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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.

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.

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LiturgySacred Music
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