MacMillan downs pen in protest

28 November 2013 | by Christopher Lamb

A leading Catholic composer has announced he will no longer write congregational music for the Church.

James MacMillan, who was commissioned to compose a mass setting for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Britain in 2010, says he has stopped writing in order to help the Church rediscover the tradition of chant. 

He said that too much congregational music was being created and he criticised some of the material composed for Catholic congregations in the decades after the Second Vatican Council.

Writing a blog posting on The Telegraph’s website MacMillan described such music as “mind-numbingly depressing banality. A lot of the favoured new settings are musically illiterate … The style is stodgy and sentimental, tonally and rhythmically stilted, melodically inane and adored by Catholic clergy ‘of a certain age.’ ”

He explained to The Tablet: “I have decided to stop writing congregational music for entirely positive reasons - mainly to assist the Church in its mission of applying the real music of the Church to suitable use,” he said. 

He pointed to two initiatives - Musica Sacra Scotland, of which he is a director, and the Blessed John Henry Newman Institution of Liturgical Music in Birmingham, of which he is a patron - which were dedicated to getting priests and ordinary people used to singing chant in English. MacMillan, who will continue to write for choirs, is also keen for Catholics to discover the traditions of Gregorian chant, sung in Latin.

He added: “If, on the way, I can encourage some other composers of congregational music to stop what they are doing too, I would be delighted.”

But Hal St John, a founder of the Catholic-inspired movement and music group Ooberfuse, who performed at World Youth Day in Brazil, said while he respected other musical traditions “the spirit can be transposed into other musical registers other than Gregorian chant. I don’t think Gregorian chant speaks to the average person.” He said Church music must communicate to ordinary people “not to an elite group sitting on a mountain and contemplating their navels.”

Bernadette Farrell, a prominent Catholic hymn writer, added: “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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