Monday, April 20, 2020

Interviews with Catholic Composers — (5) Nicholas Wilton

Today I resume the series of interviews with Catholic composers, albeit this time in a different format. NLM is grateful to Louie Verrecchio for giving permission to republish a recent interview he did with British composer Nicholas Wilton. I am especially delighted to present this composer’s work, as he and I share a compact disc of choral music: “Divine Inspirations,” sung by Cantiones Sacrae of Scotland, featuring 13 pieces by Wilton and 13 by me. It can be purchased here.

Interviewer’s Introduction. Over the course of several days in December, I had the opportunity to interview a rather unique man by the name of Nicholas Wilton; a composer of sacred liturgical music, whose CD recordings I had recently obtained. As most of our readers are well aware, words alone cannot do justice to the beauty of good sacred music; it has to be heard, or better said, it must be experienced. Such is the case with Mr. Wilton’s work. It is truly magnificent. Upon hearing it, I recalled having read a statement made by Cardinal Ratzinger in his book, Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2000), which I read several times in the years shortly after its publication. He said something to the effect that the generations following the promulgation of the Novus Ordo are the first in the history of the Church not to create their own sacred music. His point, which speaks to the emptiness of the protestantized rite, is well taken. It is, however, incorrect, and Nicholas Wilton is living proof. This is one of the reasons that I was genuinely excited about the prospects of interviewing Mr. Wilton for The Catholic Inquisitor and being able to invite readers to enjoy and support his work; after all we share the same purpose – the glory of God and the salvation of souls.

LV: Tell us a little about your personal history.

NW: I was born in 1959 in Hampstead, London. My mother was German and Catholic, and my father was English and not Catholic, although he converted to the Catholic Faith later on. My earliest musical memory was of my mother singing Mozart songs to me. Mozart’s music influenced me as a young child and I regard his influence on my music as a happy one as I regard Mozart to be the divine Child of Music.

LV: “The divine Child of Music.” I’ve never heard that expression. Can you explain it?

NW: The term is my own. I believe that Mozart was chosen by God Himself at the time to write music of exceptional grace and beauty. His gift or talent was from God, so the term “divine” is appropriate. No, I am not claiming that Mozart is God! Hence, “divine” rather than “Divine.” Of course, God also helped Mozart with the music he wrote. In other words, Mozart was, as J.R.R Tolkien termed it, a divinely inspired sub-creator. His melodies are very often child-like in their simplicity, so I term him the divine Child of Music who had also the very beautiful name, Amadeus.

LV: Tell us something of your early exposure to sacred music and how it affected you.

NW: My earliest exposure to sacred music was at the local Redemptorist church where a fair bit of plainsong was sung. I rather liked it and it seemed to be a very important part the Latin Mass as it then was - with bells and incense adding to the sense of the sacred. However, in the 1960s a lot of the Latin music simply vanished and was replaced by what one can only describe as pop music. “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind” which we were made to sing struck me as odd because I had been taught that the Church had the answer already.

LV: What impact did the liturgical devastation of the 1960s have on your Catholic faith?

NW: Though I was just learning how to write piano music at the time and not yet composing sacred music, I stopped attending Mass in the 1970s when guitars and flutes were introduced to accompany what I recognized, even at that young age, as extremely banal music.

LV: Was it around this time that you began to write sacred choral music?

NW: No. I carried on learning the piano and trying to write well for the instrument. It was only later when I was studying for a music degree at London University that I was exposed to traditional Latin sacred choral music. I discovered Thomas Tallis at the age of eighteen and was fascinated by his forty-part motet Spem in Alium. Even though I was still writing mainly for the piano, I listened to it often at night in the dark to try to learn from it. It was around this time that I was told about the London Oratory. By then, years had passed since I had last been to Mass, but I decided to pay the Oratory a visit. I was impressed by the choir which regularly sang traditional music from the sixteenth century such as Byrd, Palestrina and Victoria, as well as many others. I started attending regularly and rather had the idea to write for the choir, having just completed a course in “chorestration”- or composing for choir - at the Guildhall School of Music.

LV: Just to be clear, the London Oratory, at least at that time, was celebrating the Novus Ordo in Latin. Is that Correct?

NW: Yes, that’s correct.

LV: Did you eventually write any pieces for the London Oratory?

NW: Yes. I composed a setting of In manus tuas, Domine in 1989 and showed it to the Director of Music, who liked the piece and agreed to perform it. The first performance was a success. This rather encouraged me to write more pieces for the choir including three Benediction pieces which were duly sung at Benediction as well as a setting of Cor meum for the feast of St Philip Neri.

LV: You say that the “performance was a success.” Would it be fair to say that words like “performance” and “success,” when used in reference to sacred liturgical music, necessarily refer to a work that gives glory to God and elevates to the soul to Him; a different meaning than when applied to secular or profane music?

NW: Yes. What I meant was that the piece was sung very beautifully and the choirmaster of the time, the late John Hoban, who gave the first performance at the London Oratory, congratulated me on the piece afterwards and said it was “very fine.” Secular music can also be performed or played well. Secular or profane music can also be well performed and assisted by God if one is His sub-creator. After all, He said “Without me you can do nothing.”

LV: Following your initial success in gaining performances of your early motets, did you find a publisher?

NW: No. I found that publishers were not interested in printing traditional Latin settings, so I decided that I would publish the music myself.

LV: Was this difficult to do?

NW: No. I managed to track down a music engraver who engraved music in the traditional way at that time. Then it was just a matter of having the music printed by a good music printer and, of course, paying for the production.

LV: What led you to begin composing for the traditional Mass?

NW: I discovered that a very old priest, Monsignor Gilbey, said a low Mass at the London Oratory on most mornings. The first time I attended this Mass, I felt that I had come home. I attended each day that I could for about three years, and made quite a few traditionally-minded friends. Shortly after this I started to conduct a small schola for the pre-1955 Mass at Corpus Christi, Maiden Lane, in London. There was a fair bit of plainsong that we had to sing, but I wanted to introduce more polyphony, so I composed some pieces for particular feasts; for example, Beata viscera Mariae for the feast of the Divine Maternity. As not all of the singers were very good, I quickly decided to write music that would be easy to learn quickly and could be sung well by an average Catholic choir. Often, there were no true tenors available, so I began writing tenor lines which would be possible for a baritone to sing. This ended up being a good idea as it allows my sacred choral music to be sung widely and not just by professional choirs.

Felix Namque (at 4'39")

LV: Having “come home,” as you say, did you continue to attend the Novus Ordo in Latin at the London Oratory?

NW: I did, but only for a bit. It wasn’t long before I decided to walk away from the new Mass and to attend the traditional Mass exclusively from then on.

LV: So, you continued to compose for the pre-1955 Mass at Corpus Christi in London?

NW: For a time, but at a certain point, the traditional Mass at Maiden Lane was suppressed, so I no longer had an opportunity to conduct a choir and write new pieces for it, but I continued accepting commissions and composing more motets.

LV: On your CD Sacred Choral Music, sung by Magnificat, there is a setting of Panis angelicus for high voice and organ which sounds rather operatic. Can you tell us how this piece came to be written?

NW: Across the road from me lived an opera singer, Julian Gavin. I was used to hear him singing vocal exercises and decided to do something a little different and wrote my Panis angelicus to suit his voice and wide range. The piece, about the Blessed Sacrament, is dedicated to the Martyrs of Devon and Cornwall of 1549. These martyrs rebelled against the Protestant service which was forced upon them at the time, but unfortunately they didn’t have good leadership and so very many Catholics were martyred including a priest who was hanged from a church steeple in his Mass vestments.

LV: Tell us a little about how your sacred choral CD came about.

NW: In the late 1990s at the Oratory I made a friend who offered to pay for a CD to be made of fourteen of my pieces. I rang up the director of the acclaimed English choir, Magnificat, who agreed to perform and record the pieces. My first thought was that it might help sheet music sales, but it turned out so well that I decided to release it in its own right by my publishing and record company, Philangelus. The recording was very well received and continues to sell well.

LV: If readers wish to buy a copy of your CD how can they best do this?

NW: There is an Australian company - Four Marks Music, which supports traditional, Catholic composers. The sell both my Sacred Choral Music CD as well as Music for Piano. Downloads of both CDs are also available for purchase for folks who prefer them. Their email address is and the web site is

LV: How do choirmasters obtain your scores?

NW: Scores can be bought from me directly by writing to me at I include shipping to the States for orders of twenty copies or more and part-postage for more than ten copies. I prefer to sell properly engraved and printed physical copies rather than to license PDFs because the scores are much more durable and better to read than print-outs. The sheet music is produced to the highest quality with two of my publications - the “Missa Brevis / O Sacrum Convivium” and the Benediction pieces - “O salutaris / Ave verum / Tantum ergo” properly bound in smart board covers.

LV: You mentioned that your Missa Brevis has been performed by traditional choirs in the States recently. Can you tell us how you came to write it?

NW: Yes. A few years ago I had a patroness who commissioned the piece. I decided that it was about time that I made a Mass setting. I wanted the quality to be similar to that of Byrd’s three Mass settings, but easier to learn and sing well. It is a popular setting where it has been sung. This can be heard at my home page, sung by the choir Cantiones Sacrae of Dundee:

LV: It is said that sacred music is universal in its appeal. Why do you think that is?

NW: Its appeal is that it has to do with and expresses the truth. Truth attracts just as lies repel.

LV: Would you say that composing sacred music is as much a calling as it is a career decision?

NW: Yes. In fact, it would be rather a bad career move to write traditional Latin sacred choral settings (unless one has a day job) as it is very difficult to sell. My own opinion is that God wanted me to improve what passed as sacred choral music and I firmly believe that He has helped me in this.

LV: For Catholics who have never experienced the Traditional Roman Rite and wish to learn about the Church’s perennial teaching on sacred music, what magisterial document or documents should they consider reading?

NW: In my opinion, the best resource for a Catholic who wishes to know about the Church’s perennial teaching on sacred music is Sir Richard R. Terry’s The Music of the Roman Rite, which contains Pope St. Pius X’s magisterial documents on the subject.

LV: The traditional Roman Rite has been described pejoratively as a “fashion” and referred to as a “museum piece.” How important do you think it is for Catholics to realize that sacred music is being composed in our very own day?

NW: Very important. The Traditional Roman Rite is mandatory; Pope St. Pius V’s bull Quo Primum Tempore, makes this quite clear. Precisely because the Church is a living thing there should be, and are, new endeavors in sacred music and the other arts, which should be generously supported by the faithful. If these new endeavors are not supported and die out, then the Church Militant will appear to some as a kind of museum piece rather than as the living Mystical Body of Christ.

Kyrie from Missa Brevis (at 7'46")

LV: Should choirmasters wish to contact you how best can they do this?

NW: They can write to me at

LV: Do you accept commissions for new sacred choral music?

NW: Yes. Prices start at $500 for a short SATB unaccompanied motet.

LV: What do you think about sacred choral music being performed at concerts?

NW: I think it a very good idea, especially as sometimes this is the only way to have one’s music sung and heard.

LV: Are you working on any current musical projects?

NW: Yes. I am trying to raise money to have my piano music properly engraved and printed. The engraving is being prepared currently. As I currently have no music patron or patroness, I have to try to raise funds to have my music printed and made available. If any of your readers would like to contribute to the cost of my publication, Music for Piano, I would be very pleased and grateful. The cost of the publication is roughly £1000. If anyone is prepared to contribute £25 or more to my costs I will send the donor a signed, numbered and dedicated copy of the CD. For anyone prepared to help me by contributing £50 or more I will also send a signed and dedicated copy of the piano score when ready. I can accept PayPal payments and my PayPal address is: Credit card payments are also possible if anyone wishes to pay in this way and writes to me at the same email address.

LV: Having had the privilege of listening to your sacred music, I want to assure you of my prayers for your efforts and wish you luck in raising funds for your beautiful piano score. On behalf of our readers, thank you for the work you do and for agreeing to take part in this interview.

NW: My pleasure. Thank you for giving me the opportunity.

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