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The Forth in Praise Organists' Blog

The personal views of a Catholic parish organist

October 12, 2011

Out and about (5)

evelyn @ 5:22 pm

For a moment I thought I was in one of those wonderful English cathedrals listening to an evensong choral anthem, such was the purity of tone, the precision, the expressiveness – in fact the sheer spirituality of the sound.

But I wasn’t. I was at a normal Sunday Mass in a local Catholic church in Maryhill, Glasgow. Of course, St Columba’s has a rather special director of music, but could even James MacMillan produce a parish choir like this?

After Mass, I went to have a word, and asked if he had brought Cappella Nova along. He thought I was joking and said how flattered his parish choir would be. So it was a parish choir. I was truly impressed, and henceforward will regard my own choir with a new and speculative eye.

One very interesting feature was the use of the opening antiphon instead of the standard processional hymn. This is real cutting-edge stuff. Like the psalm, the opening antiphon involves a learn-a-snippet-on-the-spot job for the congregation. James MacMillan made it easier by using the same bit of melody again as the psalm response. And the music was on the congregation’s Mass sheet, which was good. Why do we always assume that people can’t read music?

Other Mass parts flowed beautifully, in Latin and English, old and new liturgies, with hymns and a motet, all led by this tremendously-organised choir.

The only negative aspect, of which James MacMillan is fully aware, was a lack of serious singing from the congregation, either of the new music or of the standard hymns which one would expect people to know well. It’s so easy to say that ‘a good choir puts people off’ – I’ve heard it often – but I don’t think it’s true. A really good choir, like this one, boosts the congregational singing by careful blending. The organ accompaniment was strong, with a good lead. In a Protestant church, the singing from the people would have been raising the roof.

So this seemed to be just another instance of the ‘Catholics won’t sing’ phenomenon, which is of course widespread. Myself, I think the responsibility for this – and the solution – lies with the Catholic Church itself. But that’s for another blog post.

St Columba’s was a lovely experience, musically polished and full of innovation. A parish like this leads the way, inspires other parish musicians and helps to battle musical stagnation.

Well worth a visit, folks. And if you do go, please sing your heads off!

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