Church and Composers

Some months ago, John was the guest speaker at a conference on sacred music, organised by The Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture. He spoke about composing for Christian communities today. Here is the transcript:

I have been writing church music all my adult life, and it never gets any easier.

St Cecilia

The first thing you hope for as a composer is that St Cecilia will pay you a little visit with the gift of a good idea. I must tell you that as I look back over my many pieces of church music, I sometimes think ‘St Cecilia must have been busy somewhere else when I wrote that one’. . . we have to humbly accept that we cannot control inspiration, it is a mystery—and I will return to that thought later. But when we compose, there are many things we can control, many decisions for the composer to make. For me the most difficult is to find the right voice, which must be my own sincere voice, to address the listener, earthly or heavenly. Should my music set the text in a simple, popular style, like a folk song or a pop song, or should I remember my classical training and allow complexity, elaboration, and the unexpected, as you would find in contemporary concert music by such revered composers as Berio, Boulez and Ligeti? Do our earthly listeners, our congregations, matter anyway? Should composers look upon their sacred music as an offering to lay upon the altar, regardless of whether it connects with the congregation?

The historical evidence points several ways. It is clear that Christianity has always been a singing faith, as was Judaism before it. The psalms are filled with quite specific references to music—its purpose to praise God, its resources quite lavish on occasion, with trumpets, lute, harp and instrument of ten strings (only two short of a twelve-string guitar)—but we have not the faintest clue what it might have sounded like in temple worship. Would it have been similar in style to the secular music of the banqueting hall and the street, or was there a separate sacred style? The New Testament has only one musical reference that I can find: at the Last Supper, ‘when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives’. Thirteen male voices, singing unaccompanied, and it must have been something they knew by heart, perhaps a psalm, but we can never know what it was like. In later centuries, as Christianity developed its own liturgy, we start to be able to know more – church music was the earliest type of music to be written down, largely because monks and clerics could read and write whereas street musicians couldn’t. Thanks to Guido of Arezzo’s invention of musical notation in the 11th century, Gregorian chant has survived and resonated down the ages, still a potent source of inspiration for church musicians today, including me. It’s hard to imagine that the secular music of its period was much like it, to judge from the slightly later chansons, estampies, rondeaux and similar courtly genres which seem to inhabit a more song-and-dance world. Until about 1600 it does seem that there was a separate church style, recognised by theorists as the ‘stile antico’ as opposed to the ‘stile nuovo’, which was more secular, melodic and dance-like. Monteverdi, who famously brought the sprightly and sensuous music of the street fiddlers into church – think of his Beatus Vir – justified it as the ‘seconda prattica’, as opposed to the more sober and polyphonic ‘prima prattica’ such as you find in a Palestrina Mass or indeed in Monteverdi’s own ‘In Illo Tempore’ Mass. By Monteverdi’s time, of course, sacred music was largely performed by skilled professionals and highly trained boy choristers, not at all like the apostles at the Last Supper. In a medieval or renaissance cathedral or court chapel, the musicians were up near the altar, and all that the congregation in the nave had to do was to listen and marvel; probably they heard it as a reflection of the music of the angels. Participation of a kind, certainly, but silent participation.

Jump forward to Bach in the 18th century, and participation became more active. Bach’s Lutheran congregation didn’t just listen to the chorales that were the foundation of so much of his church music, they sang them. Yes, you needed skilled and trained musicians to perform his cantatas and Passions, and they had plenty of elaboration, but because of the familiar chorales in them there was a line of connection between the composer and his congregation, though they and the clergy seem to have done nothing but complain about him—poor Bach! There’s a lesson there for church musicians: despite all your best efforts you can’t always expect gratitude. Another lesson we can learn from Bach: it’s obvious that he saw the sacred and secular worlds as all one, all God’s realm. (As a matter of fact my high school music teacher held the same belief, that all music is spiritual, whether or not it has a sacred label on it. He was a remarkable musician; he always encouraged me to write the music that was truly in my heart, and I owe him a great debt). But back to Bach, he wrote music no different in style whether it was in praise of God or of a local princeling, and was perfectly happy on occasion to recycle his secular music with a new sacred text. You can find dance rhythms in his sacred cantatas, solemn fugues in his secular keyboard suites. In a way it was easier for composers then. Yes, there was the prima prattica and the seconda prattica, but everyone spoke the same language of melody, whether it was Gregorian chant, Lutheran chorale, or folk song, and everyone felt the same dance rhythms in their bodies.

Everything changed during the 19th century. In the early years of that century, a composer such as Franz Schubert could write a Mass or a Salve Regina one day, then the next day write dance music for one of Vienna’s new commercial dance halls—and his musical language would be recognisably the same, it would all sound like Schubert. Composers had to have the gift of melody, they wouldn’t have lasted ten minutes without it. But as the century went on, high art and popular art began to diverge. Johann Strauss could not have written Tristan und Isolde, Wagner could not have written The Blue Danube. Stravinsky was perhaps the first famous composer of art music to admit ‘I lack the gift of melody’. It didn’t matter—he and many of the great composers of the 20th century explored and developed other aspects of music instead: sonority, texture, structure, rhythm and so on. They opened up exciting new sound worlds. Melody, you might say, crept out of the room and took up residence in the world of musical theatre, film music, and pop music. Probably the last great composer of opera to understand the importance of melody was Puccini, and he died in 1924.

I should say at this point that I do believe in the importance of melody. It’s not just that melody, in the form of Gregorian chant, is the foundation of sacred music, but a melody is a very good way of carrying the message of a text into the heart of the listener. ‘Che gelida manina, se la lasci riscaldar’ [spoken] is OK, but ‘Che gelida manina, se la lasci riscaldar’ [sung] is more powerful.

JR composing

So, where are we today? There is a massive divide in the world of music. We have to ask, is there a cultural mainstream? In the western world I don’t believe there is. We live in a pluralist age of overlapping minorities and subcultures, all catered for by cultural providers such as broadcasting stations, record companies, publishers, event promoters–and churches, who do, de facto, are cultural providers. It would be a rash (and an old-fashioned) cultural historian who identified the musical mainstream as a straight line proceeding from Machaut to Messiaen. In the era of Mozart and Haydn, or Verdi and Puccini, it was still possible to point to them as leading composers of the day because they had a universality which embraced more than just a contemporary music élite. Today, you would have to ask ‘leading composer in which genre?’. If I were to ask you, who were Italy’s most important composers of the last fifty years, would the answer be Luciano Berio and Luigi Nono, or would it be Nino Rota and Ennio Morricone?

I guess I’m more familiar with the musical landscape in Britain, where it’s fair to say we have two kinds of composers writing church music today, and they ignore each other because they inhabit different worlds. There are classical composers such as James Macmillan and Judith Weir, who write what I would call church music as high art, needing professional performers such as we have in our cathedrals and university chapels, where there are clergy and congregations with ears tuned to appreciate it. On the other hand, mainly in the evangelical churches, we have pop and folk-influenced musicians such as Graham Kendrick who are striving to connect with their pop-generation congregations in more informal places of worship. Can there ever be common ground? I do wish there could be, because religion is supposed to be ‘religio’, that which binds us together, and music can be a potent force in that process, instead of which in some communities it seems almost to drive us apart; it’s difficult for a Christian to say ‘I love you as my neighbour, but I think you’ve got horrible taste in music’. So, to return to where we started, what kind of music should we write for the church – or, to couch it in more theological terms, what kind of music is pleasing in God’s sight? We can only go by the clues we have. Interior décor tells you quite a lot about a person, and as far as we know Jesus never left his parents’ house. He and his father were carpenters, and the carpenters I have met tend to be quiet, modest, perfectionistic people with the eye of the artist and the hands of the craftsman, who generally prefer elegant simplicity to the needless decoration which is one of the hallmarks of kitsch. The same applies to Jesus’s reported sayings: ‘Love your enemies’ or ‘Forgive your debtors’ are utterly clear, simple and timeless, yet whether you’re a Christian believer or not they’re unforgettable and profoundly far-reaching once you’ve thought about them. I wonder if contemporary church music can learn something from that? Maybe we need to search for divinely-inspired simplicity. The theologian and religious historian Dr Eamon Duffy has made an important point here: he sees contemporary church music as having got better at horizontal communication (that is to say with a congregation) but not at vertical communication (with God). Simplicity should not be gained at the expense of quality.

As a composer writing church music you of course have to deal with the church. The church has always been an important patron of the arts, and I believe it must continue to exercise this role, but music is more complicated to commission than painting. If the church commissions a painting, all you need is a wall or a ceiling to display it. If you commission a piece of music, you need musicians to bring it to life, or it is just dots on a piece of paper. As you know, in England our fifty or so Anglican cathedrals have resident choirs, all consisting of young boys and in most cathedrals young girls too, plus a back row of professional men singers. They rehearse and sing every day, and the best of these choirs are ready for anything—the great classics of sacred music, and new, specially commissioned church music too, mostly, I would say, at the ‘high art’ end of the spectrum. It’s expensive to maintain these choral establishments, but a worthwhile investment because cathedral choirs, and those in the chapels of our ancient universities, are both an inspiration to worshippers and a role model for more modest parish choirs. There was a survey conducted a few years ago in our English cathedrals, where one of the questions visitors were asked was ‘what aspect of your visit did you most appreciate?’ The answer came back ‘the music’, which was not the answer the cathedral clergy probably wanted. Some people would say that this expenditure on music is an extravagance, but let’s remember the story of the woman with the alabaster box in St Matthew’s gospel, where Christ affirmed the value of the precious ointment she poured over his head rather than selling it and giving the money to the poor. We need to do both. Of course we need to give to the poor, but I believe that music, and choirs, are a central element in Christian worship. I often say that a church without a choir is like a body without a soul, or a town without a football team. And it’s not just choirs – in this conference I am glad to see that you will be exploring the role of instruments in worship. Looking at the international scene, I see a great rinascimento of choirs and choral music. Choirs have always been with us, but thanks to recordings and even television, we hear more of them. In France over 300,000 people went out and joined a choir as result of seeing a recent popular film called Les Choristes.

A word about how to commission new church music: be bold! Find the very best composer in the genre you are looking for (just think who Pope Julius II found to paint that ceiling!), don’t be afraid to ask for exactly what you want, give the composer a truthful picture of the capability of the performers, and please do pay for the work: composers have to eat. Our income derives in part from commission fees, and sadly our other main source of income, from royalties, is being increasingly eroded by photocopying and internet piracy. You will find that most composers have a natural sympathy for the church and will be happy to be commissioned. In fact, whether they claim to be religious believers or not, most composers have a strong natural sense of faith, because music is a mystery, just as faith is a mystery. I can’t tell you why tears come to my eyes when I hear a certain Bach prelude played on the violin, it’s not sad, but music has that mysterious power. Musicians are at home with the transcendental.

I hope I have not glossed over the differences besetting new sacred music, and I have no easy answers, but I want to finish by suggesting that classic sacred music, our legacy of centuries, has a new importance in our secular age, quite apart from the huge new audience it has gained from recordings and concerts. To express it simply, it is a meeting place where believers and non-believers can share something unique and spiritual—and agree. Music is a road towards God. Today, everyone questions authority, you can’t reverse the French Revolution, and where there is doctrine, there will always be disagreement. Where there is music, there is harmony.



5 Responses to “Church and Composers”

  1. Lucy McCarthy

    You are so correct regarding music at church services.
    A few years ago,my husband and I were at Mass in a little church in Cannes.
    The organist,conductor and choir were heavenly!
    I approached the conductor ,after Mass ,to enquire who had written the Mass..
    It was Guonod’ s Missa Breve No 7!

    The conductor asked if I liked Sacred Music and I replied that I loved it.
    He brought me up to the rehearsal room and gave me his own copy!
    I later taught the Kyria Elison to the choir! That piece still gives me goosebumps!!

  2. Richard Willmer

    Not living in the UK, but in a Catholic country I find the words of the local priest very apt, when he says God has infinite patience. I cannot help but agreeing with him when I hear the dreary pop-inspired chants which have substituted Mozart and Haydn sung by a congregation where each senior citizen has his and her own idea of middle C.

  3. Fionnuala

    Your music inspires me. I try too. I pray for a muse like you have, one I can trust, that draws me towards what I fear but keeps my immortal soul intact
    Thank you for the music