The Words Coming Out of My Mouth

Kyrie, eleison. Christe, eleison.

The first phrase of the Catholic mass ordinary, and the only part to use Greek.

Gloria in excelsis Deo.

And there’s the more familiar Latin, the language which makes up the rest of the text.

Next is Credo in unum deum, then Sanctus, then Agnus Dei.

I’ve never actually attended a Catholic mass before, let alone technically participated in one. I’ve never sung for a church service at all, certainly a rarity among choir singers. I consider myself respectfully, firmly, atheist. So these words then, which I can almost claim to know by heart, perform a strange linguistic service for me. Rather than conveying meaning, they simply convey sound.

Choir singers by nature have a unique relationship to language. We are constantly asked to sing in languages we don’t speak, convey the meanings of words we don’t understand to an audience who frankly probably doesn’t either—but that hardly matters. Unlike instrumentalists, who have only the notes on a page to convey emotionality, we have a text. With that comes the responsibility to interpret, articulate. Often this means having the privilege of poets: we are able to give a text performative life, and I can think of numerous lines that are forever immortal for me thanks to the music that encased them, knowing that I may not have noticed the line if I were simply reading it on a page.

I think a thought of the cleft of the universes…  (Walt Whitman)

Go dip your long white hands in the cool waters of that spring…  (Elinor Wylie)

I’ll make my way until the universe can fit inside my heart.  (Frederico Garcia Lorca, trans. Jerome Rothenberg)

All of these phrases have permanent homes in my heart, but not just as words, as music. (I’m realizing I may be a sucker though for the word “universe.”) Like listening to the perfect delivery of a poem, such moments in music have immense power for me.

But the reality is, most choral music of the Western tradition was written for the church. From the earliest Gregorian chants to contemporary gospel, few would ever question that this music has a purpose because of its text, and that purpose is to convey the ideals of a specific religion. This is not without accident, of course. It’s easy to experience religious fervor when one is confronted with a hundred-voice a capella choir in exquisite polyphony, sound echoing through the vast stone hall of an old church. I’ve experienced it, I’m addicted to it, even. It brings tears to my eyes without fail, my heart quickens, and the experience is ten-fold when one is actually part of that polyphony.

Perhaps it’s strange that at no moment for me do the words actually have any relevance. Gloria in excelsis deo. I’ve sung this phrase more than I could even estimate, often at a fever pitch, delighting in the sound. The percussive gloria, so easy to propel off the tongue, the movement from the “ee” of in to the “eh” of ex, the bright “che” that cuts through the vowels. This is what singing text is, moving the mouth through a music that has nothing to do with notes.

What the phrase means is “glory to god in the highest.” And there, the life suddenly vanishes. Glory to god? I don’t despise the sentiment, but I certainly don’t believe in it, or connect to it in any way at all. But as a singer, my job is to articulate as clearly as possible this glory, inspire something of the meaning in my listeners.

I can’t help but be somewhat jealous of instrumentalists who can practice their art without much fear of this conflict. Because although it’s hardly enough to keep me from singing, it is a conflict. I’m extremely lucky that most choir conductors I’ve worked with are sensitive to this. The best of conductors know that in order to inspire their chorus, they can’t assume the literal text is what most will be most powerful to everyone.

Of course, I have had those few unfortunate instances where a conductor insists that I, that we the chorus, feel the “power of god” in the text to improve our musicality, simply because the text references Christianity. In these moments, I am alien. Why am here? Why sing these words? I don’t want to be viewed as a proselytizer by my audience—it would be an unforgivable lie to myself and them. If it’s not a church-affiliated choir, using such arguments is frankly offensive, and conductors who are unable to find secular methods of conducting sacred text will, without fail, ruin the musical experience.

So choral music is a strange world, often both religious by nature and intent, but secular in performance. What a shame it would be to not sing a gorgeous song just because I find the text emotionally un-engaging.

This acceptance is part of what makes the singer’s relationship to text so unique. Especially if singing in one’s native language, one must reflexively distance oneself from the text while remaining close to the music if the words aren’t believed. And it goes beyond choral music. I’ve heard countless people say they would like a song but they don’t like the lyrics. Awful, a shame. The music is still there, after all. The music didn’t ask to be tied to the meaning of the text. Instrumental music is free from such burdens, can exist meaningless until it calls forth a connection within the listener. Just because a music is sung, does it have to be defined by words?

Most of the time, I think no. The Catholic mass ordinary, again as example, is an amazing source of creativity and expression, not necessarily because of the meaning of the text but because so many composers were given this text as a frame on which to build miraculous pieces of music. Perhaps my favorite instance of a composer using Catholic mass text just for practicality rather than strong personal religious intent is Stravinsky, whose mass-setting is a technically immense masterwork reflective of his innovations in 20th century musicality. But I can’t think of many churches that would actually consider performing it as part of a service. Other times though, I fully understand where the text is inseparable and must be considered by the singer, whether through being unforgivably offensive or powerful far beyond the music itself. I also understand that this way of thinking can be a disservice to the composer, who one assumes spends an ample amount of time either considering how the music they write reflects the text they are given, or how the text they write is as much a part of their creative output as the music itself.

But where the need to separate text from music most often comes into practice is when singing texts in a language you don’t speak. When outside the classical music realm, most people I encounter are impressed far beyond what I would expect when I list the languages in which I’ve sung. But of course it’s not as if I speak all these languages. I wouldn’t understand a word of the text I was singing for the most part if it weren’t for translations provided in the score, or researched on my own outside of rehearsal. And apart from Latin, Italian, German, and French, which any classically trained vocalist is expected to be able to pronounce in reading, every instance in which a choir sings outside their native language is the product of hours of rote memorization, endlessly repeating word after word, sound after sound, until an authentic pronunciation is reached. It is hardly as if we’re “language learning.”

This means a singer’s relationship with a language is often entirely sonic. I could fake Italian words for hours, reciting the lines of various pieces in gibberish order and probably sounding authentically Italian to someone who didn’t speak the language. But that’s just it, it’s not language. It’s sound. Or rather, it’s music. Even without intuitive understanding, the connection to the music must be there, otherwise we would be bored, our audience would be bored.

But the conflict remains. Just how important is meaning when singing in a language we don’t speak? And how do I explain to those who know me as someone without a religious bone in my body, someone who very much does not care for any sort of saccharine appeals to celebrate or “praise,” that I’m deeply excited to sing the text of a Catholic mass? Most people are understandably conditioned to listen for words before music. If something is in a language they don’t speak, they feel disconnected. If they understand, they see the text as describing the music, rather than viewing the two elements as separable parts. It has been largely due to this that my life as a choir singer is dramatically separated from nearly every other facet of my life. The friends I have in the choir community are “choir friends” that I never see outside of rehearsal, and it’s disappointingly difficult to get other friends or acquaintances interested in watching a performance.

But still I’ll keep inviting, because this is the music that has never failed to inspire me or move me to tears. When I sing or listen to mass, or similarly when I am stunned by a magnificent cathedral, it is not an awe for god I feel, but for humanity. And maybe I’m wrong, maybe text is always inseparable, and it’s inauthentic of me to sing Kyrie eleison when the thought of a “savior” is meaningless to me. But to throw out a piece of music, to judge its entire meaning just because of words or because I don’t speak that language, would be an unforgivable tragedy.


Music mentions/listening to:

Igor Stravinsky – Mass

Joseph Haydn – “Lord Nelson” Mass (Performing with Dr. Sailer, January 16, Carnegie Hall)

The KVB –  …of Desire


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Maria says:

    Thank you for such a well-written essay. As someone who considers herself a half-deist/half-agnostic (it’s complicated), I have also been forced to confront many of the same issues regarding the singing of texts that I don’t find true or don’t believe in. At one point in my collegiate career, my Mom even went as far as to say, “So, how can you keep on singing about God and Jesus without feeling like a total hypocrite?” I reconciled what I was doing by arguing that my participation in choir is musicology in practice. I gleaned a deeper understanding of compositional principles such as polyphony by actually performing them. Choir heightened my musicianship more than solo voice lessons ever could because it taught me to listen. My experiences with vocal music from a variety of traditions (including non-Western music) taught me that the repetition of particular syllables eventually becomes a transformative experience. In other words, individual sounds begin to have a power of their own beyond their literal meaning. Sanskrit chant comes to mind for me: although I am not a Hindu, I do sense the power of Sanskrit chant when I concentrate on its repetition, vowel and consonant intonation, and phrase shaping. I think the same processes apply to different styles of vocal music; it’s just that the ways the elements combine are never the same from one example to another and it’s up to a smart musician to figure out the proportions. 🙂 This is where music goes so much deeper than just words. It’s a shame that many casual listeners cannot engage with more elements than the text. Then again, we all come to music for different reasons. Growing up in Texas, many of my peers and school music directors were considerably more religious than I was and demonstrated the sort of zeal you describe in the over-the-top choir director. Like you, I find it difficult to identify with these sorts of individuals. I recognize that they are coming from a different background than me and respect that distance. (Now that I am writing this, I think we may have had this discussion when we were both in Chorale- it sounds really familiar). At the same time, I don’t envision myself ever joining a choir that is directly affiliated with a single church because there are just too many political issues that make me uncomfortable. But that’s a separate post. So, for me, university and/or community choir or bust!


  2. Teri Font says:

    Thanks Savage Syntax for such a beautiful essay and also to Maria for the comment. I completely identify with this. As someone who was raised in both Catholicism and the transcendental meditation movement, I decided early on that I prefer to present myself to the world as an Atheist, though I have a private religion that is informed by Gnostic Christian teachings. I guess in my day to day, I find the most commonality with modern day free thinkers, and most of them are atheists. But the main thing I wanted to talk about is a linguistic idea.

    One of the basic principles to the technique of TM is receiving your “Word of Wisdom”. This is a single syllable given to you by a guru whenever you are in your early stages of lessons. Basically it is a single syllable that doesn’t mean anything in your native tongue, and you are forbidden to tell it to anyone your entire life. That way, it is a word that has no associations in your mind, allowing you to use it to clear your mind, feel a deep feeling of peace and eventually use it to transcend this realm. That is the intention. I also feel this deep feeling of peace as I listen to sacred music from languages that are not my own, the Sama Veda or Gregorian chant being two examples that come to mind. Now as you describe the feelings of singing in many different languages that you are not fluent in, I wonder if it is a type of “transcendence” that singing in your native tongue does not afford.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. SavageSyntax says:

      Thanks so much for your reply! I absolutely love your connection to transcendental meditation. I hadn’t considered singing unknown words in that light before, but hearing it I think it makes such intuitive sense. I find myself shying away from English texts perhaps for that very reason, that a certain level of “transcendence” is missing. Would love to talk to you more, Teri! If you’d like, please send me an email (address on contact form) and we can re-connect!


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