Calling Diocesan Liturgy Advisers

The last couple of days, I’ve been mulling over the propositions of the Birmingham conference. I have to admit it was pretty much familiar territory. I have heard the passage in Sacrosanctum Concilium “Gregorian Chant… held pride of place… etc etc.” so many times that l have begun to tire of it. I know we should sing all the proper texts of the Mass over a random selection of hymns. At the conference, Joseph Cullen asked the participants, ‘when was the last time you sang the Introit?’ The choir director of Our Lady of the Rosary, Blackfen looked at me and said, ‘last week?’, I nodded unenthusiastically in response. Of course everyone knows you have to sing the introit right, we all sing it, right? I know about the importance of Latin in the liturgy, I know that the priest should be singing the parts assigned to him. I know all this stuff (yawn), I’ve heard it so many times,  because, well, at this point l would like to say, because in my formation as a parish musician (horrible term), my deanery/diocese have taught me how to sing THE Mass rather than…  (I don’t need to finish the sentence because surely by now we are also all bored of what Mgr Wadsworth has to say, I mean how many more times does the man have to repeat the same message.)  Sadly this is not the case.

My diocese do not run courses based on the teachings of Sacrosanctum Concilium, or a practical guide on how to adhere to the principles of the General Instruction to the Roman Missal. (I apologise in advance if they do infact run these courses and I have missed them.)  I have never seen a course on Gregorian Chant. Not even a practical guide to how to sing the Propers of the Mass. I did however attend last year,  the one and only workshop I have ever seen advertised on how to sing the new translation of the Roman Missal. For those that did not read my review of that exhilarating event incidentally run by a couple of people from the Portsmouth diocese, and my subsequent desire to convert to the Anglican church,  then read it HERE.

We need support locally, courses, more internet resources, a forum to enable parish musicians to communicate with each other. There are tremendous resources on the internet offered by the Church Music Association of America but what are we doing? I don’t think the diocese should be controlling the music that is sung in parishes, it is fine after all if one parish prefer the Sussex Mass to the Missa de Angelis. Our priority is to sing the texts of the Mass, it is not up to personal taste,  but people need to know how to, or even where to begin. This is not about ramming Gregorian Chant down people’s throats, it is not about getting rid of hymns all together, neither should it be about promoting the responsorial psalms of the diocesan preferred publisher, it is about gradually educating or possibly ‘illuminating’ is a better word, our musicians about the practices of the church and getting into our schools and teaching the children the music of the Missal. Fifty years after Sacrosanctum concilium, this is now our chance to re-discover the beauty of our liturgy, to sing and to pray the word of God as it was intended. Arundel and Brighton, it is over to you…

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Musical Formation at the Birmingham Oratory

I have just come back from the first two day conference held by the Blessed John Henry Newman Institute of Liturgical Music at the Birmingham Oratory, scheduled to coincide with the second anniversary of Pope Benedict’s visit to the Oratory and the beatification of Cardinal Newman. The event was rather thrillingly packed with plenty of ‘big names’ in Catholic liturgy, lay and clergy, who all seemed to be saying the same thing, ‘if you haven’t read Sacrosanctum Concilium yet, it’s about time you did, and then put it into practice!’

I unfortunately missed most of the Friday events which included workshops on chant and organ tuition and a talk on ‘Music in the liturgy, or Liturgical Music? An approach to establishing the difference’ from Jeremy White, the opera singer and cantor of Schola Gregoriana.

Saturday kicked off with Mass in the beautiful Oratory church celebrated by Monsignor Andrew Wadsworth.

The day then shifted down the road to the local primary school where we were enthusiastically greeted by the head and some of the children and of course by the organiser of this weekend, Fr Guy Nichols.

Mgr Andrew Burnham, member of the Ordinariate and distinguished musician spoke first on ‘Towards a New Culture of Liturgical Music.’

His very entertaining talk took us on a jaunt through the forays of Anglican hymnodic practices arriving in a familiar Catholic world where he emphasized the importance of a common musical repertoire. ‘Nothing is difficult if you have the aspiration.’ His advice was to increase the parish repertoire bit-by-bit. In his experience, his parish had begun with the Missa Simplex, then the Pater Noster, the Marian Antiphons and then adding the Rorate Caeli in Advent and then the Attende Domine.  Mgr Burnham also touched on another subject which cropped up regularly during the day, the importance of recognising the church as a shrine to God and not just a place which is used to build communities. I was intrigued to hear him recount that in his experience he has found in Catholic parishes there is an understanding of prayer and silence which you do not readily find so frequently in Anglican circles.

Mgr Andrew Wadsworth, the Executive Director of ICEL, and a recent visitor to our own parish, explored the way “Towards a new culture of Liturgical Music.” The Mgr reiterated the fundamental point, the liturgy is not something we do, it is something God does in us. The liturgy should highlight the intrinsic relationship between beauty and truth and the role of Gregorian Chant enables the word of truth to the expressed in song. It is within this heightened proclamation of the truth that the song is about God and not about us. He also spoke about the uncomfortable reality that our liturgical music could be being shaped by the music publishers and  not from the guidelines of the church.

Another common theme mentioned throughout the day was the wealth of music available in the  new translation of the Roman Missal, more music in fact than any previous missal. Mgr Wadsworth said that the Roman Missal was our opportunity to reinterpret what we having been doing at the Mass. If all the children in the Diocese of Leeds can learn the Missa Simplex, why do we not all know it – a point first mentioned by Mgr Burnham and the importance of a ‘shared repertoire.’ He continued by reminding us it is the 50th anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium so what a better time to go back and re-read what it says and act on it. “This precious song which has travelled centuries to go to us… is seeking new voices that will take it up in our time. “

And onto Joseph Cullen, outstanding organist and choir conductor including the London Symphony Chorus.

Joseph Cullen is so funny, if he ever gives up the day job he should be doing  Catholic stand-up.  He spoke on ‘Stripping the Cladding’, an analogy he used to compare the interior design fashion so popular in the 60s and 70s of hiding beautiful features with cladding etc comparing it with the covering up of our liturgical history. He spoke of the horrors of post-conciliar liturgy, encouraging us to throw away our hymnbooks (or words to that effect) and to sing the Mass, ‘well,you couldn’t do the whole opera without recitative,’ he acclaimed.

His handy hints for singing were:-

1. You should never have one person singing into a microphone.

2. Everyone must know who is singing what, something the organist can help with.

3. The Great Amen cannot be sung if the doxology is not sung.

4. If there is a single voice at Mass, why not face the way as the people. Mass is not a performance after all.

5. Rather than attempting to learn a new Gloria, how about trying one of the originals in Latin. Everyone knows the meaning because we say in it English. Children don’t have a problem learning Latin so neither should adults, it is the universal language after all.

After lunch, Ben Whitworth, the assistant editor of the liturgical journal ‘Usus Antiquior’ explored the subject ‘the uses and abuses of hymn’. He began by describing the history of the emergence of hymns during the 19th century. I had just assumed that Anglican congregations across the land had sang hymns ad infinitem since time began but this indeed was not the case. In fact after Ben finished his talk l was left wondering how we ever ended up with hymns in the Mass, for as Ben emphasised, the words sung in the Mass cannot be a matter of indifference or of personal taste.

Ben’s tips for singing the Mass are:

1. Direct active participation requires the singing of the Propers and of the Ordinary.

2. Try to sing the processional chants in whatever form.

3. If you are going to sing hymns, evaluate them against Pius XII criteria –  are they an accurate description of Catholic doctrine?

4. Encourage new hymns that do fulfil that criteria

5. I can’t remember No.5!!!

6. Insist on the singing of sequences. Revive the older sequences eg. the Christmas sequence or the Dies Irae.

7. Sing the hymns that in the Missal eg. Pange Lingua on Holy Thursday or the Gloria, Laud and Honour for Palm Sunday.

8. Promote the Divine Office where you can sing hymns in their proper context.

9. Keep hymns for special occasions.

10. We should have a British hymnal which focuses on the singing of the Mass.

And then to the great Jeremy de Satgé, founder of ‘The Music Makers, singer, composer and choir conductor.

Jeremy had spent an hour in the afternoon teaching some of the primary school children to sing in Latin. The result wasn’t just beautiful, it was mesmerizing, especially considering some parents in our parish believe that children cannot understand Latin and therefore should not be exposed to it at Mass.

They were singing the Ave Regina Caelorum and when asked what some of the words meant, portas, caeli, regina etc, they all knew the answer.

Jeremy then spoke on how to get Catholics to sing and indeed why should be sing at Mass. He said we need to instill a culture of singing. Singing is an expression of joy eg. you would say Happy Birthday in full to someone, you always sing it, and in the same way the Mass is a celebration that should be sung.

If cut-out-and-keep guide to singing the Mass was:-

1. Priests should sing. The new translation is full of music. We should be concentrating on singing the words of the Mass not putting all our effort into singing hymns.

2. Promote parish choirs. Pope Benedict said “sacred music is the vehicle of evangelisation” The music of Mass should be part of the prayer of the Mass. The role of the choir is to illuminate the liturgy and to provide music that supports private reflection and prayer. Silence is also important. He touched on the misinterpretation of the definition of ‘active partcipation.’ It had been generally assumed that congregations should be encouraged to sing all the time. Participation should not just refer merely to external participation. The choir is responsible for the correct singing of the parts assigned and aiding the parts of the congregation.

3. What styles are appropriate?

Once again Sacrosanctum Concilium and Musica Sacra are quoted. Jeremy reminds us that we should be leaving the normal everyday world outside the church and stepping into the sacred world and so pop culture should be left outside. Folk music does not support congregational singing. Latin lends itself to singing, the Italian vowel sounds are much easier to sing than the awkward dipthongs found in English. Latin is of course universal, international, and it is still the language of the church.

4. Educate the young. In Jeremy’s extensive experience, children love plainsong and they love Latin – he added their favourite is Kyrie XI (Orbis Factor.) Imagine hearing 500 children all taught by Jeremy, at Mass in Westminster Cathedral all singing the Salve Regina.

And so to the end of the day and sung Vespers in Latin with psalm verses in English led by Philip Duffy, who was director or music at Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral for 30 years.

Many thanks to Fr Guy Nichols and his team at the Oratory for organising such a fantastic event.

And the most insightful thing l learnt from yesterday to take back to our parish by the sea is, we seem to be getting it right at St Mary Magdalen’s. We may not always sound like Westminster Cathedral choir… but we are singing the Mass, priest, choir and congregation alike, as it was intended in Sacrosanctum Concilium and according to the Roman Missal. It takes time, you can’t change the music overnight, but bit-by-bit as Mgr Burnham said it can be done. If only you could have heard our congregation singing the Agnus Dei from Mass XI today. Next week we will all learn the Sanctus from Mass XI – bit-by-bit…

More photos HERE on flickr

This Sunday

Our choir return this Sunday after nearly a two month break. Sadly, Stella who sang alto in our choir for nearly three years, died last night. She had just celebrated her 40th birthday. Stella had a brilliant talent for improvising beautiful harmonies when we were singing hymns or Taize chants. She could not read music but you always felt that she didn’t need to. The melodies just flowed through her.

Pray for her and her family, particularly for Chris, her 13 year old son. 

This picture was taken by my photographer friend Amelia Shepherd a couple of years ago. Stella had just moved to Peacehaven, a small coastal town several miles from Brighton. Meli was doing a photographic study on some of the residents of Peacehaven, and Stella was one of her subjects.

We will all miss you Stella. Requiescat in pace.