Opinion & Features

Music isn’t a distraction – it points to divine beauty

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This week the world of church music is mourning two great losses. Last Friday, Sir Stephen Cleobury died at the age of 70 after a long illness. Then on Sunday, Colin Mawby died aged 83. Both men had served as masters of music at Westminster Cathedral.

In 1979, Sir Stephen became the first Anglican to take up the role, which is among the most prestigious in the Catholic musical world. Three years later, he was appointed director of music for the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, leading the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve, which has been broadcast live by the BBC since 1928. He retired from the post in September, after 37 years in which he had strengthened the choir’s global reputation and enthusiastically promoted new choral music.

Colin Mawby had attended Westminster Cathedral Choir School as a boy, assisting the then master of music George Malcolm at the organ from the age of 12. He presided over the choir from 1961 to 1976, leading it in performances before the Queen, John F Kennedy and Pope John Paul II. He was also a prolific composer whose works include Ave verum corpus and several Masses. Charlotte Church sang his Psalm 23 on her bestselling debut studio album Voice of an Angel.

Both Sir Stephen Cleobury and Colin Mawby helped to develop the Cathedral choir into what it is today: an artistic powerhouse, ably led by the present master of music Martin Baker.

There have always been some Catholics who regard music as a distraction from the Church’s mission of saving souls. Why, they ask, is the Church nurturing elite institutions in a largely secular field such as the arts when the salvation of the world is at stake?

The answer to that must begin with beauty. As Bishop Robert Barron recently put it in a speech at Capitol Hill, God calls some individuals to be what he described as “a knight for Beauty”. Others are summoned to be professors, journalists, philosophers, and so on. “In Catholic theology, Truth itself, Beauty itself, Justice itself are simply names for God,” he said. “Therefore, provided they search out the deepest ground for their commitment, all of these participants in the culture can and should understand themselves as having received a vocation with religious implications.”

The vocation of musicians is to reveal the beauty of God through sound. They are able to reach people in ways that others can’t. It may be rare, for example, for someone to enter Westminster Cathedral, listen to the choir and then decide then and there to become a Catholic. But think of many non-believers who have sat there and glimpsed something of the divine beauty in the combined effect of the choir and the organ. That experience will remain with them forever.

Pope Francis memorably said that he wanted to see “a poor Church for the poor”. But that doesn’t mean that there is no place for musical excellence. Indeed, despite his reputation for austerity, Francis enjoys music. In November 2018, he told an international gathering of choirs: “Your music and your song are a true instrument of evangelisation insofar as you witness to the profoundness of the Word of God that touches the hearts of people, and allow a celebration of the sacraments, especially of the Holy Eucharist, which makes one sense the beauty of paradise.” He urged choirs to “never stop this commitment” to music which, he said, is “such an important commitment to the life of our communities”.

Treasures such as Westminster’s Cathedral Choir must be zealously guarded. That is why Colin Mawby, in his final article for the Catholic Herald in May, warned readers that “the musical quality of its boy choristers now faces a serious threat”. He objected to a plan to turn the choir school from seven-days-a-week boarding to five, which, he said, meant the loss of precious singing and rehearsal time. This would, he argued, “gravely affect standards and repertoire”. To the very last, he was standing up for the institution to which he had given so much and which meant so much to him.

In an earlier article, in 2011, he expressed the fear that the Church might lose touch with its musical heritage within a generation. “Catholics have one of the world’s richest musical traditions,” he wrote. “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.”

The best way to honour these two distinguished men is by redoubling our support for church music.