Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Telling it like it is

Composer James MacMillan has made a remarkable public statement in an open letter to Vincent Nichols, the incoming Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster. In his letter, published in the Times, MacMillan charges the new archbishop to take a stand against the "sloppy practice [and] inappropriate, terrible music" that have made "a laughing stock" of Catholic liturgy.

The archbishop's response, whatever it is, will be symbolic. Since its foundation in 1895, the cathedral has been known for its high standards of music. Its first organist, Richard Terry, spearheaded the revival of Tudor polyphony, and commissioned now-classic liturgical works by composers like Lennox Berkeley, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Herbert Howells, and Edmund Rubbra. In recent years, MacMillan himself has been closely associated with the cathedral: the Westminster choir produced a wonderful recording of his liturgical music, and two newly commissioned pieces will be performed at the consecration of the new archbishop.

All this to say that Westminster Cathedral is a Big Deal. The cathedral is already looked to as a liturgical and musical model by musicians throughout the Western Church - both within and without the Roman Church. The new archbishop thus has the opportunity to send a message to his diocese to the effect that dreadful music should not be tolerated; his example could lend support to the growing liturgical movement throughout the Western Church. On the other hand, if he chooses to ignore the problem, he will not only be setting a poor example for his flock, but also delivering a public snub to one of the greatest liturgical composers currently writing. It will be interesting to see what transpires.

The Telegraph article on the topic contrasts MacMillan's statement with the recent awarding of a major American honour to folk-mass composer Paul Inwood. I can't speak to Inwood's music, which I don't know beyond titles (like the vaguely Orwellian-sounding Gathering Mass), but the author points out the alarming, incestuous relationship that exists between Inwood's "Magnificat Music" company and the Catholic Diocese of Portsmouth. This is not a unique problem in Roman Catholicism, and the dominance of private, for-profit corporations in the world of Catholic liturgical music can be fairly described as simony.

For many Anglican musicians, the sandals-and-granola musical aesthetic of the post-conciliar Roman Church is merely amusing; some, more perceptive, realize that with a few more years of neglect the average Anglican church will be in no better shape. For those of us of a vaguely Anglo-Catholic persuasion, however, the situation is no laughing matter. The church of Rome represents the dominant branch of the universal Church; it should be setting the lead in liturgical matters. Perhaps, with time, it will do so again.

Mea culpa: [5/21/09]: A commenter points out that I have mangled the chronology above; the works I allude to by Rubbra and Berkeley were in fact commissioned by Terry's successor. One can also make a more charitable case for Inwood's professional ethics than that made by the Telegraph, although the less said about his Alleluia Ch-Ch, the better.


The Cardinal said...

In point of fact, Richard Terry did not commision works from Lennox Berkeley and Edmund Rubbra (that was his successor, George Malcolm), nor from Herbert Howells (who did work with Terry on the Tudor Church Music series, but did not write anything specifically for Westminster Cathedral). Only RVW was commissioned by Terry. Rubbra wasn't even a Catholic until long after Terry was dead.

Terry himself had to resign as Master of Music in 1924, principally due to his fondness for the booze. He used to get tanked up at Sunday lunchtime after the Capitular Mass and then accompany Vespers on the organ in a state of high excitement. He was an authority on sea shanties, and would improvise at the end of Vespers on "What shall we do with the drunken sailor?", shouting "Oy!" very loudly and raucously between verses. So - he had to go. Just by way of indicating that laughing-stocks are nothing new.

It's completely untrue to say that the Westminster Cathedral is already looked to as a liturgical and musical model by musicians throughout the Western Church. Musical, possibly, but liturgical, certainly not. For Catholic liturgists and musicians, Westminster comes across, if not as a laughing stock, then as a sort of hairy mammoth - a great pity, because it does have the resources to lead the country but signally fails to do so, due to its extremely narrow view of the music of the Church.

I don't think anyone would recognize your description of Paul Inwood as a folk composer. He is in fact one of the few classically-trained composers writing decent music for the Catholic Church today. What little "folk" music he has written appears to have been been designed for children, but there is much else that is very different. I suggest you take a look at his magnificent anthem "Christ the living water" which I was fortunate enough to experience at the dedication of the Cathedral of St Mary of the Angels in Los Angeles, to give just one example. There are many others.

The financial secretary of Portsmouth diocese is on record as saying that Inwood's imprint Magnificat Music shares an address with one branch of the diocesan offices, but that this is for mail purposes only. None of the imprint's activities take place there or are connected with diocese. The grapevine says that Inwood has in fact been ridiculed by some for not abusing his position in order to sell his own music to his diocese, when in fact he could have been making a small fortune had he been taking advantage of his diocesan position. Perhaps there are still some people of integrity left in our sad jealpousy-riddled world.

The sandals-and-granola ephithet can certainly be applied to a proportion of parishes, but, as usual, it's a sweeping generalization which doesn't apply to the vast majority. Those writing should know better, but alas don't.

Finally, MacMillan is undoubtedly a fine art composer in the classical world - no one would deny that. To describe him as one of the greatest liturgical composers currently writing is, however, sheer nonsense. His liturgical music, which is tiny in comparison to the rest of his output, is distinguished by its mediocrity and unsuitability for liturgical use. In fact, he was criticised on this very point by a British Catholic cathedral director of music at a national meeting at the beginning of May this year, and he didn't like it. I suspect that his latest lashing-out effusion is in reaction to this rare experience in which his pride couldn't cope with being told a home truth or two.

Osbert Parsley said...

Thanks for your comments. You're quite right that I've badly mangled the chronology here - the Berkeley and Rubbra works were obviously commissioned by Malcolm, not Terry. I think I'm right about Howells, however - I will do some legwork this afternoon and try to straighten some of this out.

I'm also quite happy to take your word on Inwood's compositional skill and personal integrity. (Although I think your version of the story is even more horrifying - imagine being complimented for not abusing your ecclesiastical connections!)

On several other points, however, I think we're going to simply disagree - I've been quite impressed by MacMillan's liturgical works, both in terms of musical quality and fitness for worship, and I suspect that the "narrow view of the music of the Church" on offer at Westminster is one with which I'd be sympathetic.

In any case, I do thank you for pointing out my inaccuracies of fact; I will add a note to the original post.

Osbert Parsley said...

Ummmm. Alleluia Ch-Ch??!

Alice said...

If you can't afford maracas, "ch-ch" works...

Robert F. Jones said...

on the RC liturgical-industrial complex:

The Cardinal said...

I already said it once - do I have to say it again?

Inwood's Alleluia ch-ch, was written for children, not adults. Or at least one can reasonably assume that, as it appeared in OCP's publication entitled Children at Heart.

His Christ, the living water, which I mentioned before, is published by GIA Publications, along with many other choral octavos. It is definitely not written for children, as it has parts for cantor, SATB choir, organ, assembly and brass ensemble. The sample pages show a dedication to a cathedral. Perhaps he was commissioned to write it for them.

The Cardinal said...

Robert F.Jones:

Just for the sake of accuracy, this link is to a piece dated May 13th 2009, but which actually appeared seven years ago and has just been slightly updated and reposted. You can see this, for example where the author refers to publications dated 2002, etc.

As it happens, I agree with much of what is said there, and it's worth recording that many OCP composers also share similar opinions. They are not happy about having their music "contaminated" by the Life-Teen folk or others. I gain this information from a number of informal conversations I have had with OCP composers over the years.

Osbert Parsley said...

I don't think Alleluia Ch-Ch being written for children in any way makes it better music, or more suitable for the liturgy. Britten's Ceremony of Carols was written for children. The soprano arias in Bach's Passions were likely first performed by children. There is no reason why music written for pueri needs to be puerile.

As it happens, I've had a look at "Christ, the living water" on the GIA website. You're correct that it's substantially better than "Alleluia Ch-Ch", but based on the samples they provided, I don't see much else to recommend it. Other samples of his works I viewed and listened to gave the same impression - better than many of his colleagues, but rather treacly. If this is the best that contemporary Catholic liturgical music has to offer, then we're in bigger trouble than I thought.

Anonymous said...

In the light of the glorious Installation ceremony at Westminster Cathedral which must have stunned not only the Catholic world but also Anglicans and many others, the sneering, inappropriate comments from 'The Cardinal' (from Salford?)just seem ridiculous.

Readers should also be aware that this poster's account of the national meeting at the beginning of May is utterly false. MacMillan was not criticised by anybody for being mediocre and unsuitable. I should know - I was there, and his speech was very well received by he delegates. He seemed in good spirits throughtout, and not annoyed at anything!

What is 'The Cardinal' up to?

The Cardinal said...

No, Anonymous, I'm many miles from Salford (I'm glad to say!).

But it's curious you should mention that place, because it was precisely the Cathedral Director of Music of Salford who did challenge MacMillan at that meeting on 2 May in Liverpool. He asked him what, in view of his criticisms of mainstream Catholic liturgical composers, he and his art composer colleagues were doing about it. MacMillan replied that he had written a couple of mass settings, to which the Director of Music's response was that they're not actually very good. (And they aren't.) You must have been asleep at the time.

As far as the Westminster installation is concerned, yes, it was spectacular and very well done; but you should know that understandably there are debates about details of the service taking place on other forums, some of which say that if only some things had been done differently it could have been so much better.

Westminster already is a lot better in some respects than it was in the 1970s, when the Council of Priests condemned it as "a mausoleum with music". However, as I said earlier, with all its resources it's uniquely qualified to be giving a lead to the whole country; but a narrow view of what Catholic cathedral liturgy and music ought to be is making it rather less effective than it could be.

Anonymous said...

Oh I see. So MacMillan's masses are "not actually very good" as opposed to Paul Inwood's music, I suppose....

The Cardinal said...

Let's be clear: James MacMillan is an excellent composer of classical art music, one of the leading composers in Britain today. The two pieces by him at the Westminster installation were both good examples of the art of choral writing, if somewhat quirky in places.

However, MacMillan's mass settings, designed for parish and not cathedral use, are a very different story. He has not been through the "mill" that many of our leading composers have been through in the wake of the 2nd Vatican Council. They have had to learn what works and what doesn't at parish level; and they have also had to learn a lot about liturgy and the way it works (which it appears that MacMillan hasn't). They have in addition had a national composers' group for over 40 years which has been a vital forum for exchanging ideas and experience.

Let's take MacMillan's Sanctus from the "St Anne" Mass as an example.

It's very easy to set words to music respecting the rhythms of language, but MacMillan does not always get it right. This movement contains large musical stresses on unimportant syllables which would earn him a low mark from a conservatoire professor, let alone a parish music director.

The same movement also uses angular and unnatural melodic intervals and rhythms which our leading composers have learnt through long experience simply don't sit easily with congregations.

The two sets of Hosannas are not the same ─ once again, if he had any kind of lengthy experience of working with different congregations, he would know that you can't do that and get away with it easily, because it causes confusion.

The fact is, MacMillan is a really good composer who, if he were prepared to learn how to put his gifts at the service of the local Church, would be able to make a real contribution to parish life. Instead, he seems to want to sneer from the rarefied sidelines of one particular manifestation of the cathedral tradition (there are others).

Anonymous said...

The St Anne Sanctus was written when JM was a practically a boy. Maybe he will revisit the form in years to come.

You try to make a case for the "committee" approach to writing music. It won't work, I'm afraid. Who are your "leading composers", by the way? And why does no one know them? And why does on one care who they are?

Yours, sir, is a depressing backwater mentality.

Anonymous said...

And as far as I know, he does "put his gifts at the service of his local church". He said so in his Liverpool talk. You must have been sleeping at that point....

Therefore he does "make a contribution to parish life". Just because he doesn't associate with a band of mediocre 'stalinists' is not his fault. If any readers want the real low-down on this self-serving bunch of opportunists who infest the liturgical scene in the UK, try Holy Smoke, the Daily Telegraph blg of the brilliant Damian Thompson (peace be upon him) who has this bunch of chancers sussed...

The Cardinal said...

My dear Anonymous,

Your language is becoming more intemperate. Beware!

I am not advocating a committee approach to composing liturgical music. I merely pointed out that our most successful liturgical composers once belonged to a group that enabled them to learn and grow by submitting their works to the wisdom of a group. And it paid off.

Everyone knows who these front-line liturgical composer are. In fact you have already mentioned one of them. The fact that you don't appear to know who they are only proves that it is you who appear to be in the backwater, not them. None of them are "stalinists", although you may be since you throw this accusation at them. But their music is helping tens of thousands of people to pray in parishes up and down the country, which is more than can be said for some others whom perhaps we should not mention.

As for "Dame" Damian Thompson, the least said the better. What a loser! It's not that he doesn't know what he is talking about, it's the fact that his own agenda manages to bias most of what he writes. Don't waste your time with him. The miniscule coterie who affirm him in his often libellous scarawlings are really not worth bothering with. I do hope you're not one of them.

Blessings on you.

Osbert Parsley said...

I'm going to respectfully request a ceasefire. The two of you have stated your positions, and I think I've made my own quite clear. As an outsider to the scene in question (as an Anglican and as a Canadian) I have no interest in playing host to internecine conflict.

Thank you both, however, for your contributions; I very much appreciate a perspective ex media rebus, so to speak.