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

11 thoughts on “Musical Formation at the Birmingham Oratory

  1. Nicholas Hinde says:

    Was the opening Mass OF or EF? I ask because the celebrant wears the maniple, which,I gather, has fallen into disuse rather than been abolished in the OF.

    • Clare says:

      Ave Verum Corpus. It’s better than Mozart’s, Haydn’s, Byrd’s, and Elgar’s version put together and it’s the original. According to Wikipedia it used to be sung during the consecration in the Middle Ages- not sure how true that is but it is a terribly important piece of music in our Catholic history, whoever wrote it.

  2. John Nolan says:

    I can’t wait to see the comments on a certain US blog (and I don’t mean the Chant Cafe or NLM) when they see the Executive Director of ICEL celebrating his private Mass according to the 1962 missal – it will appear to confirm their darkest suspicions!

    After Joseph Cullen’s swipe at Viennese Masses, it was gratifying that the Solemn Mass at the Oratory yesterday featured a Haydn Mass, a Mozart motet and some very Viennese-sounding organ music.

    • Clare says:

      John, I don’t know which blog you mean – l’m afraid l don’t read many blogs. As for Mgr Wadsworth celebrating his private Mass in the EF, it was hardly a private Mass (!) there were at least ten old ladies there wearing Mantillas, plus virtually all the conference participants, not exactly Birmingham’s best kept secret. I hope that the blogs you speak of are as unphased by his rite of choice as l am. Both forms are equally valid after all. Anyway, I am sure Mgr Wadsworth would have been asked to celebrate his Mass in the EF as there was at least one other OF Mass at the same time.

      As for Joseph Cullen’s comment concerning Viennese Masses, l didn’t agree with him on that point either. We have been known to sing the odd Haydn Mass at our parish on Solemnities. Not everyone has the singers to put on an unaccompanied Renaissance Mass every week. I’m sorry l wasn’t able to stay for Sunday Mass.

      • John Nolan says:

        PrayTell Blog, which attracts unreconstructed 1970s liberals who are still whingeing about the new translation. A private Mass is simply one that is not scheduled. Priests are not required to offer Mass every day, but are encouraged to do so. Before 1960 the term Missa Privata meant a Low Mass, one that was deprived (privata) of the music and ceremonial of a High Mass. Pope John XXIII replaced the term Missa Privata with Missa Lecta, to avoid confusion.

  3. Joseph Cullen says:

    Just to clarify two points in particular in case the wrong impression has been given.
    First, my point about one person singing down a mic was that this should never be done when everybody is supposed to be singing the same thing. It’s just pointless, unbalanced and ill-mannered. There are times when an individual can successfully use amplification to clarify the text. Less so the singing, which can carry more easily.
    My point about (huge generalisation) Viennese Mass settings was that, in the OF, such choral settings can massively bloat the introductory rites into an unacceptable length. Perfect for Sunday morning at the Oratory when action, word and music are effortlessly superimposed. I felt perfectly at ease in this case. Joseph Cullen

    • John Nolan says:

      Of course I take your point. The main problem with the Viennese settings is the over-long Benedictus, which keeps the celebrant hanging around even in the EF when it is sung after the Consecration. The Agnus Dei can always be sung during the people’s Communion. Georg Ratzinger introduced this custom at Regensburg and his brother approved of it, although I think the Oratorians beat him to it. At the Pope’s Westminster Cathedral Mass in 2010 the Pontiff remained standing during the singing of the Byrd Gloria, whereas the congregation, obviously used to such fare, sat down. A rare lapse on Guido Marini’s part.

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