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The Forth in Praise Organists' Blog

The personal views of a Catholic parish organist

November 24, 2013

Thoughts on James MacMillan’s latest statement

evelyn @ 6:05 pm

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 …

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