Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Liturgical music in England

While the Motu Proprio has left us all with lots to do, liturgical music has to be one of the priorities, and I agree very much with the emphasis this blog places on music. Although a 'nice quiet Mass' is many people's fervent desire after being subjected to bad liturgical music, nothing is so attractive, I believe, as really good music for those who haven't yet seen the 'point' of the liturgy, be they Catholics or non-Catholics. My own mother, who was received into the Church (from Anglicanism) in the 1950s, tells me that she made her final decision under the influence of the liturgy, and liturgical music, at a Nuptial Mass. Today, the care and interest taken in 'planning' them can make Nuptial Masses showpieces for all that is worst in the liturgy and church music - but I must get off that topic before I start ranting about it...

Lack of resources, as well as interest, have left England a wasteland of liturgical music. There is a very interesting critique on the clique of 'modern' musicians who occupy paid positions in our Cathedrals by the Catholic journalist (and some-time organist) Damian Thompson on his blog (see here and here: and readers should note that Thompson is more noted for his energy than for his tact). However, there are some points of light, and I hope that readers of this blog who visit London will find time to experience not just the architectural splendors, but the musical excellence, of both Westminster Cathedral and the Brompton Oratory. As a local representative of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales I usually make the journey to the Cathedral twice a year to the LMS's two annual (Traditional/usus antiquior) Solemn High Masses, one a Requiem for deceased members. The Cathedral choir sing for these, and it is always a wonderful experience.

One of the features of Westminster Cathedral is that the choir processes into the sanctuary with the clergy, and then goes up some steps at the back and more or less disapears from view. The choir's director is entirely hidden by a specially constructed screen behind the High Altar (visible in the top picture); the choir are to his left and right. This arrangement adds to the ethereal nature of the singing - its not quite clear where it is coming from.

Annual Masses in historic churches are quite a feature of the LMS's Mass list; in the dark days before the Motu Proprio many bishops seemed to take the view that by granting permission for annual Traditional Masses here and there they could demonstrate their 'generosity' without allowing those attached to the former liturgical forms to build up a sense of community, a relationship with a pastor, a regular schola, or anything else associated with ordinary parochial life. Happily, in the last few years regular Sunday Masses have become more common, but the annual (and some monthly) Masses remain on the list. Some will probably disappear, but others continue to serve a purpose as a showcase for the Traditional Liturgy, especially when they are in Cathedrals or pilgrimage shrines.

This is certainly the case with the annual Solemn High Mass in St John's Cathedral, Portsmouth (the brick exterior shown in the picture above). The Cathedral itself has been at least partly restored, following the disastrous 1970 'renovation' by the late Bishop Warlock (later Archbishop of Liverpool), during which the original baldachino was replaced with what was universally described as the 'tractor tyre' hanging from the ceiling. The tyre has gone, but the baldachino and Rood Screen are still missing. Mass this year was celebrated by Fr Andrew Southwell, with Fr Nicholas du Chaxel as Deacon and Fr Rupert McHardy of the Brompton Oratory as Subdeacon. In accordance with a long-standing tradition, music was provided by the Cantores Missae, an independent professional choir directed by Charles Finch. Sitting rather close to them, it was extraordinary to see what could be done with such a small number of singers: with Charles Finch conducting, and an organist, three men and one woman sang Palestrina's Missa Brevis; two of the men sang the propers. Anyone wanting to see the Cantores Missae singing in the context of the Traditional Mass should find out the date of the next polyphonic Mass organised by the St Bede's Traditionalist Community: St Bede's church, in Clapham Park, London, is served by Fr Andrew Southwell, and as well as a weekly Gregorian Chant Mass bring in the Cantores Missae for a polyphonic Mass once a month. (Look at this page and download the latest pdf 'Newsletter'.)

It is not enough, of course, to complain about the general quality of liturgical music or even to go along to the exceptional Masses supported by the likes of the Cantores Missae. I have been trying to establish a schola in Oxford ever since I became the LMS rep here three years ago, but this year, I hope, represents a breakthrough. For there is now a student society dedicated to singing Gregorian Chant in a liturgical setting, which at the moment means Latin Vespers sungby the Benedictines of St Benet's Hall (my academic affiliation) twice a week, and the Traditional Masses I am involved in through the LMS. So please say a prayer for the success of the Oxford Gregorian Chant Society.

We had a stall in Freshers' Fair (see picture), during which I occupied the less busy moments by singing the Dies Irae, much to the perplexity of the Women's Rugby and the Salsa Society who were sharing our aisle.

On Saturday we sang at our first Mass, a 10th Anniversary Requiem for Damian Coughlan, a young man who died while an undergraduate at St Benet's. The Mass was organised by Damian's half-brother, Matthew Doyle, who is a blogger so you can read all about it here; it took place in the church of SS Gregory and Augustine, and was celebrated by the Priest in Charge, Fr John Saward; among other luminaries in attendance was the NLM's own Br Lawrence Lew.

The schola took the opportunity to have a session with its professional coach, Adrian Taylor, who is based in London; with his help we gave a creditable performance. What is more important than the occasional Mass, of course, is the establishment of a traditional of regular Sung Masses with a high standard of chant; that is the goal of this new initiative.

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