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It’s not the composer’s place to denigrate worship styles
28 November 2013 by Bernadette Farrell

Last week the composer James MacMillan announced that he was going to stop writing congregational music for the Catholic Church because he wanted Catholics to rediscover Gregorian Chant. He said decades of “mind-numbingly depressing banality” had followed the Second Vatican Council. He cited songs by Paul Inwood, Dan Schutte and Gerry Fitzpatrick as examples of the style he wanted the Church to get away from. Here another writer of church music responds.

What makes good liturgy? The Prophet Micah poses the same question: What worship does God require? And the answer has no solutions for the liturgy or music committee. No recipe. Only this: do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).

We, the people of God, have always found it easier to obsess about the details of perfect worship than we have to examine what acting justly really means. We've found it easier to argue over hymns and songs – than to serve those different from ourselves. Christian liturgy announces the hope that we can live together as brothers and sisters in a just society. “Your kingdom come, your will be done.”

Arguments over style are a distraction. The Liber Usualis book of plainchant did not arrive complete from heaven, it evolved through centuries of human effort. The same is true of all music. Every genre, including plainsong, includes good and bad examples.

Songs we treasure carry the prayer of generations and earn this respect from the people. Throughout the Reformation the people of God began to sing and participate, they separated the wheat from the chaff, adopting some songs and letting others go. The same can be said of our own time. The unanimous vote at the Second Vatican Council on the constitution on the liturgy was the fruit of more than 70 years of effort. The vision was full and active participation in our common baptism. A conversion that removes my own needs and desires from the centre of my life and replaces it with others’. Paul Inwood's piece – Centre of my life, that James Macmillan cited in his blog posting – expresses this reality for many people.

It is not my place, and neither is it James Macmillan's, to denigrate songs which enable people to pray, to celebrate hope, to grieve, to love and to follow Christ.



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Comment by: James A
Posted: 09/10/2014 16:40:59

This is a difficult one because Bernadette Farrell's music betrays a solid and rigorous musicianship (you could imagine, in different circumstances, that she would compose very workperson-like choral music for the cathedral tradition). I like it. And I heard one of her metrical Psalms (121/2) used to stunning effect at the enthronement of the Anglican bishop in Gibraltar, last month. Nonetheless, she has been in the forefront of the movement that (arrogantly to my mind) has repudiated the past in a philistine and indiscriminate manner, insisting that authentic sung Roman liturgy should resemble edited highlights of the Old grey Whistle Test. There is something juvenile about the Inwood-Fitzpatrick-Mayhew tendency which thinks that novelty is preferable to the grounded and rooted tradition; or that people can only worship if everything is reduced to the lowest common denominator. If the St Thomas Moore group and people like them had not colluded with Josef Yungmann's analysis of the roots of the Roman Rite (now widely questioned) by throwing the baby out with the bath-water, may be we would not have had this disastrous translation of the Missal, and the political impetus that accompanied it, imposed from on high. So, thank you, Professor MacMillan for recalling us to the musical rock from whence we were hewn. And may be the guitar strummers who think their ditties help us worship, might ponder some statistics from the C of E: 35% growth in Cathedrals over 10 years!

Comment by: Diomedea Exulans
Posted: 08/12/2013 10:27:47

Mr Macmillan is entitled to his opinion. As am I, and I don't like fake American folk songs...

Comment by: bendunlap
Posted: 04/12/2013 21:53:04

Ms. Farrell's exegesis of Micah is incomplete without reference to the many other places in Scripture where we hear, often in surprising detail, about God's liturgical preferences. The last several chapters of Exodus, for example, describe a liturgy that is, unsurprisingly, rather reminiscent of all traditional Christian liturgy (whether of East or West). I am confused entirely as to what Ms. Farrell means when she says "throughout the Reformation the people of God began to sing and participate"... Which people, and what exactly did they participate in?

Comment by: francophile
Posted: 03/12/2013 17:49:24

Ms. Farrell in her writing places the emphasis on herself and the text of the song which she references is all about "me." Therein lies the problem with her music and much of the music referenced by McMillan. It is self-centred and lacks any anthropological movement TO God. She has no ability to look beyond herself and destroys one of the premier tasks of Catholicism, to look for salvation among each other to God. In the end she is just another Hippie leftover from the 1970-80s. Her kind are dying out.

Comment by: Sean Loughlin
Posted: 03/12/2013 09:05:27

I joined a monastic community in 1968 soon after the Council ended and lived through the turmoil of those years, including the upheaval of the liturgy. We gained an enormous amount in many aspects of our monastic life, through implementing the decrees of the Council. Musically, though, we suffered and lost much of our great tradition of Gregorian chant in Latin which the Council had asked us to retain. The introduction of the Grail psalter was very positive but many of the hymns and much of the accompanying music were appalling. I realise parish life is different from monastic life and the results of the liturgical reforms are decidedly a mixed bag. It is positive that Catholics now participate in hymn singing whereas previously they were simply passive spectators. But I agree with MacMillan's judgement on the musical and theological worth of many of these hymns. Catholics have a great tradition of choral music in composers such as Byrd, Tallis, Palestrina, etc. and, thankfully, this is now being rediscovered in Britain. James is making a great contribution to this revival.

Comment by: Kippy
Posted: 02/12/2013 19:54:39

I am in charge of selecting music for our Sunday morning Mass, at which the congregation is known for singing enthusiastically and well. We mostly use the suggestions made by the company that produces our missal/hymn book (Breaking Bread), and I try very hard to choose songs from all time periods. As I play a keyboard, it often may be that one or more songs is accompanied by "organ" and others by "piano" and guitar and (thanks to our being a university town), sensitively-played percussion, with a tin whistle thrown in when appropriate -- hauntingly introducing "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" this past Sunday, for example. The Exsultet is sung a cappella by an operatically-trained baritone every year. I would hate for our children to lose 1500 years of their musical heritage, but I would also hate for us to miss the chance to use compositions both new and wonderful .

Comment by: Christopher McElhinney. Liturgical Musician. Melbourne. Australia
Posted: 02/12/2013 00:27:18

Any observations on liturgical music today can only be made after a reading and comprehension of the documents on liturgy and music of Vatican II - Sacrosanctum Concilium and Musicam Sacram respectively - and a myriad others available from the years post-Vat II. But as importantly, it is an understanding of what liturgy (Novus Ordo not Extraordinary Rite) is in light of the Council that dictates what liturgical music is, regardless of styles and tastes. We cannot approach liturgical music from the lofty heights of the concert platform alone. The key is to understand that liturgy today is not a museum piece displaying the treasures of the Church for its own sake, or an aesthetic, musical or otherwise, of the past or present for itself. Nor is it for God or for the people of God assembled as some pious event to be observed and ‘offered’ to God. Liturgy is the prayer of and by the people of God - the Church. It is about a dialogue between God and God’s assembled people – the Church- in the here and now through the prayer of the liturgy, and in language that enables prayer and its theology to be comprehensible for those who pray it in the moment. Thus, what is sung in the liturgy is sung prayer, by all assembled. It is the responsibility of competent liturgical musicians regardless of their particular tastes, to ensure that the people of God are able to sing their prayer confidently and clearly. Is is similar to difference between the notion of dogmatic and pastoral theology etc

Comment by: Alan Whelan
Posted: 30/11/2013 20:35:52

Here in most parts of Ireland the issue is totally irrelevant as we simply refuse to do congregational singing! Our choirs so often go for very banal hymns. We do though have some wonderful Gaelic chants, which are so often along Gregorian lines.

Comment by: tbarrjabulani
Posted: 29/11/2013 09:07:54

I thoroughly endorse Bernadette's remarks. Liturgy is organic, it is expressive of, and formative in, the growth of the assembly. Tradition is likewise organic, it is not a fossilization of the past but the handing of the best to future generations, so that they may do likewise. As a fellow composer, published internationally, I have drawn on Gregorian Chant and will continue to do so. I have also drawn on Pink Floyd, and will likewise so do. As Bernard Huijbers would mention time and again, the only good quality of a liturgical song is that it mediates new levels of understanding every time it is used. The music genre is of secondary importance to the text. Whether in my native city of Sunderland, or my adopted city of Chicago, there are no Latin speakers which come to mind. But the universality is preserved in the words of Covenant which are communicated in many and different ways but in a language we all understand. Liturgy has evolved and will always consider to do so Otherwise, it would go supernova and cease to exist. For ever. Grim thought!

Comment by: blogs
Posted: 29/11/2013 08:05:50

sorry guys.. not done this before so the screen name is wrong.. should have called myself 'beekeeper' !! which is what I do in retirement. How do I change this? reply to Bernadette's piece.. As a Professor of Music and Liturgy for 30 years I was both annoyed that a distinguished composer saw fit to rubbish music that Catholics actually like singing and delighted that 'the saint living among us' should make such a poignant riposte. Would that others could be so charitable. She is a beacon of hope to countless thousands through her writing and her example - so we would expect no less.