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Catholic Sacred Music: Raising the Tone

James MacMillan, CBE

Scot composer James MacMillan

Regina Magazine - published on 08/03/14

Renowned composer James MacMillan, a Catholic and a Scot, is leading a movement to restore beauty to liturgical music.
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James MacMillan, CBE is one of the world’s most successful composers and a globally renowned conductor. First internationally recognized in 1990, his prolific work has since been performed and broadcast around the world. He was Composer/Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic from 2000-2009 and Principal Guest Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Kamer Filharmonie until 2013.

Mr. MacMillan’s music reflects his Scottish heritage, Catholic faith, social conscience and close connection with Celtic folk music. He is also an outspoken critic of much contemporary Catholic church music, and recently sat down for an exclusive interview with Regina Magazine to discuss his point of view.

Q. First, tell us about Musica Sacra Scotland.
In the last year I have established a new organisation dedicated to reviving the practice of chant in the Church, Musica Sacra Scotland. It is based around a number of committed individuals in various Scottish dioceses, and has so far organised one national conference in Glasgow, November 2013 and is preparing for a second one in Dundee, November 2014. 

Q. What do you find so compelling about this project?
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.

Q. And what do you think of this development in the US?
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. In taking the shape and sound of Catholic chant, they are creating an authentic traditional repertoire for the liturgy of the Church. They are making simple, sing-able, functional music to suit the nature of ecclesial ritual for a Church which went through various convulsions after the Second Vatican Council.

Q. What is happening in the United Kingdom?
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 realization 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.

Q. Why have you taken a leadership position on this?
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 as if they were written by semi-trained teenagers, getting to grips with musical rudiments. The style is stodgy and sentimental, tonally and rhythmically stunted and melodically inane.

Q. What sort of response have you received—from singers, parishes, dioceses?
So far the response has been very positive. The Scottish Bishops have been supportive, and in fact the Bishop of Aberdeen, Hugh Gilbert, has become our Patron.

I think there is a real thirst for what we are doing after decades of drift and unavoidable confusion as the Church embraced vernacular languages.

Q. Is there very much resistance to this music?
Scottish Catholics need to be constantly reminded just how crucial the issue of our liturgy actually is. It is a shame that the discussion sometimes descends to a straight comparison between the New Rite and the Extraordinary Form.

No one is arguing that the New Rite should be replaced, but the reappearance of the old Latin Rite, on the fringes for the moment, can’t help but be a good thing in the long run for the universal Church. The realisation that there are such considerations as good and bad practice, authentic and inauthentic approaches, attributes of holiness, goodness of form and universality, is the breakthrough that many of us have been hoping for. These considerations should always be at the forefront of the minds of anyone who is responsible for the liturgy, whether priest or people.

Q. Okay, so what is so important about all of this?
I believe there is a wider question facing us all. It sits awkwardly in this country as there has always been a strongly anti-aesthetic thrust to Scottish Catholicism. The question is: “Is it possible to make a case for an objective beauty in the Liturgy of the Church in the 21st century?”

Yes, Beauty. When was the last time we heard a homily on that subject? We hear a lot about Truth. We hear a lot about Goodness.

But what about the other one? The beautiful, the true, and the good—these are the fundamental values that have been recognized since antiquity as the intrinsic qualities from which all values are essentially derived. Just as a million shades of colour can be mixed from three primaries, so too can a million shades of quality be traced back to these primary values.

Truth, goodness, and beauty form a triad of terms which have been discussed together throughout the tradition of Western thought. They have been called “transcendental” on the ground that everything which is, is in some measure or manner subject to denomination as true or false, good or evil, beautiful, or ugly. In addition to philosophers, scientists, and politicians, many mystics and spiritual teachers have also championed the idea of these three essential “windows on the divine.”

Q. What is Scottish, do you think, about this debate?
To a Scottish male, like me, brought up in a macho, working class culture in Ayrshire, I hardly ever heard the word Beauty being uttered in my formative years.

I think a lot of working class males would have real difficulty even forming the word in their mouths! Imagine all that nervous, self-conscious embarrassed puckering of the lips into a shape that had never been on that hard-man’s face before!

And yet, Beauty is at the heart of our Christian faith. It should be paramount in our attentions as we approach the Throne of all Beauty for our divine praises. Divine praises which, in this country over the years, have been devised mostly by macho, Scottish working class males.

Q. An interesting perspective. Why do you think that ‘beauty’ is such a hot button topic today in Scotland – and around the global Church?
Into this difficult situation comes  the question of “what is beauty?” Isn’t it just in the eye of the beholder? My beauty can be your ugliness, etc, etc. Can beauty ever be objective? Isn’t the concept of absolute beauty distant and detached from most people? It’s not very ‘inclusive,’ is it?

This has been a useful argument for those who have been determined to push home the dumbing-down agenda, inside and outside the Church. As far as this discussion is concerned, it has been useful for those who wish to treat Liturgy as ‘self-expression’ or a canvas on which they can fling the values, feelings (of course) and “concerns” of “the community.” This is a distortion of the Catholic concept of Liturgy which displaces the focus from its essential orientation towards God, and places it instead on US.

It is part of the turn towards “Self”’ which the Canadian Oratorian Jonathon Robinson describes as “like a self-preoccupied adolescent who sees the world completely in terms of his own standpoint.”

The result of all this is that “the centre of interest in the liturgy, which ought to be the mystery of Christ and the adoration of the living God, has been shifted into a forum for ideological or sociological reflection.” This is not beautiful.

This is what some of the anxiety and resistance in Scotland can be about sometimes. It is not an either/or debate about Latin and the vernacular, and it certainly has hardly anything to do with the Tridentine Mass.

Q. So what is it that makes some people so defensive and indeed, angry, about a critical commentary on contemporary liturgy?
It may have a lot to do with the navel-gazing that characterises a self-preoccupied form of worship—which risks turning the community in on itself. The spatial arrangements in modern liturgy are worthy of our reflection here.

Pope Benedict himself said:

“The turning of the priest towards the people has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle. In its outward form, it no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above, but is closed in on itself…(Previously) it was much more a question of priest and people facing in the same direction, knowing that together they were in a procession towards the Lord. They did not close themselves into a circle; they did not gaze at one another; but as the pilgrim People of God they set off for the Oriens, for the Christ who comes to meet us.”

This is beautiful. In contrast, the current narcissistic ‘community focus’ does not necessarily make the Church a finer organ of salvation and charity, as Robinson notes that “this focus on the community has not resulted in a more effective evangelisation or in an increased influence of the Church in the modern world… (it) has led to an increasing ineffectiveness of the Church, at least in the West.

Q. So how would you characterize the question at the heart of this debate in Scotland?
Pope Benedict reminded us,

“The Liturgy is not an expression of the consciousness of a community, which, in any case, is diffuse and changing. It is revelation received in faith and prayer, and its measure is consequently the faith of the Church, in which revelation is received.”

Are we Scots honestly at ease with the sloppy, complacent, sentimental banalities practiced in many of our Churches?

Or can we be inspired to reach out to the objective beauty of a timeless, archetypal Catholic praise?

Here’s an interview of James MacMillan at the first Musica Sacra Scotland Conference in November 2013.

Interview originally published in Regina Magazine’s August 2014 issue © 2014 and is reposted with permission. All rights reserved.

LiturgySacred Music
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