshiping assembly. In addition, ‘some members of the community [have] special gifts [for] leading the [assembly in] musical praise and thanksgiving.’ The skills and talents of these pastoral musicians, choirs, and instrumentalists are especially valued by the Church. Because the roles of the choirs and cantors are exercised within the liturgical community, the space chosen for the musicians should clearly express that they are part of the assembly of worshipers. In addition, cantors and song leaders need visual contact with the music director while they themselves are visible to the rest of the congregation. Apart from the singing of the Responsorial Psalm, which normally occurs at the ambo, the stand for the cantor or song leader is distinct from the ambo, which is reserved for the proclamation of the word of God.

“§ 90 § The directives concerning music found in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and the guidance offered by Music in Catholic Worship and Liturgical Music Today can assist the parish in planning appropriate space for musicians. The placement and prayerful decorum of the choir members can help the rest of the community to focus on the liturgical action taking place at the ambo, the altar, and the chair. The ministers of music are most appropriately located in a place where they can be part of the assembly and have the ability to be heard. Occasions or physical situations may necessitate that the choir be placed in or near the sanctuary. In such circumstances, the placement of the choir should never crowd or overshadow the other ministers in the sanctuary nor should it distract from the liturgical action.”

These, and other episcopal orientations, while not giving binding rules, give sufficient guidance as to where to locate the choir for the current liturgy with respect to the sanctuary and the ambo.

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