Sweet singing in the choir

Dumbing down church music and liturgy has emptied the pews. Our tradition deserves better

James MacMillan

I  have just returned from the Enescu Festival in Bucharest, where the great orchestras, soloists and conductors of the world come and go on a daily basis. I was participating in the Ars Poetica conference of the National University of Music in Romania where composers from around Europe had gathered to reflect, analyse and discuss the music of our time. In the conversations emanating from one of my lectures I encountered some astonishment that major British composers of the 20th and 21st centuries had produced music for church liturgy and ritual, and were still doing so.

Obviously this had been the norm all over the continent in past centuries but, for various reasons, the music of our time had gone one way, and the music of the churches had either stayed pickled in aspic, or had headed off down banal populist paths. The international art music world has a great admiration for British composers — Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Britten, Walton, Tippett, Maxwell Davies, Tavener — but has largely missed the fact that they sometimes wrote music for actual church use, sung by ecclesial choirs for actual practical liturgical application. This doesn’t happen in Romania, or Russia or Greece, where the music in churches consists of well-loved 19th-century standard settings of the ritual texts, or wonderful ancient chants, evoking the timeless awe of Orthodoxy.

In Britain though, perhaps due to the fact that high professional artistic standards have been maintained in cathedral and collegiate chapel, there has always been a co-operative synthesis between music directors and the composers of the age, whether they were “religious” in motivation or confession, or not. There has been a steady flow of mass, canticle, anthem and motet settings here over the last 100 years, mainly for Anglican use, but not always. And these settings have respect and import in the secular musical world too, where performances can just as easily happen in concert context. The sacred music of Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Britten and Tippett is probably more known and revered in secular musical circles than in the company of the devout.

This has sometimes led to tensions. The professionalising of music in church is sometimes regarded with suspicion by clerics and laypeople dedicated to the “modernising” and “democratisation” of religious idea and practice, nervous of the alienating resonances of old-fashioned, hierarchical “elitism”. The churches went through their 1960s revolutions too, and in some things these were necessary and liberating. The musical fallout from these has been problematic, though, especially to those involved in maintaining high standards.

This has been especially dire in the Catholic Church, where deliberately misapplied readings of “the spirit of Vatican II” has turned much of the musical practice in liturgy into a pitiful laughing stock. Anglicans will know what the problem is too — those aisle-dancing and numbskull jogging for Jesus choruses, maudlin sentimental dirges, faux American folk music and cod-Celticness. The American musicologist Thomas Day described this kind of liturgy as “a diet of romantic marshmallows indigestibly combined with stuff that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and shakes you into submission with its social message”.

In the 1970s many well-intentioned types thought that such “folk” music and pop culture derivatives would appeal to teenagers and young people and get them more involved in the Church, when the exact opposite has happened. It is now thought that these trendy experiments in music and liturgy have contributed to the increasing risible irrelevance of liberal Christianity, and that liturgy as social engineering has repulsed many. Like most ideas shaped by 1960s Marxist ideology it has proved an utter failure. Its greatest tragedy is the wilful, disingenuous de-poeticisation of Catholic worship. The Church has simply aped the secular West’s obsession with “accessibility”, “inclusiveness”, “democracy” and anti-elitism, resulting in the triumph of bad taste, banality and a deflation of the sense of the sacred in the life of the church.

The liturgical “progressives” who have created this have been at loggerheads for decades with the musicians of the Church, whom they accuse unfairly of being reactionary and Tridentinist. I know this as I have the scars to prove it. During the papal visit to the UK in 2010 there were countless battles behind the scenes about the nature of the public liturgies and their musical content and style. For example, the bishops asked me to write a new congregational mass for the open-air liturgies, and a powerful faction fought very hard for this not to happen. It was said that a classical “art” composer could not have the grass-roots parish experience and “pastoral insight” necessary for — etc, etc.

I’ve given up the liturgy wars since. I stepped back from parish music involvement and now just sit in the pews, suffering with the rest of the Catholic faithful. I still love writing for choirs, though, and from the sidelines I encourage the application of Gregorian chant in simple, vernacular ways, as well as in Latin. The Orthodox chant I heard in Romania in September was astonishingly beautiful. Perhaps there is a way of incorporating it into choral music for the liturgy here too?

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