Why have you chose to serve as cantor? A simple but important question. Some chose to serve as cantor as a way to strengthen their spirituality. Some choose to serve as cantor to share their gift of music with the parish. Others have chosen to serve as cantor because they were asked. So, why have YOU chose to serve as cantor?
History of the Cantor
The history of the cantor is an ancient one. There are many references to singing in the Bible. The most famous of these is “Then, after singing a hymn, they went out the Mount of Olives” – Matthew 26:30. If Christ and the apostles sang a hymn at the last supper, it was most assuredly lead by one of the apostles. Imagine leading Christ in the singing of a hymn! The oldest and most famous of biblical songs are the psalms. The Hebrew Psalter, popularly attributed to King David, served as the early Jews hymnal. Knowing that these were sung, it is very likely that someone in the community was designated to lead their singing. In the Jewish tradition, the cantor not only lead the psalms, but also other prayers offered on behalf of the people of God. As the backbone of Jewish worship, and therefore Christian worship, the psalms have played an important role in our liturgies.
The Liturgy of the Hours, an ancient prayer of the church, centers around the recitation or chanting of the psalms. At one time it was required that all 150 psalms to be recited every day! As communal prayer developed in the 5th century, the Liturgy of the Hours would be sung with a cantor leading the antiphons and verses. The psalms also play a major role in Mass, and have since the earliest days.
The Mass for centuries has begun with an entrance chant which consists of an antiphon and psalm verses. Then, there is the responsorial psalm, the offertory antiphon and psalm verses, and the communion antiphon and psalm verses. All of these were led by cantors. With the growing popularity of cantors throughout the 4th century, regulations began to appear as to what the cantors could wear, where they would stand, even regulations prohibiting their patronage of local taverns. As the Mass became more complex sung texts increased requiring trained singers. Gregorian chant was established, and again, cantors were the primary singers of those chants.
With the development of polyphony during the Renaissance the role of cantor shifted slightly to one that led the singing of the choir. In the twentieth century attention turned away from trained church musicians singing the texts of the Mass to the congregation singing those texts. With this shift cantors now turned to leading the singing of the congregation. The ancient role of singing the responsorial psalm, however, has remained. So, now the cantor is psalmist, song leader, and cantor.
The Roles of Cantor
The cantor takes on many roles in the liturgy. They are the psalmist, the person who recites and leads the singing of the psalm. They are the animator or song leader, the person to animates the congregation to sing their parts. They are cantors, the person who leads others singing or sings solo verses. Each of these roles are vitally important to the proper celebration of the Mass, yet each of these roles has very different responsibilities.
The Psalmist must lead the congregation in the Word of God, bridging the congregation’s understanding of the first reading to preparing them for the message of the Gospel. This is an awesome pastoral and ministerial responsibility, and perhaps the most important role we hold.
The Song leader or animator (from the French, animateur) “is to lead and sustain the people’s singing” (GIRM #104). This means that the song leader is to foster and encourage the people’s singing. This is harder than it seems. Many times we think that being a cantor means that we must sing for the congregation, or while leading the hymns we may feel obligated to sing out. We often forget that we are amplified by a microphone, and in our attempt to encourage the congregation’s singing, we end up overpowering them and silencing them. As a song leader we must learn to sing and gesture in such a way as to encourage and nourish the people’s song both musically and spiritually, and not take the place of the people’s song. This is perhaps the most difficult role.
The Cantor leads others singing or sings solo verses. This is the role we assume when we lead the congregation in a Refrain-Verse setting of the Gloria, or chanting the Litany of the Lamb of God. When serving as cantor attention is called to us as a soloist. Because of the soloistic nature of the cantor role, we must establish and maintain proper vocal health as well as continue to develop and improve our voices. This is perhaps the most challenging role.