When you hear ordinary, what do you think of?
But that's not what Ordinary means to the Church. Ordinary refers to a few different things. But I'd like to talk about the Ordinary of the Mass. In this sense, when used to refer to the parts of the Mass (the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei,) it means the parts of the Mass that remain the same. They do not change. It is orderly. (Ah, my little German-American heart loves that phrase.)
It kind of a hard thing to make all those words fit into a cohesive and musical format. (Just try doing it for the "Gloria". You'll see what I mean.) To make their jobs easier, many recent composers have added and subtracted text from the Ordinary of the Mass, this is not a new trick. Actually, it's a pretty old trick.
Doubtless, the original monk, sister, or priest who added or left out words did so out of a sense of piety. They thought they were doing the best thing for the people of God by infusing their own heart and soul into the Mass. The tropes (words added to the prayers of the Mass) of the Middle Ages initially started out as a way to give extra glory to God. But, soon that practice was bent and the abuse of troping led to objectionable material and flawed teaching being inserted in amongst the prayers of the Mass.
During the Council of Trent, the Church Fathers battened down the liturgical hatches to gain control of what was being taught following the Protestant Reformation. That meant everything had to come through Rome to be approved. Part of this clean up had to do with the music because polyphony had become so ornate that the words of the Ordinary could no longer be recognized, leaving the possibility for abuse open.
Popular tradition has it that Pope Marcellus stood against the rest of the Church Fathers in their desire to replace polyphony with only Gregorian Chant. It is said that he went to Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and asked him to compose a mass setting that was polyphonic, but intelligible. The result was the Missa Papae Marcelli.
I tell this story, not because I think we should all be singing Palestrina at Mass, but because the Church Fathers were right in their insistence that the words be intelligible and that the message be clear.
The prayers of the Mass are what unite Catholics across time and space. The words unite us with those who came before us and those who will come after us. If the music takes away from the words, or distracts from them, then the music is wrong. If you have to change the words, repeat them, add to them or leave them out, then the music has to bend. The words should never bend. They are the set piece.
When we give in to the temptation to change the words to fit the music, we give the impression that the words are less important and that the words can be changed to fit our needs. Ultimately, this can give rise to bad liturgical practices elsewhere in the Mass. If the words of the Ordinary can be changed, why not the words of Consecration? Think it can't happen? I have personally witnessed such things.
So, when considering changing up your Mass Parts, think about how the music compliments the words, not the other way around.
Stuff to look for when vetting settings of the Ordinary:
· Does the music fit the words well? If it's awkward or difficult to sing, it will be hard to teach.
· Do you have to repeat words, add words or leave out words to fit the music? If so, keep looking.
· Does it violate the ethos of the Mass*?
· Can you sing the melody alone and have it sound pretty good? If you have to have the accompaniment and/or a choral backdrop, reconsider the setting.
*Hey, what's the "ethos of the Mass" mean? - it means that the overall feel and sense of the Mass should reflect the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus. That is to say, it should be solemnly joyful not brazenly chipper.
It's fine to be uplifting, but if being uplifting or peppy is your primary goal, you may be on the wrong track. The liturgical musician's primary goal is to pray the words of the Mass. Let God worry about doing the lifting.