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“Too much Catholic church music caters to old hippies…”

“Too much Catholic church music caters to old hippies…” November 21, 2013

From England comes this commentary, with one composer’s reflection on the problem and a solution…

I have decided to stop writing congregational music for the Catholic Church. Those who follow these things will be aware that liturgical music can be a war zone in Catholicism. We need not detain ourselves over the reasons and fault-lines in the ongoing debates and struggles, but it is clear to me that there is too much music being created, at the same time as the vast repository of tradition is ignored and wilfully forgotten.

In the last year I have established a new organisation dedicated to reviving the practice of chant in the Church, Musica Sacra Scotland. 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. 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 new liturgical directions in the Church. They are making simple, singable, functional music to suit the nature of ecclesial ritual for a Church which went through various convulsions after the Second Vatican Council.

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 realisation 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.

My encounters with these initiatives have convinced me that this is the most authentic way forward for Catholic music…

Read it all. 


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