The director of the London Symphony Chorus argues that the Church has ignored its musical tradition and often preferred mediocrity to a heritage that shaped Western art music
A fter his recent visit to Britain, Pope
Benedict spoke warmly of the excellence of some of the Catholic
liturgies which he celebrated here and of the ecumenical service of Evensong in Westminster Abbey. Sadly such excellence is untypical of the vast majority of our Catholic churches. There is a glaring lack of sympathy for the heritage which should be the bedrock of worthy sacred music in today’s Church and it is hard to discern any attention to the 1967 instruction Musicam Sacram, the “Instruction on Music in the Liturgy”.
Music is vital to the liturgy. Yet it receives less attention than the other liturgical arts and the Church is less exacting in its required standards of ability and training than it is with architecture, the making of vestments, catechesis and the formation of the clergy.
When the Mass in English was introduced in the 1960s, there was a dearth of suitable ritual music in the vernacular. The first need was for Mass settings – for those intrinsic parts whose texts are already there but which rely on being set to music to solemnify them. One effect was that hymns started to be used as filler, anything to sing which was in the “new” language. Hymns intended for use in devotions, Benediction and Holy Hours came to be used inordinately – often inappropriately – at Sunday Mass.
There was a second effect. New settings of the Ordinary of the Mass were urgently needed. Some, composed by monks, had a certain dignity. But the 1970s were mostly characterised by a free-for-all when unsuitable settings used the same trite tunes for the different parts of the Mass Ordinary, illicitly paraphrasing the texts to fit and lacking any affinity to the words.
The Church guards the texts of its rites with diligence. Less diligent are the checks on the texts and settings used in liturgical music. Low-quality material in both inspiration and facility is commonplace. Hymns are set to popular music (for example, “My God Loves Me” to the tune of “Plaisir d’amour”) with little regard to the inappropriateness of the original and well-known words. Double standards in the scrutiny of musical repertoire are baffling in an organisation which lets some away, with no leeway at all in other areas. This it to say nothing of the ineptness of much melody-writing, the stultifying limitation of harmonic treatment of accompaniments and the unhappy marriages of syllables to musical notes in so much current repertoire. The misuse of one booming voice behind a microphone, an ecclesiastical karaoke, seems to have killed off unified congregational singing.
This is not an argument about categories – so-called classical music versus pop versus what we call folk. The music of the Catholic Church should not be necessarily allied to Western art-music any more than any other type, but much of it has been de facto best served by conventionally trained musicians. There is also, of course, an official church music which is dedicated to its purpose. Much of it is simple, incanted music, one note to a syllable (Preface, Introductory Rites) or chanted to a simple, recurring tone (Psalm verses) and its more ornate, longer-lasting form is plainsong, or Gregorian chant. It has existed for centuries but, as a contemporary Catholic, you might hardly know it. It seems culturally ironic that the beauties of “our” chant (for it really does belong to the Church) are now sought out in recorded performance by those who probably have never heard it in church. There also happens to be the role that plainsong has played in the development of at least five centuries of Western music. This is surely a measure of its richness.
Few capable or sensitive musicians would wish to be involved with the current norms of Catholic music. I say this with the personal proviso that much of my inspiration and experi ence was gained from the Church and its nurturing musicians, teachers, clergy and Religious. The heritage of its language and its music was crucial to my musical formation. The Church has always been a breeding ground for musicians and the melting pot for much in the arts down the ages and this should not change.
As to instrumental accompaniment of the liturgy, the official line is that the organ is to be held in the highest esteem for this function. Organs and organists are affected by the same spiral of despair as above but a lead is being given in many quarters as to the unique role which this king of instruments offers. I see a revival in the commissioning of new organs, and in the transplanting of suitable redundant organs of quality.
There is a way forward. To begin with, nobody who has any part in the liturgy should begin without studying the “Instruction on Music in the Liturgy”. Bishops’ conferences have to authorise an adherence to the highest attainable standards of quality in liturgical music. The elected church music committees of the bishops’ conferences cannot have vested interests in promoting their own music, or type of music. This would be regarded as corrupt in any other field.
Then there is training. There are many musicians out there who could do this work and some are already working in the field. I don't think it is viable to establish a full-time Catholic establishment for the purpose, but rather to offer specialist formation on an inservice basis and also to send those who are moved to use their gifts for the Church's good to existing musical establishments for the groundwork.
Disaffected Anglicans might be able to defect to Rome, but the disenchanted Romans have nowhere to go, and their rightful place is within the Church and not in some minority faction. We can all see resurgence in choral activity in this country; it needs to be nurtured in the place of its birth.