Composers all over the world are hungry to write sacred music

Professional musicians pop up periodically and call for better music in the Catholic Church. So here I am.

Recently, I came across a rather obscure lecture given 30 years ago at the Eighth International Church Music Congress in Rome. “Wherever man praises God, the word alone does not suffice”, the author starts off, and as he explores the links between liturgy and music he notes that “their relation to one another has also been strained, especially at the turning points of history and culture”. A cautionary tale is told about the eroded status of sacred music since the liturgical reform following the Second Vatican Council: stemming from a “basically new understanding of liturgy”, practice has mostly been based more on the “spirit” of the Council rather than its words. The lecture moves through several intellectual phases. First is noted the caricaturing of Gregorian chant and polyphony as “tutelary gods of a mythicised, ancient repertoire” and allies of a historical liturgy that mirrors only a “cultic bureaucracy” rather than the “singing activity of the people”. Second comes a consideration of the true nature of musical creativity – a concept wholly different to what spawns the “banal formulas” inserted into the text of the Missal. The author at length concludes that sacred music has for its intrinsic property the “integration of sensibility and spirit”, with the defining characteristic that it is “not the work of a moment but participation in a history”.

That lecture was given by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. His profound observations and assertions were made 20 years before he was elected Pope – in 1985. Have things since improved?

I should say – tentatively – yes, they have. One of the more encouraging developments of recent years has been a resurgence of interest in Gregorian chant, not only from the scholarly but also the practical perspective. After all, as a 2010 document from the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff points out, it was one of the “determinant opportunities” of Pope Benedict’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificum of 2007 that gave an “opportunity for the revival of Gregorian chant, in those places in which it was previously practiced, as well as its insertion in contexts in which it is not yet known”. Various initiatives have sprung up in the last decade, such as the Gregorian Chant Network, which organises residential courses for singers of all levels of experience and which recently had its biennial meeting in London. Likewise, James MacMillan – who once described the fight for decent liturgical music as a “war zone” – spearheads Musica Sacra Scotland, which draws together leading church musicians and enthusiasts at an annual conference focusing on chant revival. Online resources are growing, too, with access to a plethora of chant books; one can even drop by a virtual Chant Café.

All is looking rosy for Gregorian chant. But what intrigued me most in Ratzinger’s lecture was an interesting set of questions: “Humanly speaking, can one hope that new creative possibilities are still open? And how is that to happen?”

To think of “contemporary music” in Catholic worship brings to mind the clearly hastily written and often very poor quality contributions of the 60s and 70s still in use in some places as a meagre alternative to anything of real artistic value. The waters are muddied here by an agenda that extols a particular kind of congregational “active participation”, meaning that in general musical offerings by modern composers – mostly written for the laity to have some part in – have to be supplied at the level of the lowest common denominator.

This controversy about the place of music in the Church is, as Ratzinger says, “becoming symptomatic for the deeper question about what the liturgy is”. As a means of breaking the deadlock I would say that the place of contemporary music in the Sacred Liturgy must be re-evaluated. New and imaginative music should certainly not be cast aside simply owing to bad experience. Ratzinger asserts: “It is not … a question of playing off congregational activity against elitist art. Nor is the rejection of a historicist rigidification, which only copies the past and remains without a present and a future, the real point at issue.”

This week, the winner of a new prize for sacred music composition I founded was announced. The brief was to write a Eucharistic motet for four parts, thereby precluding monophonic or simplistic entries rivalling Gregorian chant and furthermore requiring the use of capable musicians for performance. I was pleased to receive interest from composers all over the world, hungry to write for the Church and seeking opportunities for their God-given skills to be recognised and valued. I and the panel of judges can testify that the quality of entries was consistently high. The winner is a young composer from the Wirral, Marco Galvani, who has a bright future ahead of him; his piece, Ecce Quam Bonum, will be premiered at St Mary Moorfields in the City of London on Holy Saturday.

I have hope, then, that the Catholic Church can attract quality new music into its sacred ceremonies. I like to imagine that the Church has a future once more as patron of musical art. In the words of Cardinal Ratzinger, we must not be afraid of summoning up “those deeper realms of understanding and response that disclose themselves in music”. This “musification of faith” is required lest we forget how the Creator moves us to identify with Him. The composition of sacred music needs to become, once more, a living tradition: composers must be given the opportunity to continue to participate in history. Cantate Domino canticum novum!