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The personal views of a Catholic parish organist

April 16, 2014

Holy Week is crisis time!

evelyn @ 8:50 pm

No matter how you try to pace things, there’s always some crisis comes up behind you and gives you a wallop during Holy Week. If you’re an organist, that is. Everyone else serenely takes advantage of the chance for prayer and quiet meditation. But not organists. Or choirs. Or cantors. And priests probably get pretty harassed, too. The number of downloads of the Forth in Praise Exsultet in staff notation has been phenomenal this year. The Litany of the Saints has been busy, too (find them here if you’re interested).

Yesterday, I came home from the final choir practice and said, foolishly, ‘Well that’s the worst over. All I have to do now is play the organ for the rest of the week’. Saying things like that is asking for trouble.

First, my organ practice session was cut short because an email concerning the choir needed to be attended to urgently (moral: switch your phone off when practising). Then the cantor for Holy Thursday (tomorrow!) went down with a bug, and I’ve spent the day scanning music and creating MP3 files for her stand-in, with whom I’ll have to practise this evening after the ecumenical service, instead of socialising in the hall. In addition, I’ve just realised that I’ve overlooked the extra practice needed with two of the Vigil cantors who are doing a special psalm. Not sure how that can be fitted in now. No doubt these won’t be the only problems …

Still, I shouldn’t complain really. This is my first organ-playing Holy Week for three years. In 2012 I prepared the choir during Lent, but then went to Australia for Easter, and last year I was on crutches and wishing I could play. So I’d better just get on with it, and be thankful.

Happy Easter, everyone, when it comes!

April 1, 2014

Lent and Laudate

evelyn @ 8:43 pm

Me (getting excited): … and during the refrain there will be shrieks from the sopranos and altos.

A soprano (huffily): We don’t shriek.

Me (on a roll now): Oh, yes, you’ll shriek this time. You’re going to be anguished souls, begging for forgiveness, while the  baritones relentlessly hammer out the melody over a solemn drumbeat which I’ll do on the pedals. It’s going to be chilling!

A pause. They look at me in silence.

Me (rather lamely): Or at least, that’s the idea.

We were planning Lent for the choir. I’d always loved the ‘God of mercy and compassion’ tune (Pergolesi’s Au sang qu’un Dieu), and thought it could be arranged dramatically as a penitential choir piece. The singers did eventually warm to the idea – in fact, they became quite enthusiastic – and I was given the go-ahead for my chills and thrills, provided I used the ‘old words’. So I set to work.

The oldest words I could find were in the St Andrew Hymnal. Four verses, the middle two featuring hell and eternal damnation. Hmm. Not the most popular of topics these days.

Next, one of the older Mayhew books. They’d just taken the first and last verses of the St Andrew set. Yes, that would do. Two verses are fine for a choir anthem, and I could create a ‘hell and damnation’ interlude between the verses with some loud organ discords over the steady beat.

So on the first Sunday in Lent we did it during Communion, the sopranos and altos singing strongly with feeling (but not shrieking) ‘Jesus! Mercy!’ over the men’s ‘Jesus, Lord, I ask for mercy’ line. All the ‘hell’ discords were in place and the pedals, carefully coupled, were suitably inexorable. It was certainly different from the usual Lenten fare, but happily, reaction was good. Our parish priest liked the drama and said ‘Do it like that at the Station Mass’ (the deanery Lenten Mass when the Archbishop comes).

Ah. A problem here. The hymn was down for congregational participation at the Station Mass. This meant I would have to cut out the interlude in the middle. Oh well, needs must. At least the vocal harmonies could remain, so long as we changed the words to those in our church hymnal, Laudate, which the people would be using.

I hadn’t considered these ‘new’ words before, and when I looked at them, I have to say, I recoiled. Laudate had done it again, substituting modern blandness and abstraction for something which was obviously deemed too negative (remember the disappearance of the wicked men from ‘I’ll sing a hymn to Mary’?). How could I put ‘Jesus! Mercy!’ shrieks, or any shrieks, over a line which reads ‘Truth insistent and demanding’?

I put the problem to our priest, who simply removed the hymn from the congregational list, and told us to do just what we had done on the previous Sunday. And we did, too.

But, but, BUT … (and I’ve asked this before)

WHY are publishers allowed to DO this sort of thing? Admittedly, there is much less of it in Laudate than in the Mayhew books. But in this instance, a superb tune of great power is wrecked by totally inappropriate words, which frankly have very little merit as poetry – to my mind, anyway.

Why can’t the Catholic Church, which monitors every dot and comma in a Mass setting, take control of its own hymns?

March 27, 2014

The Open Diapason nearly hit the Benylin!

evelyn @ 10:52 pm
The Open Diapason nearly hit the Benylin!

There isn’t a lot of room on the console below the Great stops, even less on the Swell side. Certainly not enough to set out my full chemist’s shop. I have this horrible cold and cough which has gone on for days, and last night was the deanery Lenten Station Mass, celebrated by the Archbishop with various deanery clergy. So I had to stagger out to play. Full choir presence meant little room in the gallery. I had cough sweets lined up, paper off, plus bottles of water and cough mixture, uncorked for easy swigging. All these were on the Great side of the console, furthest from public view though very visible to the choir. All the space was taken up and my tissue box was beside me on the bench. Ready to go, I thought.

Then I looked at the size of the congregation – at least 250 and still coming in – and a little voice told me that at some point I was going to need EVERYTHING. I had planned a sort of low-key accompaniment, mainly on the Swell, to point up the choir, and we’re in Lent, after all. And in my state of health, I’d be playing on automatic, anyway. Trouble is, when there’s a big response from the people down below, ‘automatic’ tends to start adding stops – sort of, automatically. The Great Open Diapason is a beautiful, massive sound, and I could see myself going for it without thinking. The little voice pointed out that if I did this as things stood, the Open Diapason stop would hit the Benylin cough mixture, which would then pour itself slowly on to the pedals, which I would have to keep playing. My organ shoes would be wrecked and a major clean-up job required on the pedals before next Sunday.

Well, it didn’t happen. I put the cough mixture on the bench, re-corking it against accidental choir jostling. I actually only needed it during the Archbishop’s homily, when I had a real old coughing fit. The sopranos watched sympathetically. I do hope I haven’t infected them.

This is a bit of an inconsequential blog post, but I don’t feel up to anything serious. However, I must register my thanks to the voice in my ear (a Lenten angel, perhaps? Or just a hidden part of my brain that was actually working?) which said ‘Don’t you realise what will happen if you pull that stop?’

March 16, 2014

Chant – why the fuss?

evelyn @ 11:49 pm
Chant - why the fuss?

A few years ago, a Church of Scotland member of our local Organists’ Society asked some of us to compose something for a small concert he was giving with his choir. I produced a chanted responsorial psalm, which turned out to be a big mistake. Knowing they were not particularly chant-oriented, I had written it out fully with all the time-signatures, rather than using any form of chant notation. Probably another mistake. The singers clearly regarded chant as an alien beast, and were obviously unhappy. They were polite to me, but I can imagine the remarks during practices. Maybe I should have taken a hand in the practices (mistake number three).

Some months later, a similar event took place in my own church, and I did the same psalm with a couple of our cantors, the audience being invited to sing the response. ‘Ah!’, said my friend of the previous disaster, enlightened. ‘So that’s how it should be done!

There’s a lot of talk, and even conflict, among Scottish Catholics about chant at the moment. It’s being talked of as something different and innovative, even ‘elitist’, or old-fashioned and needing revival. However, chant has always been with us parish Catholics, even after Vatican II. For example, the 1982 Bellahouston Gloria had chanted verses, as has the new liturgy St Magdalene Gloria, the current ‘default Gloria’ in my own church. Chant, whether in English or Latin, is simply singing in speech rhythm, rather than in measured bars. Catholics are so used to the idea, unlike our C of S colleagues, that we take it for granted and do it without thinking.

The text of the liturgy has always been rhythmically irregular, and the new liturgy is rather more so. It is difficult to set it convincingly in regular beats (though it can been done, of course – the best example I know is the Newman Gloria, magnificently set from start to finish in a rousing 4/4 metre by, ironically, serious chant-advocate James MacMillan). But the new liturgy texts do take well to the familiar ebb and flow of ‘sung-spoken’ chant. There’s nothing elitist about that (unless you think the old Bellahouston Gloria was elitist). It’s the lingua franca of Catholic liturgical singing.

The ICEL chant offered to us at the time of the new liturgy was, in my view, not the best introduction to chanting the main parts of the Mass in English. The notation, which ICEL appears to have invented, is confusing. Although they have used genuine Gregorian melodies, simplification and brevity seem to have been their main concerns. Thus we have the very boring Gloria from Missa XV and the short Sanctus and Agnus from the Requiem Mass. Did they really think we were too ignorant to recognise the funereal nature of these last two melodies? You don’t have to be old to know the Requiem chants; a familiarity with the wonderful setting by Marcel Duruflé is all that is needed. And I for one have to say I feel uncomfortable singing known Requiem melodies on an ordinary Sunday, let alone on a feast day.

However, James MacMillan is promoting chant very seriously in Musica Sacra Scotland, and now Monsignor Gerry Fitzpatrick, who runs St Mungo Music (and is chairman of the much-discussed National Music Advisory Board), has praised and recommended chant in his most recent newsletter. Chant is now deemed worthy by all parties, and hopefully a greater variety of chanted Mass settings will become available to us.

So as we all appear to be singing from the same hymn sheet (sorry, liber), there should be no reason for argument.

Unless the conflict is about music other than chant. But that’s for another post.

March 9, 2014

MacMillan v NMAB – next round

evelyn @ 8:45 pm
MacMillan v NMAB - next round

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

You must read this!

evelyn @ 3:27 pm

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

100 Easy Hymns

evelyn @ 6:53 pm
100 Easy Hymns

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

I must have missed something!

evelyn @ 2:34 pm
I must have missed something!

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

A reader’s view: guest post by Gill

evelyn @ 2:26 pm
A reader's view: guest post by Gill

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

Fame at last?

evelyn @ 9:31 pm

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 …


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