March 9, 2014
Saturday’s Scotsman featured the latest in this struggle, a journalist having interviewed composer James MacMillan about his campaign for membership of the National Music Advisory Board (read more about this on the St Columba’s website). To my amazement, some of my own prose, described as ‘veiled in cautious terms’ was quoted in the article (for the record, the so-called caution was not inspired by deference to the NMAB, as the paper suggests, but was an attempt to write objectively and factually about a subject which is becoming increasingly emotionally-charged).
Much more interesting were some of the other points which emerged, with my comments in italics:
- James MacMillan was asked if his promotion of Gregorian chant is seen as ‘elitist’. (Chant? Elitist? Even the happy-clappy brigade surely don’t think that. They just think it’s boring, and if in Latin, incomprehensible.) The composer’s reply was measured, possibly because he is so often accused of elitism, and reasonably generous to the happy-clappies. But chant is the way to go, as he sees it.
- Dr Roger Williams of Aberdeen widens the field, pointing out the many Catholic settings written by the great composers of the past. (Yes! This is a veritable treasure-house.) He thinks most of it can be ‘adapted and adopted’ to suit the present Vatican II rules. (I’m not so sure this can readily be done without a dumbing-down effect, unless with the simplest of settings. I’d rather see some compromise on the part of the Vatican. But it would be worth a try.)
- But by far the most astonishing bit of news is that the National Music Advisory Board is to be ‘reviewed’ and, apparently, re-formed. The Scotsman journalist was told this directly by the Scottish Catholic Media Office. As of today there is nothing about it on the SCMO website. As usual, we are getting our information about happenings in our Church from the secular press.
So is it game, set and match to MacMillan? Sorry, I meant, is this the knock-out punch?
We can only wait and see.
February 28, 2014
Eccles is saved is my very favourite Catholic blog, and today’s post, on the subject of hymns, is one of the best ever. I just have to share it.
February 23, 2014
Somewhat to my surprise, the very basic Forth in Praise 100 Easy hymns for Organ Beginners has sold extremely well. Experienced organists, as well as absolute beginners have bought it, and not only in the Archdiocese. Orders have come from as far away as Canada, and some people have requested more than one copy.
Why should experienced players want such a simple format? Well, some have welcomed the addition of chords to older hymns which don’t usually have them in the main hymn books. Others, especially those who play in more than one church, like to be able to fill out the two part structure with harmonies according to the size of the congregation and the capabilities of the instrument. Others still have found the single bass line a great boost for pedal practice, as they can take the rest of the harmony in the right hand and concentrate on their feet.
Very few copies remain now. You can find the list of contents and a sample on our Publications and Downloads page. Remember that the words (except for Latin hymns) are not included and and the book would therefore always have to be used in conjunction with your usual hymnal. If you’re interested, use the contact email to get in touch.
But do it soon.
February 15, 2014
In this week’s Scottish Catholic Observer there is an announcement that Bishop Hugh Gilbert of Aberdeen, President of the Liturgy Commission of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, is to become the patron of Musica Sacra Scotland, the James MacMillan-inspired body which is promoting a return to chant in the Mass.
What’s interesting about this is that I, and others whom I have asked, had no idea that leadership of the National Liturgy Commission had passed from Bishop Toal to Bishop Gilbert. Have we missed an announcement?
On the whole, the change at the top would appear to be good news. Bishop Toal’s huge workload, which includes running two dioceses, was no doubt the reason that the committee which approves new Mass music for publication hasn’t met for almost a year.
Now, I wonder, does this link with Musica Sacra indicate the shape of things to come? I’m very fond of chant, although I wouldn’t want it to take over absolutely everything. I must add, though, that one thing I don’t want to have to sing or play is that dreadful dumbed-down ICEL Gloria, known among my associates as the ‘Woodpecker’ Gloria (tap-tap-tap-tap … ).
And when are they going to report all this news on James MacMillan’s St Columba’s Choir website? And take down that dreadful picture of me that heads it at the moment?
Speaking of which, is there any news about what did happen to Musica Sacra’s request for membership of the National Music Advisory Board?
Am I missing things right, left and centre?
January 28, 2014
English reader Gill has sent in the piece below as a comment. I felt her words were worthy of more than comment status, so here is the Organists’ Blog very first guest post:
This may not be the most appropriate place in which to have a little rant about published music, but
1. .Most organists in ordinary Catholic parish churches in the UK are not trained organists.
2. Most of the published Mass settings are produced in complicated arrangements.
3. These complicated arrangements take much time to learn and often need adapting by these untrained (and unpaid) organists who, eg cannot stretch/contort their fingers into the given left hand chords in the given time, and have to choose which notes to ignore.
4. By the time the organist has adapted the piece to fit his/her capabilities, and played it on an electronic organ without footpedals, without the aid of a trained choir or cantor to lead, the piece is often not quite the same piece of music as the composer orginally intended.
7. It also doesn’t sound the same at 9 am with a congregation of about 50, few, if any of whom, can stretch to top C or D,
Before someone suggests ‘why bother to sing then?’ – why shouldn’t we? we like singing but would like something we can sing.
The Belmont Gloria was good to start with for ordinary Sundays, but it is a less than cheerful one for festival days. Our congregation wanted something more tuneful (I think they mean more hymn-like than plainchant). We tried Christopher Walker’s St Paul’s Gloria but it does not sound like it does in the Cathedral, however the congregation have sung Dan Shutte’s Christ the Saviour with great enjoyment but we now need a change.
What is wrong with some of our major composers producing something simple for us poor organists? And putting it in a very simple yet tuneful arrangement for congregations who have been brought up on Anglican hymns tunes since the 1960s. The vast majority of Catholics these days know nothing else. Laudate is full of even more Anglican hymn tunes – to which I have no objection, indeed I like many of them.
Even though we are in England – we are going to try Evelyn Stell’s St Michael Gloria. [How nice - thank you, Gill. Did you know that it actually got through the Scottish approval committee, and is therefore 'legal' everywhere!]
PS – But why did Laudate have to mess with the words of hymns such as ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’ and remove others such as ‘Be Still my Soul’ is beyond me. I know some of the 1970s type hymns were poorly constructed and needed eliminating, but they do seem to have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. [I couldn't agree more - what right have publishers to do this?]
Thank you very much for this, Gill.
January 14, 2014
Well, not exactly fame, but a rather boring email attachment of mine has become, to my great surprise, the most recent post on the Choir of St Columba’s blog, the James MacMillan one. Their previous article had been about the National Music Advisory Board, which they saw as secretive and only interested in its own type of music, something which a ‘national’ body shouldn’t be, of course. They wanted to know more about this mysterious committee.
I was on the NMAB for some years, and I wouldn’t have called it secretive, so I sent in my own impressions, with permission to use as they wished. But read the rest here.
James MacMillan is now requesting membership of the NMAB for his Musica Sacra group. By rights, there should be no problem about that. But after his savaging of the NMAB’s chairman’s music he may not be the most popular of new members.
A colleague has suggested that James MacMillan also savaged ME in that article, when he said:
- Some Catholic dioceses run courses for wannabe composers to perpetuate this style. It is a scandal. People with hardly any training and experience of even the basic building blocks of music have been convinced that there is a place for their puerile stumblings and fumblings in the modern Catholic Church because real musicians are elitist and off-putting.
Well, of course, we had our Forth in Praise composers’ day in November 2012, but the style he is referring to is Dan Schutte’s, which we most certainly didn’t promote. In fact, we didn’t promote any particular style, just tried to impart technical and word-setting information generally. And we are real musicians.
I await the NMAB developments with great interest …
January 6, 2014
“I made a New Year resolution not to react like this, and I’ve broken it already!”
This I said on Sunday, having just been given the news, five minutes before Mass began, that the men in the choir had, unknown to me, practised an arrangement of The First Nowell which clashed with the soprano descant. I was annoyed, to put it mildly, and it showed.
I tried to resolve things by suggesting they sang alternate verses, but it didn’t work, and the Schoenberg-like result was most interesting. By the end of the six verses I had begun to see the funny side, and hoped they had, too, but when I turned round with a big grin, all I could see were dismal faces.
Afterwards, we sorted things out with apologies all round. There had been a breakdown in communications, and we would organise things so that it wouldn’t recur. It’s really good that our men are so keen that they have their own practices, and the last thing I want to do is discourage them.
But I’m left concerned that I can’t keep a New Year resolution beyond five days. Is this the cantankerousness of old age setting in? I am after all approaching a major birthday. Will I become known in the church as ‘Mrs Grumpy’ or possibly, by the academically-minded, as ‘Dr Grumpy’?
Advice from the oracle (my former organ teacher) is that I should have shrugged my shoulders and gone with what they had practised without losing my cool, leaving the Schoenberg effect to administer the rebuke. So maybe the revised New Year resolution should be ‘just let it happen – and smile’.
Will let you know how long I manage to keep that one …
January 1, 2014
Happy New Year to all readers!
As from today I am no longer Convener of Forth in Praise, although still hanging around on the fringes of the Liturgy Commission as webmaster of this website.
With retirement comes a freedom of expression which I didn’t have before, and which I propose to exercise on this blog, especially as things may well be hotting up on the Scottish liturgical music scene (see the leading article on the St Columba’s website).
So do keep reading – I’m hoping this year will be fun!
All the best to everyone for 2014.
December 14, 2013
I’m busy tying up the loose ends of my departure from active service (though I’ll continue to maintain website and blog) but just want to say a bit more about James MacMillan’s Telegraph article, mentioned in my last post. The article has been commented on by Bernadette Farrell in The Tablet, and a variety of comments have been made on the Pray Tell blog.
Bernadette Farrell deplores MacMillan’s denigration of styles of music which are spiritually meaningful to many people. The fact that most types of music had some meaning for somebody was of course why Forth in Praise embraced all styles (within reason!) in our Music Days; this was our remit from the Liturgy Commission. Over the years we featured, among others, the three composers whose music James MacMillan ridicules in his article. Not all of our team personally liked this type of music, but each of these composers has a following. We also spent a lot of time on James MacMillan’s music as well. And on chant. Not everyone liked those, either.
The downside of this catholicity is of course that our Music Days received criticism from all quarters, some of which I agreed with. (But for me, now, there will be no more of these days … no, nay, never no more … )
The other main point made by James MacMillan was about incompetence in composing and arranging music, and here I agree with him totally. Since Vatican II itself, Catholic organists in this country have been plagued with music writing of extremely poor technical quality and with no understanding of the organ. This stuff has been published in certain inexplicably-popular hymn books, ‘full music’ copies of which have been finding their way into organ galleries and causing no end of grief to organists who discover that once they have mastered this music, it still sounds wrong.
I went into some detail about one of these editions in a previous post. Re-reading it today, I was amused at my criticism of tango rhythm accompaniments. I was not to know then that we were to have an Argentine pope. Recently a video has been circulating of a Mass in Argentina, celebrated by Pope Francis when he was an archbishop. I won’t give a specific link, but you’ll find it all over Youtube. As part of the liturgy, a couple danced a tango in front of the altar.
Almost unbelievable, isn’t it.
But it gives ‘Do not be afraid’ a whole new dimension …
November 24, 2013
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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 …