Today’s composers rarely write for liturgical reasons

  • April 17, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - Catholic composers today fall into two categories: those who write for liturgy, and those who don’t. James MacMillan, a world-renowned Scottish composer and conductor, spoke about this in a lecture on “The Catholic Composer Today” at the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto April 8.

“To talk about the Catholic composer today is not necessarily a discussion about liturgy,” he said. “I think it’s a huge challenge for composers to write for congregations.”

Of course, he would know. MacMillan, whether writing for liturgy or not, infuses his work with the sacred. He has written scores of pieces performed by orchestras, choirs and symphonies around the world. However, he is a practising Roman Catholic, a lay Dominican in fact, who takes on the humble title of choir director at his parish in Glasgow, Scotland. He writes a responsorial psalm every week — that’s 52 new tunes, on top of the six to 10 concertos, operas or other musical pieces he  writes in a year for professional groups such as the BBC Philharmonic or the Welsh National Opera.

“If I can write something that a congregation can sing, then I consider that a success,” he said. “It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do — that is, write for the non-specialist.”

MacMillan says he thinks people realize the importance of music in the liturgy, but that several societal influences have diminished the drive for classical composers to write for the church.

“Our society forces music to act only as entertainment or not at all,” he said.

He said that the rise of popular culture has led to a “disintegration of religious culture and ideas” in music and brought a “relatively recent disengagement from serious music” like liturgical chant and choral pieces.

Many Catholic composers write pieces filled with the sacred, but these are meant to be performed in concert and are not suited for Mass, he added.

Peter-Anthony Togni, a Canadian Catholic composer and broadcaster for CBC in Halifax, said MacMillan’s words ring true.

“We live in a culture in Canada where people don’t sing together for fun,” he said. “It’s a spectator culture here for the most part.”

MacMillan had emphasized that people don’t participate in music like they used to, even if it’s just listening to and absorbing music, because it is so widely used as simply background sound in today’s society.

Togni agrees with MacMillan, who said that a problem with some church hymns today is also the loss of their poetic nature and meaning, muddied in the translation from Latin to common language. Poetry and beauty were tools for drawing the listener into the sacred.

“We threw out the baby with the bath water with Vatican II,” Togni said. “We’re still recovering from having lost the beauty of the chant.”

But Togni thinks that may be coming back.

“Any choir that I sing with, I find it’s the young people who ask ‘can we do more chant?’ and when I was choir director at (Halifax’s) St. Mary’s Basilica, as I introduced new chants, I found the congregation was catching on. I could hear that they were responding,” he said.

A real beacon for Canadian liturgy, Togni said, was a recent request from St. Thomas Aquinas parish in Halifax. Pastor Fr. James Mallon asked Togni to write a Mass for the 50th anniversary of the parish April 27. The congregation was invited to donate money to pay Togni for his musical creation. Donors who gave a certain amount could have a movement dedicated to a loved one.

Togni said he was floored by the parishioners’ response as they quickly raised enough to cover the commission.

“I was moved as a writer that they would step up to the plate in that way,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of composers who say ‘hey I want to write for the Catholic Church’ because since Vatican II, we haven’t had much support.”

He said that it’s not that people aren’t writing music for Masses, but it isn’t a primary focus, mostly because of the widespread lack of support.

“For me, nine out of 10 pieces are still composed and performed in concerts rather than in Masses,” he said.

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