Chorus Angelorum: Locating Musical Ministers in the Church Interior

Locating Musical Ministers in the Church Interior

by Steven Semes, appearing in Volume 12

The organ and choir of St. Jean Baptiste Church in New York. Photo: Steven W. Semes

As one trained and professionally experienced in both church music and architecture, I am especially interested in issues related to the role and placement of musicians within the physical setting of the liturgy. Here we are faced with a wide variety of possibilities, from the traditional unseen organist in a high loft above the west end of the nave to a seemingly random group of instrumentalists and vocalists—supported by a clutter of microphones and music stands—arrayed within or adjacent to the sanctuary. Any attempt to define general guidelines for the placement of liturgical musicians will depend on the types of musical expressions the particular community wishes to include. The other key factor is the architectural setting itself, and this admits of as much variety as the musical program, from traditional basilican naves to characterless “multipurpose” rooms to auditorium-style arrangements, all presenting numerous different interpretations of the domus ecclesiae, not to mention diverse formal conceptions and architectural styles.

Parishes and other communities either building new churches or remodeling existing ones should consider the placement of musicians and organs along with the location of the altar, tabernacle, and font and their relationship to the seating of the assembly. Just as the configuration of altar and pews will powerfully form our understanding of the character of the liturgical space and the respective roles of clergy and people, so the location of a choir and organ will either facilitate or inhibit a lively liturgical music program. But often the placement of music ministers does not receive the attention it deserves.

In this article, I will focus on the musical ministry of churches with a “traditional” understanding of both architecture and music. By this I mean an architectural setting characterized by historical European types and styles—such as the classical, the Gothic, and their variants—and musical expressions derived from European liturgical music traditions, from Gregorian chant through polyphony, to the classical repertory, to modern composers like Olivier Messiaen and Arvo Pärt. Within these contexts we can generalize about the role of the choir and organ and suggest one or more preferred locations for them within the worship space. First let us look at some historical patterns relevant to our inquiry

Catholic liturgical music has, for the most part, been a matter of music provided by specialist musicians, choirs, organists, and instrumentalists. With a few exceptions and until recently, the lay congregation in Catholic churches has not been an active participant in the music of the liturgy, although in some parishes prior to the Second Vatican Council the assembly would typically join the choir in chanting the ordinaries of the Mass and perhaps in a familiar processional and recessional hymn. Where choirs and organs have been used, they have tended historically to follow one of two models: the monastic choir and the court chapel choir.

The chanting monks (or nuns) of a religious community—especially in their singing of the Daily Office—provide a special paradigm, being in effect both choir and assembly in one. This body of singers, though occasionally expanded by visitors, may be thought of as a “choir of the whole assembly.” The English collegiate choir of men and boys (usually connected with a choir school) largely continues this model, still in use throughout the Anglican Communion and in numerous Roman Catholic communities under English cultural influence. In practice, outside actual religious communities, the collegiate-style choir is more often a specialized ministry that is both visually and musically distinct from the congregation, which, though it may be of considerable size, has a reduced musical role.

“Professional” musicians employed in cathedrals or court chapels—whether accompanying the liturgy with Renaissance polyphony or French “symphonic” organ music—were seen as ministers in their own right, albeit for hire, rather than as members of the assembly. Typically, these musicians were placed in an upper gallery or loft, out of sight of the congregation. While their location within the church might have been less prominent than the monks’ choir, these musicians remained both physically and musically distinct from the congregation as a whole.

Today, the placement of musicians in Catholic parish churches, cathedrals, and other worship spaces may be seen as some variation on one or other of these two models. For example, the placement of a choir in the part of a church historically termed the “choir” (i.e., between the crossing and the sanctuary in a Latin-cross basilican plan) reprises the monastic-collegiate pattern, while the choir in a side chapel near the sanctuary or in a loft at the west end of the nave follows the court chapel model. In either case, the musicians most often appear as vested ministers rather than as members of the assembly delegated to perform a special function within the larger body.

One of the primary motifs of modern liturgical reform has been to encourage the assembly’s “active participation,” both in terms of the spoken word and through song. Perhaps an unstated ideal in much recent reflection about the worshipping community is that monastic “choir of the whole,” whose members participate fully in the liturgical celebration. If the only legitimate form of “active participation” is explicit external action, such as singing (and this premise has been questioned by many), we naturally want to encourage a greater musical role for the assembly. But where in preconciliar Catholic churches can one find examples of true “singing congregations”?

In truth, one has to look to the Protestant traditions, which historically placed greater emphasis on congregational hymnody. Consequently, since the Second Vatican Council, Catholic music ministers have borrowed heavily from their Protestant colleagues, both for models of the role of musicians in the liturgy and in the actual musical repertory used. (For example, a large proportion of the tunes—often with revised lyrics—in such mainstream Catholic hymnals as Worship are in fact drawn from the Anglican and Lutheran traditions.) Today, there is general agreement between Catholic church musicians and the clergy with whom they work to promote a “sung” liturgy that includes the contributions of trained musicians but also promotes that of the assembly as a whole. This goal is also supported by official Church documents, including the Sacred Constitution on the Liturgy and the General Instructions of the Roman Missal.

Diagram showing the location of the choir (in red) in the “monastic-collegiate” pattern and the “court chapel” pattern.

Among the factors influencing the placement and role of musicians in the Catholic liturgy is a widely expressed discomfort, especially among the clergy, with any suggestion or perception that musical offerings during the liturgy take on the character of a concert performance, a condition that would render the assembly a passive audience rather than a body engaged in “active participation.” Catholic church musicians rightly counter that the assembly derives benefits from music offered on its behalf, just as it does from words spoken in its name by a lector reading a lesson or a lay minister leading the prayers of intercession. In my experience, however, this particular conversation has proved inconclusive, and the role of musical ministers remains ambiguous. Their ministry requires them to lead the singing of the congregation and, at times, offer musical prayer on their behalf; but, in doing so, they are not to usurp the congregation’s role or allow their musical activity to become confused with or compete with the liturgical acts of the ministers in the sanctuary.

This ambiguity is reflected in official Church thinking on the placement of music ministers in the worship space. For example, in the document Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture, and Worship (hereafter BLS), published by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2000, the authors point out that the general seating space within the church—the “nave”—is “not comparable to the audience’s space in a theater or public arena because in the liturgical assembly, there is no audience. Rather the entire congregation acts.” This seems straightforward enough, and the text continues: “The ministers of music could also be located in the body of the church since they lead the entire assembly in song as well as by the example of their reverent attention and prayer” (BLS 51).

Wren’s Royal Navy Hospital Chapel exemplifies the monastic-collegiate choir. Photo: Steven W. Semes

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. (BLS 90)


The bishops recognize that musical ministers, except in monastic communities, are not clergy—they properly belong to the body of the faithful assembled in the nave rather than among the ministers in the sanctuary—and yet are specially delegated within the assembly by virtue not only of their musical contributions but by their “reverent attention and prayer” (not always a conspicuous attribute of lay choirs). The bishops do not suggest an ideal configuration or placement; rather, they recognize that while the musicians may sometimes find themselves in or near the sanctuary, their role is to support the song of the congregation without drawing attention away from the primary liturgical focus on the altar. While the bishops do not call for choirs to be literally embedded in the assembly, we can infer from their statement that they prefer a location for the choir that is either outside the sanctuary or does not intrude into the line of sight from the assembly to the altar.

Using the bishops’ statement as a guide, supplemented by some practical musical and acoustical considerations, let’s evaluate some of the historical choir locations seen in Catholic churches here in the United States and elsewhere. Do any examples drawn from historic practice satisfy both the bishops’ desiderata and make practical and musical sense at the same time?

In the English “collegiate” choir configuration mentioned earlier, the choristers occupy stalls facing each other across the main axis in a space between the chancel arch and crossing to the west and the sanctuary proper to the east. In both Catholic and Anglican settings following the Second Vatican Council’s reforms, the main altar has most often been relocated to the crossing or within the nave, while the choir remains in its former place. The old high altar may have become the tabernacle. The organ in such settings is typically placed in chambers flanking and above the choir on the triforium level.

An example of this pattern may be found in the beautiful church of St. Vincent Ferrer in New York, completed in 1918 and designed by Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue. The advantages of this arrangement include nearly optimal visual and acoustical conditions for the musicians themselves—including the organist. Choral blend and balance between choir and organ are easily achieved. With the altar now moved into the crossing, the choir is no longer interposed between the congregation and the altar. A disadvantage of the arrangement is the separation—not to say isolation—of the choir from the congregation. It is difficult to reconcile this with the bishops’ statement that the musicians “should clearly express that they are part of the assembly” (BLS 89). Many church musicians and congregation members also find it difficult to support and encourage congregational singing from a position in front of the assembly—a position still associated in many people’s minds with staged performance.

From Left to right: St. Vincent Ferrer in New York City, St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee, and St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco

Another position for choir and organ follows a pattern often observed in non-Anglican Protestant churches, in which the choristers are seated across the back of the sanctuary, often with the organ case appearing as a backdrop. It is ironic that this pattern, associated with non-liturgical forms of worship in which musical performance takes “center stage” in support of the central event—the sermon—should now also appear in some Catholic settings remodeled in the interest of “reform.”

A case in point is the remodeled cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee, where the pipe organ acts as the principal visual backdrop to the axis of the church and the choir occupies the space between it and the altar, now located in the crossing. The advantage of such a configuration is the great prominence, both visual and sonic, that it gives to the musicians themselves; this, of course, is also the main objection to such configurations, since they suggest to many a “concert hall” setting. While beautiful organ cases grace the “east” walls of many Protestant churches, the Catholic insistence on the primacy of the altar as the visual focus of the church usually discourages such displays in this sensitive location. In the Milwaukee Cathedral, the primacy of the altar is visually reinforced by the conspicuous modern sculpture of crucifix and crown of thorns rising above it, but this seems to compete with the organ case beyond.

At St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco this particular problem was overcome by locating the organ in the upper level of a semicircular ambulatory running behind the sanctuary, the pipes concealed by decorative architectural grillework. The choir, robed and seated in the sanctuary to the right of the altar, moves to stand on the steps of the former high altar (under the baldacchino) when performing offertory or communion motets, returning to its seats otherwise. In this way, the “concert hall” look is usually avoided, but the mixture of the musical ministers with the ministers of the liturgy itself, and the “traffic” back and forth, can create confusion or distraction. Finally, the directionality of the sound coming toward the congregation from the sanctuary itself is, again, less conducive to the support of congregational singing beyond the first several rows of pews. In my view, the bishops are correct to discourage arrangements in which the musicians and other liturgical ministers compete for territory within the sanctuary.

Another common choir/organ configuration places the music ministers in a side chapel adjacent to the sanctuary, perhaps separated from it and from the nave by a screen of columns or decorative grillework. In many churches the choir assumes this position seasonally—for example during Lent, when a capella choral singing is often emphasized. In some situations such a side chapel is the permanent location of organ and choir, as at Corpus Christi Church in New York, best known as the church of Thomas Merton at the time of his conversion. The parish continues to be well-known for the quality of the preaching and its excellent music program specializing in Renaissance and baroque repertory. The choir is arranged in a circle next to the organ console, while the organ chamber is above, speaking into the sanctuary and nave as well as the chapel. (A similar chapel on the opposite side of the sanctuary serves as a Blessed Sacrament chapel.) This arrangement succeeds admirably with respect to musical support for the liturgy itself, but at the sacrifice of a strong connection between choir and congregation. The choir is partly concealed from the view of the assembly, and from this position it cannot lend optimal support to congregational singing, although the intimate scale and felicitous acoustics of the interior at Corpus Christi mitigate this somewhat. At least the choir does not “crowd or overshadow” the ministers in the sanctuary.

If the choir is not in the east end of a basilica-plan church, it might find itself in one of the transepts. Such an arrangement is used at Rome’s Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, as well as in St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C. In all of these cases, the great organ occupies the south transept. Supporters of this position for the choir point to its placement within the body of the assembly, removing it from the sanctuary and underscoring the choir’s role in leading congregational song. Critics point out its numerous acoustical difficulties, the most serious of which may be the inevitable directionality of the sound coming across rather than from in front of or behind the congregation. It is also difficult in these configurations for the choir singers to hear one another properly in order to achieve a good ensemble or for the organ and choir to achieve proper balance.

From left to right: Corpus Christi Catholic Church in New York City, St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and St. Ignatius Church in New York City.

There may be good reason why the most common position for organ and choir in Germany and France—the countries besides England with the most highly developed liturgical music traditions—is in a loft above the west end of the nave. This position best addresses the visual and acoustical concerns raised by the other configurations considered so far. First, by being above and behind the congregation, the choir and organ are not normally visible, precluding any sense of “distraction” or “concert performance.” This position is also the strongest acoustically for supporting congregational singing. The sound, enveloping the assembly from above and behind can be the perfect engine driving congregational song, as it has done in the Lutheran tradition for centuries. In Catholic churches, too, there is nothing like starting the final verse of a great hymn—“Lift High the Cross” or “To Jesus Christ Our Sovereign King,” for example—with a full organ and choral descant giving foundation and soaring flourish, respectively, to a large singing congregation. (Such full-voiced Catholic congregations do exist, particularly in large urban parishes and in regions like the Midwest with strong musical traditions.)

The matter of having the choir out of direct sight is not insignificant. The bishops’ reference to the choir’s “reverent attention and prayer” notwithstanding, in my experience choirs are not always composed of perfectly behaved members, and so a degree of visual separation is not necessarily undesirable. Furthermore, a choir in a loft may decide either to be vested or to wear “civilian” dress; either way, the decision need not hinge on the choir’s being in the constant gaze of the congregation. At the same time, the usual choir loft (not too highly elevated, and sometimes continuous with an upper gallery that can be made available for overflow congregational seating) allows sufficient visual contact between choristers and assembly that the music does not take on an unwanted hidden or “mysterious” character.

The choir loft is an element appropriate to churches large and small. For very large churches, especially cathedrals, and those with large and varied musical ministries, a generously sized loft area will accommodate choral ensembles of different sizes, a pipe organ, and supplementary soloists or instrumentalists. This is certainly the preferred arrangement in Germany and Austria. Sundays at the Michaelerkirche in Vienna, the choir sings Mass settings by Haydn, Mozart, or Schubert, accompanied by organ and full orchestra in its capacious loft. Similar arrangements are found in numerous American parishes, including St. Ignatius Loyola in New York—with that city’s largest tracker organ, one of its best choirs, and a superb musical program including both liturgical and concert events.

From its position in the loft, not only does the choir and organ support the worship of the assembly as it can from no other position, but the sonic splendor is often matched by the visual splendor of the organ façade, which edifies from its commanding position without competing with the twin foci of altar and pulpit at the opposite end of the nave. While other configurations can be workable under certain circumstances, the traditional western choir loft is, in my view, the one most likely to satisfy both musical and liturgical considerations, including the criteria of the bishops in their document on worship and church design. As both a longtime church musician and practicing architect myself, I have found this arrangement supports both the best in architectural design and the best in music—whether that music comes from the music ministers or from the faithful assembled below.

St. Ignatius Church in New York City features a magnificent tracker Organ which looms behind the congregation in the loft. Photo: Steven W. Semes