We must save our finest music before it’s too late

Pope Benedict XVI celebrates Midnight Mass in St Peter’s Basilica with ‘dignity, solemnity, spirituality and reverence’

Within a generation the Church could lose touch with its musical traditions

Colin Mawby, the organist, choral conductor and composer, died on November 24, 2019, aged 83. In the May 13, 2011 edition of the Catholic Herald he wrote this impassioned defence of Church music.

I was one of the many who was unable to attend Midnight Mass due to heavy falls of snow last December. I did, however, manage to attend Mass on Christmas morning and soon realised that I had made a great mistake. The music was appalling and would have been more appropriate in a nightclub – shouting and crooning to a canned accompaniment. I left quickly, wondering why the Church had sunk to such depths in order to make worship popular.

The previous evening I was able to watch the papal Mass from St Peter’s. The contrast between the two celebrations could not have been greater. The dignity, solemnity. spirituality and reverence of the papal Mass had no exterior connection with the event that I witnessed on Christmas morning.

Some people instinctively feel that the liturgy started with Vatican II. They forget that it is rooted in the life of Christ and ancient Jewish worship. Any organisation that denies its historical heritage faces a bleak future. A few of our chants are based upon those which were performed in the Temple: music that Christ could well have heard and even sung. They form a direct and vibrant link with the founder of Christianity. We, the contemporary followers of Christ, are in grave danger of losing this connection with our Lord and Saviour.

A lot of the liturgical reform has been beneficial but the time has surely come for the Church to evaluate what has been lost and restore to its worship those sources of inspiration that have nurtured the faith of millions throughout previous ages. What has happened to our plainsong, our polyphony and our fine hymnody? I came across a choir recently that did not know hymns like “Soul of my Saviour” and “Hail, Queen of Heaven”. They knew the contemporary songs but the traditional were unknown and plainchant was something lost in the mists of time, anathema to modern worship, something to found on the occasional crossover CD. One wonders why this vandalism has been allowed to happen. Why has nothing been done about it?

The answer lies in the understandable desire to make the liturgy “popular”. The idea is that young people can be attracted to church through the use of their own language and, bending to the “spirit of the age”, the culture of our own ancient and transcendental worship has no place in modern worship. One might well ask the question: where have all these young people gone? They are definitely not to be seen in church.

A grave mistake has been made in the desire to popularise liturgy. Surely one of the most important things about the Mass is listening to the Word of Christ in the readings. Externals pale into insignificance beside these. They most certainly do not call for cheap embellishment to make them attractive. Young people need to experience Christians following the teaching of Christ and living the Sermon on the Mount. This is what attracts people to our Faith, not noisy externals. The “clanging of cymbals” will never attract.

In dumbing down our worship we show an arrogant condescension to young people. We also assume that they are educationally and spiritually incapable of responding to the values of their forefathers. Today’s young people are intelligent and perceptive. There is no doubt in my mind that we commit grave sin when we deny them the experience of the musical traditions of our faith, a tradition rich in beauty and symbolism that speaks directly to the soul.

Education is surely the answer to this problem. Catholic schools should teach their pupils the easier Gregorian chants and they should have choirs that can sing some of the more straightforward polyphony. There should be a religious inspection system to ensure that this is carried out. Our seminaries should have a syllabus of musical training, agreed by the hierarchy, and the traditional music of the Church should be an important part of the work in teacher training colleges.

I well remember the time when the plainchant singing at Maynooth and Ushaw was a unique and powerful experience. No ordinand should leave a seminary without a theoretical and practical knowledge of all styles of liturgical music. Newly ordained priests should be able to sing the ministerial chants in both English and Latin. A musically literate clergy would help enormously in the preservation and development of our music.
Congregational chant singing should be encouraged in our parishes.

I recently attended Mass in a small English country parish church where the congregation sang a Gregorian Mass, Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei, with vigour and obvious spiritual commitment. I was amazed to learn that the parish has a repertoire of three plainchant Masses built up by a visionary parish priest over a period of 10 years. Similarly, a friend of mine recently attended Mass in the Cathedral of St Joseph (Nha Tho Lon) in Hanoi where the people sang the entire Missa de Angelis. He said that the cathedral was packed and that the Mass was relayed on screens to the many people seated outside. These are just two examples of what can be achieved with determination and persistence.

Our parishes seem to lack self-confidence when it comes to music. We are embarrassed by our musical tradition and highly self-conscious in presenting it to the people. I was recently listening to a homily by the Holy Father at the ordination of five bishops. Among other things, he insisted that the bishop should not be a reed bending to the “spirit of the age” but a rock standing for truth. This also applies to all involved in liturgical worship. Catholics must be proud of their musical heritage, live for it and not sweep it under the carpet. Every parish should be able to sing Missa de Angelis and Credo 3 with competence and conviction. Unfortunately this cannot happen until our seminarians and clergy are educated to appreciate the spirituality and relevance of Gregorian chant.

Each parish should aim to have at least one cantor who can teach and lead the people. We need diocesan courses where this art can be studied. The entire educational structure for the development of liturgical music needs to be examined and strong direction needs to be given to the importance of using our traditional music.

Catholics have one of the world’s richest musical traditions. We should be proud of this fact and not relegate it to historical insignificance. If we do so, we turn our backs upon our spiritual and cultural roots.