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James MacMillan is right: when it comes to music at Mass, less is more

22 November 2013 | by Brendan McCarthy, The Tablet's Arts Editor | Comments: 4

Several days ago in his blog on The Telegraph website, the composer James MacMillan said he would no longer write congregational music for the Catholic Church. His principal reason was the need to reassert “Gregorian plainsong as the very sound of Catholicism.”

MacMillan is well known for his traditionalist liturgical preferences, and I doubt he and I would find much common ground on the liturgical changes that took place under the papacy of Benedict XVI. But after Mass on a recent Sunday I really began to wonder if he had a point.

I usually go to my parish’s early Mass, where "less is more". It’s a quiet contemplative Mass, the nearest thing I can imagine to the Low Mass of the Old Rite. There is little ornamentation save for a sung Acclamation before the Gospel. I go for several reasons. It is plain, dignified and meditative.

But several weeks ago, unusually, I went to our parish’s main Mass. Now the choir there is really not bad as suburban parishes go – and its members are tremendously dedicated. But the music was a hotchpotch of nineteenth century Anglican and Methodist hymnody with gobbets from a concert Mass (Haydn). The hymn texts had little relationship that I could see to the readings of the day. This was the sound of English non-Catholic congregationalism, and not that of the Catholic world.

Several years ago, as Joseph Cullen, the director of The London Symphony Chorus made the case in The Tablet’s arts pages for the greater liturgical use of plainsong, or Gregorian chant. “It has existed for centuries but, as a contemporary Catholic, you might hardly know it. It seems culturally ironic that the beauties of “our” chant (for it really does belong to the Church) are now sought out in recorded performance by those who probably have never heard it in church. There also happens to be the role that plainsong has played in the development of at least five centuries of Western music. This is surely a measure of its richness.”

I agreed with Cullen when I read that article. It recalled for me the world in which I grew up and in which school choirs vied with each other at Liturgical Festivals, children of seven and eight learning, for instance, the Missa de Angelis or Missa Orbis Factor, two of the best known Gregorian chant settings for the Ordinary of the Mass. These festivals mostly disappeared after the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

Now I’m an enthusiast for these reforms, but I really miss the loss of the sound world described by MacMillan. Several years ago, I was at a broadcast of the BBC’s Choral Evensong. The producer of the day told me that he sometimes struggled to create a programme that was an occasion of proper worship – and not a concert performance.

The very worst Mass I have seen – and the grossest case of a "concert performance" - was one produced by Swiss television, where a gospel choir, gowned in the usual fig, encircled the altar behind the celebrant and completely dominated him throughout. The Mass became almost incidental. It gave me some insight into Joseph Ratzinger’s determination to change Catholicism’s direction of liturgical travel, even if I do not appreciate the compass bearing he chose.

Choral directors need to be beware lest in attempting to engage – and stretch – their choir members, they do the liturgy an unwitting disservice. Choral music should support the action of the liturgy – that and nothing else.

Less really is more – and never more so than with the sound of plainsong.

Brendan McCarthy is The Tablet's Arts Editor





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