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Feast of St. Cecilia, patron of musicians

James MacMillan - Fri, Nov 22nd 2013


Ancient flower children, or Catholic liturgists?

I have decided to stop writing congregational music for the Catholic Church. Those who follow these things will be aware that liturgical music can be a war zone in Catholicism. We need not detain ourselves over the reasons and fault-lines in the ongoing debates and struggles, but it is clear to me that there is too much music being created, at the same time as the vast repository of tradition is ignored and wilfully forgotten.

In the last year I have established a new organisation dedicated to reviving the practice of chant in the Church, Musica Sacra Scotland. Gregorian plainsong is the very sound of Catholicism and there have been recent attempts to adapt this music to English translations. Anglicans have had four hundred years of doing this kind of thing, so when the Ordinariate was established a truly great practical application of Catholic principles returned to the Church.

Also, the Americans seem to be ahead of the game and are producing new publications which enable the singing, in the vernacular, of those neglected Proper texts for Introits, Offertories and Communion. The creators of this music are curators of tradition more than "composers", with all the issues of individuality, style and aesthetics attendant on the word. But what these curators are doing is remarkable.

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In taking the shape and sound of Catholic chant, they are creating an authentic traditional repertoire for the new liturgical directions in the Church. They are making simple, singable, functional music to suit the nature of ecclesial ritual for a Church which went through various convulsions after the Second Vatican Council.

The British version of this is even more intriguing. The Blessed John Henry Newman Institute of Liturgical Music was set up in the wake of Pope Benedict’s visit to the UK in 2010 by Fr Guy Nicholls, an Oratorian priest from Birmingham. His Graduale Parvum is a most promising form of Proper chants, based on the pioneering work of László Dobszay.

Instead of relying upon newly composed simple chants, the work is based on the very thoughtful realisation that the Church already has a vast store of simpler Gregorian melodies, the antiphons of the Divine Office. These may be paired with the Proper text to form a new unity, with the authenticity of a true, ancient, Gregorian melody

This is a brilliantly thought-out project, and easy and lovely to sing. Also, over the last 35 years Westminster Cathedral has developed its own chant-based congregational music for the office and the Mass, in use daily, but particularly for 1st Vespers and Morning Prayer of Sundays throughout the year – the office is sung to chant by all without the help of a choir.

My encounters with these initiatives have convinced me that this is the most authentic way forward for Catholic music, combining the participatory ethos of Vatican II with the deep history and traditions of the music of the Church. It is an encouraging development after decades of experiment which spewed forth music of mind-numbingly depressing banality. A lot of the favoured new settings are musically illiterate, almost is if they were written by semi-trained teenagers, getting to grips with musical rudiments. The style is stodgy and sentimental, tonally and rhythmically stilted, melodically inane and adored by Catholic clergy “of a certain age.”


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. A whole industry has grown up to promote this material, mainly in the USA, where, it is alleged, there is sometimes dodgy publishing and promotional carve-ups between "composers", specialist publishing houses and Church authorities.

My writing for choirs will continue, but I want to help in the development of music for the assembly – the ordinary Catholic man and woman in the pew, the musical non-specialist who needs to be able to sing their prayers. Rather than adding to the huge and unnecessary load of modern congregational material, musicians would be better employed in the careful curating of a traditional reservoir of beautiful chant that can be adapted for the reality of the contemporary church. The alternative is terrifying.

There is clearly something wrong with an organisation that has allowed this to happen. Opening up the Church to the modern world was not an invitation to commercial populists in full lounge-lizard mode.


One of the most important lessons I received as a young musician was to study the contours and modes of Gregorian chant. In preparing to learn how the species counterpoint of Palestrina works, one of the first exercises a student is asked to undertake is to write melodies in the style of plainchant. This might have been the singularly most invaluable thing I have ever done in music. It lays the bedrock for so much – in melodic writing, in consideration of the building blocks of polyphonic complexity and in the search for spiritual serenity.

Recently a priest from Ayrshire asked me to write some chants for a Catholic youth event. I remembered my early training – the necessity to return to monodic simplicity and anonymity. The lights went on. Hopefully these developments will lead to much more of this,
and this, and far, far less of this:


God willing

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