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Music in the Catholic Church in Britain is in great difficulty, but there are signs of a revival

'The lack of thorough training in church music has led directly to the current serious situation' (CNS)

Music in the Catholic Church in Britain is in a serious and difficult situation. The origins of many of the problems stem from the varied interpretations of the decision of the Second Vatican Council (now fifty years ago), to permit the use of the vernacular in the liturgy. The normative language of the Church remains Latin, though, for many, use of this language has inhibiting associations. This was able to be generally ignored, if not hidden, that is, until the New Translation of the Mass, begun under Pope John Paul II and instituted by Pope Benedict XVI, on the first Sunday in Advent in 2011.

The New Translation is now used throughout the English-speaking Catholic world. It was the AD2000 Latin Missal that first increased the amount of music in the Missal. The English edition reflects this. The music has been taken from the rich repertoire of Gregorian – and other – chant, and to preserve the sense of Latin still being the official language, the Missal is now published with Latin and English side by side. The chants are similarly printed, the Latin originals alongside adaptations for the English translation. We are used to singing these chants in the original language; the English versions are neither so familiar, nor, in some cases, do they have that natural ‘feel’ of prayer sung through the musical setting, which is such an inherent feature of the original.

It might be thought that the restoration of so much music, refined by centuries of use, would be welcomed by those whose are responsible for music in the Church. Article 112 of Sacrosanctum Consilium, one of the defining documents of the Second Vatican Council, states: “In the musical tradition of the universal Church is contained a treasure of inestimable value. It occupies a place higher than that of other art forms chiefly because it is a sacred chant wedded to words and, as such, constitutes a necessary and integral part of solemn liturgy.”

In case there should be some ambiguity over what constitutes the ‘musical tradition’ there is further clarification in Article 115: “The Church recognises Gregorian chant as the chant proper to the Roman Liturgy. Therefore, other things being equal, it should have the chief place in liturgical functions.”

However, although these developments have been welcomed in some circles, in others, there has been so much opposition, that it seems worthwhile asking why. When the vernacular was adopted for Mass after the Second Vatican Council, there was a shortage of musical settings, not only for the Ordinary but also the Propers. Together with the new emphasis on congregations being encouraged to participate fully by singing even the Propers, this led to the necessity for seeking music from many different sources. Naturally, music of other denominations was adopted, particularly from Anglican and Methodist traditions, and much Catholic hymnology published in the last 40 years has reflected this.

There is another and highly important part to Article 114: “Bishops and other pastors of souls must be at pains to ensure that, whenever the sacred action is to be celebrated with song, the whole body of the faithful may be able to contribute that active participation which is rightly theirs.”

In answer to this a whole industry quickly developed to find music which could be sung by untrained congregations. Though there were some isolated examples of professionally trained musicians continuing to work in the post Vatican Council Church, much of the growth was fostered by people whose professional expertise was not in music. Article 114 refers to “the treasury of church music [which] will be maintained and cherished with the greatest care”. This is further clarified by Article 115: “Every care will to be taken to ensure that persons who will be able to assume responsibility for the teaching of church music will receive a thorough training.”

The consequences of the lack of this “thorough training” have had unfortunate results, and much music that sounds forced, sometimes untuneful, not infrequently incompetent and ungrammatical, has been composed in the name of accessibility of congregational participation. New melodies were composed for the newly instituted Responsorial Psalms, new psalm tones emerged, and new hymns were written on previously overlooked texts. Some of this repertoire was conceived by eminent figures such as Dom Gregory Murray, but much, however, lacked true musical worth.

There has been music more suited to primary rather than secondary school – let alone to encourage a fully committed adult response. Some settings were startling in their faux naïvity. In the name of Article 118 that “popular religious music should be carefully fostered” – a sense of inverted snobbery has been used as an excuse for music of poor quality. Words of the great composer, Vaughan Williams, seem particularly relevant: “It ought no longer to be true anywhere that the most exalted moments of a churchgoer’s week are associated with music that would not be tolerated in any place of secular entertainment.”

Unlike former times, when there was control over what music was permitted, it appeared that there were no standards now by which musical worth was judged. All sorts of settings were compiled and published. Some were undoubtedly of good, musical worth, while others lacked musical substance and artistic probity. There was much incompetence and poor judgement, with music of an enervating facility.

Recently, however, there are signs of revival. The inclusion of so much chant, as the official music of the Church, has now been widely disseminated in the various Missals containing the New Translation. This has led to understandable hubris amongst those who have been promoting what has been at best second-rate material. Congregations are now tired of being patronised by subfusc music.

There is now a procedure for acceptance of music for the Church with published guidelines for composers. It would, however, be useful and potentially more productive if the Committees were to be more open over its membership – their qualifications and experience – and to make public its deliberations and those settings it regards as successful, so that we may all learn more about what is good practice. The expectation is that music, at least from this point onwards, will be subject to a more rigorous standard of appropriateness and achievement.

The lack of “thorough training” in church music, has led directly to the present difficult and serious situation. The depth to which much music of the Church has been allowed to sink is now being realised more widely. This is the background against which Musica Sacra Scotland has been set up. Its aim is to “draw from the deep well of professional musical expertise from within the Catholic community”.

Musical material will be drawn from the Church’s rich and accessible treasury of congregational music from the past and from our own times. This will enable music to rediscover its links with the past, in order to move forward with confidence to create and establish more widely, music of integrity, more worthy of the liturgy.

There is no merit in encouraging a congregation to sing poor material. Nor is there any point in putting the clock back to some sort of erroneously perceived ‘golden age’ of Catholic music. But with the New Translation and its new respect for chant (including the adaptations for the use of English), the establishment of a vetting procedure and the start of Musica Sacra Scotland, there is movement on many fronts. Though there are still problems with music in the Church today, there are several hopeful signs in place for a structure for revival. There are many reasons to have a new confidence in a brighter future for music in the Church.

Since 1978 Dr Roger Williams has been a lecturer in the music department at Aberdeen University. Until his retirement in 2010, Dr Williams was Master of Chapel and Ceremonial Music and organist at Aberdeen University.