Damian Thompson: Can a great composer revive a tone-deaf Church?

Prince Charles greets the supremely gifted James MacMillan

Both the high and the low points of my week were Catholic. I experienced the high point watching BBC iPlayer on my computer, slumped on the sofa. The low point, I’m sorry to say, was during Mass. But it wasn’t the priest’s fault. Or mine.

For the moment of spiritual delight I have to thank Sir James MacMillan, whose Fourth Symphony was played at the Proms. I didn’t go – I’ve had enough of the Albert Hall summer sweatbath – but someone tweeted out that the TV broadcast on iPlayer and I caught up with it.

I’d read the Fourth was something special – in this magazine, in fact. In the issue of September 4, Dr Matthew Ward, director of music at St Joseph’s, New Malden, described it as “not only a stunning piece of music but also an extended meditation on being at Mass”. The symphony is inspired partly by the Mass Dum Sacrum Mysterium by the Scottish composer Robert Carver. This is a setting I hadn’t heard before listening to the MacMillan, though I have now, and was thrilled by its surging dissonance – an antidote to the blandness of so much 16th-century polyphony. So I couldn’t pick up those references.

But I could spot the quotations from some of the most familiar Gregorian chants, though I wasn’t expecting them. Was that the Pater Noster? Yes, it was, and glorious things were done with it. MacMillan is a supremely gifted orchestrator; also, he’s a musical polyglot who can speak fluently in the language of, say, a 17th-century consort of viols without resorting to awkward pastiche. Yet somehow he always sounds like himself, and that’s intended as a compliment. You could say the same of many great composers including Anton Bruckner, a Catholic who dedicated his last symphony “to the dear Lord”.

Although MacMillan’s music sounds nothing like Bruckner’s, both composers are faithful in the fullest sense of the word. Sir James is obedient to the Magisterium and stubborn in the face of cynicism. He takes pleasure in reminding lefty music critics that he’s a Catholic, by “intruding”, as they would put it, the music of the Church into secular as well as sacred pieces. What really offends them, I suspect, is the quality of his inspiration and technical skill. They would love him be a mediocre composer. He isn’t.

The Fourth is a masterpiece; perhaps the first great symphony written by anyone since the death of Shostakovich. That it should also be a meditation on the Mass demonstrates that our Catholic heritage can be refreshed in an entirely original way.

What a shame that this doesn’t happen more often. These days Catholicism has a problem with originality. In the 1960s, everything except the deposit of faith was updated. The results were feebly derivative. New churches were vaguely modernist, suburban rather than striking. “Folk Masses” were a hybrid of deracinated folk and rock music, with a few nods in the direction of chant. The English vernacular liturgy tried and failed to combine solemnity and the rhythms of everyday speech.

This aesthetic, uninspiring to begin with, quickly dated. But the hierarchy didn’t notice, or care, because it was controlled by committees whose tone deafness extended to language as well as music. Despite some improvements to the liturgy, that is still the case.

Which brings me to the low point of my week – the pastoral letter written collectively by the Bishops of England and Wales preparing us for Pope Francis’s Year of Mercy. It’s true that, in the past few years, one or two dynamic bishops have been chosen from outside the old-boy network. But you couldn’t hear their voices in this dreary document, which brought news of some national conference in Birmingham at which “practical ideas were explored and exchanged” and “are now available for your consideration”.

It was odd to hear such jargon coming from the mouth of our priest, a fiery and engaging preacher. And I was disconcerted by the letter’s near-deification of Pope Francis, who “shows us that the true heart of faith is hugely attractive … making clear the great mercy of God”.

The bishops hope that some of the papal charisma will rub off on them. Their instant resort to clichés that would never pass the lips of the Holy Father suggests otherwise. The Year of Mercy is a great creative endeavour, the product of one man’s imagination; as such, it has more in common with the new symphony than with Sunday’s letter. But MacMillan’s originality counts for nothing unless it is conveyed to an audience by gifted and highly trained intermediaries. Fortunately he has the necessary forces at his disposal. I’m not sure the same could be said of the Pope.

Damian Thompson is associate editor of The Spectator and editorial director of the Catholic Herald