The trendy 1970s reactionaries are still in business

A Telegraph blog piece yesterday by the Scottish composer James MacMillan, a Catholic who is, as the French say, both croyant et pratiquant, alerts us all to a danger we need to face now, in good time effectively to nullify it, from the kind of trendy (that is to say, last-ditch reactionary) liturgist who seized the Church’s musical agenda in the heyday of “the spirit of Vatican II”, but who are, it seems, far from ready for a long overdue retirement from the fray.

The new translation of the Mass means that the ghastly, musically illiterate, mediocre, jaunty singalong settings we have had to endure since the 1970s will have to be replaced by new settings. My plea is to parish priests: please, please be careful which setting you choose. Don’t let the old guard back.

Anyone who was present at, or watched the television coverage of, the papal Masses at Bellahouston and Cofton Park will remember James MacMillan’s distinguished, memorable and (with minimal practice I would have thought) eminently singable setting of part of the new translation of the Mass. It was sung by a large choir, but also by the congregation, who had been run through it during the hours they had to wait. It was everything a congregational setting ought to be, and it should be a prime candidate to be the normative setting (just as the Missa de Angelis – not easy the first few times you try it – is the normative congregational setting for the Latin Mass) when the new translation comes in.

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MacMillan’s article reveals that the old guard are still at it, and still politically active: they may be lousy liturgists and mediocre “composers” (probably picking out their awful jaunty tunes on the piano with one finger, and then laboriously writing them down) but they are dab hands at plotting. James MacMillan’s setting was nearly turned down: “unknown to me, he relates,

“… the new setting was taken to a ‘committee’ which has controlled the development of liturgical music in Scotland for some time. Their agenda is to pursue the 1970s Americanised solution to the post-Conciliar vernacular liturgy, to the exclusion of more ‘traditional’ possibilities. They have been known for their hostility to Gregorian chant, for example, but have reluctantly had to get in line since the arrival of Benedict XVI.

“They also have a commitment to the kind of cod-Celticness that owes more to the soundtracks of The Lord of the Rings and Braveheart, than anything remotely authentic. There has also been a suspicion of professionals with this committee, and many serious musicians in the Church in Scotland have felt excluded from their decisions and processes, or have chosen not to become involved in territory which is felt to be hostile.

“It became clear that my new setting had not gone down well with this group. The music was felt to be ‘not pastoral enough’ and there were complaints (yes, complaints!) that it needed a competent organist. The director of music for Bellahouston, a priest and amateur composer, whose baby is this committee, was also informing all who would listen, that the music was ‘un-singable’ and ‘not fit for purpose’. There seemed to be ongoing attempts to have the new setting dropped from the papal liturgy in Glasgow.”

That priest who is an amateur composer interests me. What we need now is settings by professional composers who have a genuine competence in the field of Church music and who have real working experience (as MacMillan has for 30 years) of writing for a parish. And we don’t need too many settings, either. The point about Missa de Angelis is that wherever you went it could be sung. Now it seems that every parish has its own setting; universality is what we need to get back to.

MacMillan accepts that his new setting isn’t suitable for parishes which don’t have a competent organist. But after all, many do. And even an amateur organist can get on top of a moderately difficult piece by dint of practice. The point is that this is authentic (rather than bogus) Catholic music: there really is such a thing. As James MacMillan says, “there is a different ‘sound’ to the new setting, which perhaps owes something to my love of chant, traditional hymnody and authentic folk music, and nothing at all to the St Louis Jesuits and all the other dumbed-down, sentimental bubble-gum music which has been shoved down our throats for the last few decades in the Catholic Church.”

“And therein,” he adds, “might lie the problem…” But the problem, one might add, is political, not musical.

James MacMillan’s setting was sung at the papal Mass, in the end, by the intervention against this “committee” of a group of Scottish bishops, notably I suspect, the excellent Mario Conti, Archbishop of Glasgow. We need the active intervention of our bishops if we are to seize the opportunity presented by the new translation: will we get it? 

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