James MacMillan, in a Telegraph blog post, has announced that he will not write any more congregational Catholic church music. This is very sad, though half-expected. Instead, he advocates a return to the centuries-old traditional Latin chant. English chant, too, he sees a future for, and he cites several current initiatives.
MacMillan refers to church music as a ‘war zone’, and I can see exactly what he means. So many people insist that their kind of music is the only kind that should be used in church. Depending on the standpoint, anything else is either ‘elitist’ or ‘happy-clappy’, but certainly anathema.
Because the Forth in Praise remit is to try to help parishes to produce the music they themselves want, in whatever style it may be, I’ve suppressed my personal likes and dislikes when organising music days. I and my colleagues have gone with the flow, so to speak, and encouraged good performance of all kinds of music. For example, if a parish has gone for guitars, then we have sought a guitar specialist to help them.
Now my days in this role are coming to a close, and I think I would like to speak frankly about my own preferred Mass settings. They have not been written, nor are likely to be now. The only modern setting that enhanced the liturgy for me was James MacMillan’s Newman Mass. He did a brilliant job, working within Vatican II limitations, and it gave me hope. But strong opposition at the time, and a general disinclination to invest in anything but easy-to-sing music since, seem to have prevailed.
When a composer of the acknowledged musical genius and deeply religious commitment of James MacMillan turns his back on writing original music for the Mass, the situation is serious indeed. Down the ages, the words of the Mass have served as a major source of inspiration for musical creativity at the highest level. Now all this has changed, and the root cause is the set of restrictions on composers imposed by Vatican II. The fact that James MacMillan has thrown in the towel is an indictment of those restrictions, though he himself does not say this.
Therefore the style of modern Mass setting which would make the liturgy come alive for me (and for many others, I am sure) is unlikely to be permitted – ever.
Unless someone in the Vatican sees sense, of course, and tweaks the rules a bit. It wouldn’t take much …
The other day about 200 people attended a big diocesan Mass in our church. On these occasions, when people come from parishes all over, it is difficult to find a Gloria they will all know. Before the new liturgy came in, everyone used to belt out the old 1982 Bellahouston Gloria, but that doesn’t work too well with the new words. More recently we have had a cantor for the verses, but this time I suggested we try an experiment and see if the congregation would sing in its entirety the very easy St Magdalene Gloria, a refrain version with chanted verses, designed for the new words.
We gave everyone a people’s copy of music and words (right-click to view in detail, and click again to enlarge):
From this, even those who don’t read music can see when the chant note changes. ‘We just followed the dots’, someone said afterwards.
One of our really experienced cantors was asked to lead it and to cope with whatever transpired. The possible scenarios ranged from no-one joining in with her on the verses to everyone singing along and making her redundant. It did occur to me that a lot of people might want to listen to the first verse and come in on the second, so a few people from the choir were briefed to join in very gently on verse 2, pour encourager les autres.
It actually worked incredibly well. Our cantor sang the first verse solo, and on verse 2 I thought I could hear more voices from the congregation than the primed choir. I couldn’t be sure, but I upped the organ a bit and brought in the pedals. There was no doubt about verse 3, though. The cantor could hardly be heard, but this meant she had been successful.
Afterwards, I asked around, and the general consensus was yes, they had all been singing. Oddly, nobody seemed surprised about this. Of course, this particular set of people is noted for singing well when they all get together, which could mean that they have a lot of music readers.
But there’s another possibility. It could be that they already knew the St Magdalene Gloria. It has been around for over a year now, is officially approved and freely available online. If our own church uses it a lot, maybe others do, too. Have I been flogging a dead horse?
The church in which I play, St Michael’s in Linlithgow, has quite a large side-chapel. You can see it from the outside in the photograph below.
Those of you who were at the singing day on 31 August might remember that the side-chapel was partitioned off. This was done about 25 years ago by the parish priest of the time. Last week our present parish priest had the partition removed. Here are my pictures before (from 31 August day) and after (today). Click on them to enlarge.
So now the area inside the church is as originally designed in the 1880s by the famous architectural firm of Pugin & Pugin, and the result is a much more spacious and elegant look.
What I didn’t expect (and maybe should have, as Pugin churches are acoustically renowned) was a marked increase in resonance, to the point of blurring speech a bit, even over the PA system. This will no doubt be resolved technically. The organ in the gallery, however, is positively revelling in the change, which is something new for it.
Most people think the organ came with the church in the nineteenth century, because it is so responsive to the acoustic. In fact, our 1874 Hill organ, almost twenty years older than the church, didn’t arrive here until 1988, when it was bought and installed by the very priest who partitioned off the side-chapel. Its original home was a Church of Scotland in the West. I played it in its old location before it was taken down; the church had the typical C of S ‘square’ layout, and the organ was in a sort of alcove. It sounded OK there, but once it arrived in Linlithgow – wow! You could almost feel its delight as it sent the diapasons storming down the central aisle, making the most of the Pugin resonance, and sounding twice its size. It’s a heritage instrument, one of the best in Scotland, and it lives in a heritage church which suits it beautifully.
And now it’s even more powerful. Must go and find a toccata or two to practise …
Just back from a holiday in a cottage on the Westmorland moors. Very peaceful, apart from some soulful-looking visitors. No sheep around this time, but they’ll be there when we return – some time next year, I hope.
And now back to the fray. It won’t be a straightforward run-up to Christmas this year. Quite a lot will happen before then, one way and another. Not to mention our totally unpredictable weather …
Or why, if they do, is their singing lacklustre and unenthusiastic so much of the time?
I say ‘so much of the time’ because I have played at Catholic occasions when the singing is nothing short of wonderful.
So it isn’t that they can’t sing. They just don’t sing. Why?
Here are some reasons I have gathered from various sources, with my comments:
1. They haven’t picked up a hymn book/Mass sheet so don’t have the words. [Easy to remedy]
2. They don’t think the priest is interested. [True in some cases, perhaps, but most priests are as puzzled as anyone.]
3. The hymns and Mass parts aren’t announced. [That’s the way the Mass works, of course, although occasionally the priest is able to announce a hymn, say at the beginning. Not sure that it makes much difference.]
4. They don’t get a good lead from the organist. [This IS significant. Organists need training and encouragement to give the all-important lead. Protestant churches mainly employ professionals, which could be a factor in their success.]
5. They don’t know most of the tunes [Teaching routine needed.]
6. The person with the loud voice in the next pew puts them off. [Not in every pew, surely?]
7. The choir puts them off. [Choirs can learn to blend rather than dominate.]
8. The big voice with the microphone puts them off. [Puts me off, too.]
9. Catholic liturgy pre-Vatican II didn’t have congregational singing. It isn’t part of our tradition. [But that was half a century ago – most people don’t remember it.]
10. In the days of persecution in Ireland, Mass had to be celebrated secretly and quietly. Most of us are descended from Irish immigrants. [Again, and I write as one such descendant, that was a long time ago. Also, I’ve noticed the singing problem in France and Spain, too.]
11. They don’t want to appear to be like the Protestants. [I thought we all got along well these days.]
12. They don’t want to sing, full stop, and why should they be forced to? [I know just one person with this view. It can’t be widespread, surely]
The sheer number and variety of these reasons are mind-boggling. Many of them are just guesses, of course, although some, like 1, 4, 7 and 8, might be worth pursuing.
But let’s be more positive. Two questions which might inspire helpful comments from readers:
There are parishes in which the congregational singing is always good. If your parish is one of these, why do you think this is?
Why do certain hymns buck the trend? I’m thinking of ‘Soul of my Saviour’ and hymns to Our Lady. These are invariably absolutely belted out. I love playing them, and wish we had them more often.
The Linlithgow Singing Day of 31 August, which turned into a Singing/Guitars/Organ Day, in fact went very well indeed, with a big attendance (55) for this sort of event, excellent leaders and enthusiastic participants. I’ve put a full report with pictures on the Events page. An email requesting feedback has gone out, and replies are coming in. I’ll add a summary of the comments to the report in due course.
All the music was greatly appreciated, and it is perhaps not fair to single out any one item, but I think the St Magdalene Gloria by Eugene Burns does deserve a mention. Eugene contacted Forth in Praise last year when his Gloria was officially approved, and I tried it out in my own parish, where it has gone well. It is extremely simple, a refrain Gloria with chanted verses on the lines of the old Bellahouston Gloria, and an excellent ‘way in’ for congregations tackling the new liturgy Gloria for the first time. It can be listened to and downloaded for free here.
There was one peculiar moment right at the beginning of the day, when I first arrived at the church. A cheerful crowd of singers and guitarists had already gathered outside, and among them were two young men wearing black ties. I did a double-take, and then realised.
‘Funeral?’ I asked. They nodded.
‘Sorry, but you’re at the wrong church.’
My husband showed them the quickest way to get to the ‘other’ St Michael’s – the famous medieval church next to the Palace – and off they ran. I do hope they made it in time.
Just a statement of fact. This is my last time organising an Archdiocesan singing day, as I retire from active duties at the end of the year. And the 31 August day in Linlithgow looks as though it will be quite an event.
Several times I’ve been asked ‘Why isn’t there anything specially for organists?’ The answer is that it is always tricky to work something like this into a day for singers, but this time I thought we’d try, as it’s my last time, and as the organ is my instrument. So a half-hour organ slot was announced.
And what happens? Ten guitarists book. Frantic call to John Lindsay, our guitar maestro at past events. John, bless him, can come and will do a guitar session simultaneously with the organ slot. I have fond memories of a previous event led by John, where we had a positive sea of guitars, and a very impressive sound. So we now put chords on all the music and announce a guitar session.
And what happens? Someone phones asking why we aren’t doing any Gregorian chant …
However, in spite of all the preparatory hassle, we have a lot of bookings for the 31st and some good leaders. Past singing days have always been lively and full of enjoyment, with wonderfully enthusiastic participants, and we hope this one will be the same, especially as it’s my last one.
There’s still time to book (but only just – hand-outs get printed out in the next couple of days). Click here for details.
PS Re the Gregorian chant question, it is something we look at from time to time, but this year there is a major Musica Sacra event coming off in Glasgow in November. Details on our Events Page.
The session for beginner organists on 31 August now has two volunteers. We could do with one or two more, so maybe the fact that two brave souls have already come forward will encourage others. It won’t be a long session, and it should be fun!
More details on the Events page. If you want to take part do let me know in advance, and come and try out the organ if you like.
(Outside organist, brought in for wedding, surveys aged electronic piano gloomily)
Organist: If you don’t mind my asking, Father, why don’t you buy a proper electronic organ, made for church use? Some of them are actually less expensive than electronic pianos.
Priest: What’s the point? We have no organist.
If you think about it, there is a positive element hidden in that depressing answer: the implication that if there were an organist, he would buy a new instrument.
In just about every congregation, there are a few people who learned piano as children, enough to play easy arrangements of hymns or Mass parts. Many of these people would like to come forward and offer their services, but the main thing holding them back is nervousness about playing for a congregation. Or put more simply, FEAR!
Most organists started as pianists, and have been through this – I well remember the trembling-hands stage, long ago though it was. I also remember the ‘high’ when I first got it right. Playing in church is so rewarding once the nerves have been overcome.
The only real answer to nerves is simply to grit one’s teeth and persevere, but there are ways of making it easier, some of which I’ll mention in later posts. One helping-hand on offer this summer is a short session for inexperienced organists at our Singing Day on Saturday 31 August in Linlithgow (see Events page for more details about the day).
The plan is that two or three organ beginners – or even pianists who are just thinking about it – should each play an easy hymn for everyone else to sing to. The best way to ‘practise’ nerves is to accompany a crowd of sympathetic people who are all on your side. The organ we’ll be using is a small single-manual, and someone else will set the stops. No pedals, except for a volume pedal, which you can ignore if you wish.
To make this work, we need to know in advance who will take this on, and what music they would like to play. They’d be welcome to come and try out the organ in advance of the day, and at the same time look at the new Forth in Praise book of very, very easy hymn arrangements, which is to be launched on 31 August.
If we have no volunteers, then we won’t have the session, but that would be a pity. So if you are interested, or would just like to know more, please get in touch with me directly at email@example.com
If you mention it to your priest, I’m sure he would be very encouraging. Even perhaps to the point of promising a new organ …