Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Faith and Music: Partners in Our Times

James MacMillan offers a beautiful reflection on the history of music in Catholicism and the present reality. He demonstrates that composers of our own time are deeply influenced by faith. He further provides a reflection on what it is like to be at once a composer of international fame and a regular parish music director in Scotland. He finishes with a plea that anyone involved in planning liturgy for the Pope's forthcoming visit take seriously their responsibilities. Some excerpts:

And throughout the centuries before them composers have always responded to their own personal instinct, or the wider society's instinct, for spiritual and religious feeling. The Catholic Church has been central to the development of music in Europe since before medieval times. Musical notation itself has its origins in the hieroglyphics of early monastics, who attempted to capture Gregorian and other forms of chant in written form. And from this time through the intervening centuries composers have written for the Church's liturgies.

Their names through history are a roll call of genius and cultural summation: Josquin, Machaut, Tallis, Byrd, Palestrina, Victoria, Lassus, Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Beethoven, Bruckner. And these are just the Catholics. The Reformation led also to the life and vocation of one of the greatest religious artists the world has ever known: J S Bach.

But what about now? Can a religious artist still be understood and affirmed in our own time? And can that person be valued for what he or she brings to our common humanity and society, because of their worldview as a religious believer, or as Christian or, indeed, as a Catholic? There are some forms of art in modern times where the connections with the numinous are clearly more difficult to discern than others. But in the case of music there seems to be a veritable umbilical link with the sacred.

Through the centuries, musicians have proved themselves to be midwives of faith, bringing their gifts to the historic challenge of inspiring the faithful in worship. But modernity has brought with it a breach in the working relationship of composer and Church. Mozart and his contemporaries were among the last group to have a master-servant relationship with the Church authorities. And with the onset of the Enlightenment, rationalist, romantic and revolutionary values in the last two centuries, it was only to be expected that religion would begin to take back seat.

Nevertheless, composers continued to want to write religious music - not necessarily for liturgy, but the liturgical forms have found their place in the concert hall from Beethoven and Verdi to the present day. Major modernist figures of the last 100 years were, in different ways, profoundly religious men and women.

Stravinsky was as conservative in his religion as he was revolutionary in his musical imagination, with a deep love of his Orthodox roots as well as the Catholicism he encountered in the West. Schoenberg was a mystic who re-converted to practising Judaism after the Holocaust. Messaien was famously Catholic and every note of his unique contribution to music was shaped by a deep religious conviction and liturgical practice.

The list of composers in recent times radiating a high degree of religious resonance is substantial, covering a whole generation of post-Shostakovich modernists from behind the old Iron Curtain: Górecki, Pärt, Kanchelli, Silvestrov, Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Ustvolskaya. And, in this country, after Benjamin Britten have come Jonathon Harvey, John Tavener and many others.

Far from being a spent force, religion has proved to be a vibrant animating principle in modern music and continues to promise much for the future. It could even be said that any discussion of modernity's mainstream in music would be incomplete without a serious reflection on the spiritual values, belief and practice at work in composers' minds.


Almost unknown to the classical music world where my work is performed and discussed is the fact that I busy myself in the week-to-week preparation of liturgy in my local church: St Columba's in Maryhill, Glasgow. There I have formed a little schola of amateur singers who help lead the congregation in their worship. I write for this congregation regularly, producing a Responsorial Psalm every Sunday I am there.

I use my own congregational settings of the vernacular Ordinary of the Mass and am planning a new one for the imminent fresh translation which will be among us in a few months time.

I love doing this, but it is one of the hardest things I do as a composer. A different mindset is required when writing music for the non-specialist. One has to create something simple and yet attractive enough for even the most reluctant person to want to raise their voices to God. And you don't get a more reluctant singer than the Scottish working-class Catholic. In fact, sometimes it feels that draining blood out of a stone would be a more productive activity. In fact, I know some stones that are far less stubbornly inexpressive than some Scottish Catholics I've met.

But this is a challenge that must not be shirked. It is part of the great renewal of our Church that we should learn afresh that to sing is to pray twice, and as St Augustine said "Cantare amantis est" ("singing is a lover's thing"). If we truly have the love of God in our hearts we would want to sing it out loud, whether our voices are trained or not. My musician's heart would be filled with an unparalleled delight if I could persuade my fellow Catholics to raise their voices with abandon and love every time they came to the altar of God.

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