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.