Monday, March 16, 2020

Interviews with Catholic Composers — (4) Ronan Reilly

Today we interview a composer from Australia, Ronan Reilly, whom NLM readers may recall is also the President of the Latin Mass Society of Australia. It was in that administrative capacity that I first got to know him, on my trip Down Under in April 2019. But then I quickly discovered what a gifted musician and composer he is, and have looked forward ever since to sharing his work.

Reilly, on the left, with friends who recorded his music

Tell us about your musical background: when and how you began singing or playing instruments, your most influential teacher, how your interest in composing sacred music was enkindled.

I started out my musical journey as a 10-year-old chorister at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney in 2002. Over the course of 8 years I was exposed to the beautiful treasury of Sacred Music, everything from Gregorian chant through to contemporary compositions in the vein of classical polyphony. Each Chorister was expected to learn an instrument to complement their singing tuition – I chose the cello. Throughout my time in the Cathedral Choir I developed an interest for the ‘mechanics of polyphony’ and had a fascination for the art of renaissance composition.

“Behold A Simple Tender Babe”

Is there a sacred music composer whose work you find most captivating, either as a source of delight, or as direct inspirations and models for your own work?

I have always had a particular love for the English School of Polyphony and most especially for William Byrd. I find Byrd has a depth of expression in his compositions that is hard to match due to his experience of persecution and repression – he is unapologetically Catholic and his music attests to this (cf. Et Unum Sanctam Catholicam Mass for Five Voices). Byrd also has a profound ability to express melancholy (cf. Civitas Sancti Tui) – he intimately understood and lived through the Elizabethan Catholic persecution and did not shy away from comparing it to the desolation and devastation of the Israelites of old. I think it is safe to say that what Byrd experienced and what we are living through have many parallels – a change in liturgical praxis, a change in the language of prayer, a change in the attitude of secular authorities towards Catholics, etc.

“Regina Caeli”

If you were given an unlimited budget for musicians for a solemn pontifical Mass, what works would you put on the program?

If I were allowed to specify the feast day, I would certainly opt for November 2nd, the feast of All Souls. There is a vast treasury of compositions for the Mass and Office of the Dead, especially from the Spanish School. It is a uniquely Catholic reality to pray for the repose of the souls of loved ones who are, God willing, being cleansed of their sins, transgressions and negligence’s in Purgatory. It is a dream of mine to sing Victoria’s Requiem for 6 voices; a feat of musical and theological genius. Ideally the Mass would be preceded by Matins for the Dead, using the Morales Invitatory.

“For With God”

The language of sacred music, as of Catholic worship in general, remains a controversial subject. What are your thoughts about the place of Latin in vernacular liturgy and the place of the vernacular in Latin liturgy?

I am a firm believer in the sacral and expressive beauty of Latin, a vehicle for tradition and stability. Latin instantly brings to mind the antiquity of the Church and the universal character of the Bride of Christ, somewhat like the expanse and glory of the Roman Empire which She inherited. The language of prayer ought to elevate the soul and transcend national boundaries – a foretaste of Heaven. There can be no doubt that the patrimony of Catholic thought and prayer is directly bound to Latin. The melodies of both Gregorian chant and polyphony are married to the Latin texts which they clothe and bring to life: one cannot sacrifice the use of Latin without sacrificing the history, inheritance and tradition of the Church.

What are some strengths and weaknesses you see in the “traditionalist” movement, particularly from a musical point of view?

Having attended the Usus Antiquior exclusively for almost 10 years, I can attest, from a musical perspective, that it is a safe haven from the ‘sacro-pop’ wars, a place wherein the integrity of Catholic music can flourish and thus nourish everyone. First and foremost, the Mass in use is that for which the majority of great sacred music was written: it fits hand in glove.

That is not to say that all traditional communities have a standard or expectation of sacred music that befits the liturgy – this is certainly not the case. In a purely theoretical framework, a traditional community has everything at its disposal to build and sustain a great sacred music tradition. And so this should be taken as a duty, not an option.

What are you doing now in the realm of sacred music?

I currently teach music at a small traditional Catholic School in Brisbane, Australia. We have a budding sacred music program with an abundance of talent and enthusiasm; our High School Polyphonic Choir will perform Allegri’s Miserere at the end of the year and our Liturgical Schola will sing the Byrd Mass for Three Voices at the final School Mass. It is a wonderful gift and opportunity to be able to impart the indispensable beauty of sacred music to young minds and to see them fall in love with the many facets and fascinations of sacred music and all that it entails.

As the Publicity Officer for the Australian Sacred Music Association (, I frequently travel around Australia conducting workshops in Sacred Music, mainly in schools and parishes that are keen to learn about their musical heritage.

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