Interview: Father Guy Nicholls

Interview: Father Guy Nicholls
Father Guy Nicholls’ book Unearthly Beauty: The Aesthetic of St John Henry Newman was published this year. FAITH magazine asked him about how he came to write it.
- You are an Oratorian: tell us about that.
I first became interested in the Oratory when I was a schoolboy, having been acquainted with the figure of Cardinal Newman from my early years. My parish priest encouraged my sense of priestly vocation, and after university I offered myself to the Archdiocese of Birmingham and was accepted by Archbishop Dwyer who sent me to study in Rome. There I became familiar with the Roman Oratory and the figure of its founder, St Philip Neri, who had lived for many years just opposite the room in which I spent my six years in the Eternal City…This growing familiarity with St Philip deepened my interest in the Oratory and after ordination I was appointed to a parish not far from the Birmingham Oratory. I began to visit, especially to take part in the singing of Sunday Vespers and Benediction. The life of the Oratorian priests appealed, being that of a community sharing a common life yet, as secular priests, retaining their own property and a certain degree of independence. Their beautiful church, and their tradition of liturgy adorned with the finest examples of the ‘Church’s treasury of sacred music’ appealed to me.
- Newman is mostly known for his journey to the Church, for his understanding of the importance of the Fathers, for bringing the idea of the Oratory to Britain....When did you start to focus on this idea of Newman’s aesthetic?
Newman’s love for the Oratory and St Philip Neri was absolutely central to his priestly life. One of his greatest loves was music, and he was among other things a very good violinist. When he founded the Oratory in Birmingham, he looked out for recruits who were good musicians, since ‘music is very much a part of the Oratory’ and he established the regular celebration of sung Mass and Vespers on Sundays and great feast days. This has remained a notable characeristic of the English Oratories ever since, and was one of the features of Oratorian life and liturgy which appealed to me. Over my years in the Oratory I became more and more fascinated by the origins of all this in Newman’s own understanding of the faith in practice, and in his own musical character, and how it was very little appreciated even by those who knew a great deal about the rest of Newman’s theological, educational, pastoral and literary work. This was the germ that grew into the project of exploring the roots and flowering of Newman’s appreciation of beauty, especially as a religious phenomenon. I came to see that ignorance of Newman’s aesthetics left a significant gap in the picture we have of Newman the man, thinker and priest.
- Most Catholics know that music in many parishes is banal at best. Can we improve
things? How?
A serious problem is that so few people, priests and laity alike, really know or understand what liturgical music is about or ought to be. Most think it is merely a matter of choosing a few hymns and looking for any volunteers, regardless of musical ability or training. This last point has always struck me as very significant. If there is an electrical or plumbing fault or a gas leak in church, the priest doesn’t simply ask for volunteers to step forward and ‘have a go’ at mending it. Expertise is absolutely necessary and this requires a degree of training. Music is no less demanding than that. The fact that it is possible to get away
with allowing people with no training to direct the music is a great temptation to many priests, since it means there is no need for any expense. I know many priests who feel affronted at the idea that a parish musician might need some financial recompense in recognition not just of time and trouble spent in serving the liturgy, but in acquiring the necessary skills, experience and, yes, theological understanding too!
But that is only part of the difficulty; so much also of the music one finds being used in church is not truly shaped to the character and needs of the liturgy. It is far from the case that any music, so long as it is good and well performed, is perfectly suited to the liturgy…
A combination of ecumenical influence and a lack of other vernacular music to sing at Mass led to the adoption of the practice of hymn-singing at Mass, which soon came to dominate Catholic liturgy and does so to this day. One still finds a depressing choice between so-called ‘folk’ music (which is modern American in inspiration) on the one hand, and the ‘four-hymn sandwich’ on the other. However, the proper place to begin looking at suitable music for the Mass is with the music in the Missal. When the latest edition of the English Missal was published ten years ago, it was pointed out by the Executive Director of ICEL that it contained more music than any previously published missal in Latin or English. The deliberate intention was to reboot the concept of good liturgical music, that is, music which is not simply performed during the Mass, but the musical setting of the Mass itself. For this purpose, there is one kind of music that has ‘pride of place’: Gregorian chant, whether set to Latin or to English texts. The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy quite deliberately and unambiguously specified that Gregorian Chant is the music ‘proper’ to the Roman liturgy, and should have first place in the celebration of the Liturgy wherever possible.
- Are there any good English chants?
There are good settings of the texts of the Mass becoming available all the time. It is certainly important to begin from the requirement that anything sung in the Liturgy should be settings of the actual words of the missal and lectionary, and avoiding the use of paraphrases or ‘substitute chants’ such as hymns or ‘worship songs’. There are the simple Gregorian settings in Latin and English of the introits and (in the near future) the Communion antiphons in the Graduale Parvum, or those in Adam Bartlett’s Simple English Propers, which can be recommended straight away. The Graduale Parvum introits also have an accompanying set of CDs showing how each and every introit sounds. Such chants as these can be sung by a cantor and a congregation or a choir and congregation, with or without the accompaniment of an organ. That makes for very flexible performance styles in a wide variety of circumstances. Minimal training is required, and the [St] John Henry Newman Institute of Liturgical Music is available to come round to parishes and deaneries to offer tutorials and days of musical education and liturgical experience.
- Tell us something about your own experiences with parish choirs. Can people without
special gifts or musical training sing?
I have sung with parish choirs, deanery choirs and accompanied them and directed them at different times as well, so my experience is pretty broad and comprehensive. In those choirs there have been some where nobody has had a formal musical training, but who can all benefit from direction by a sensitive and well trained choirmaster, and others where some or even most of the singers have been well trained and capable not only of reading music competently, but of doing so at sight. The range of ability is the thing. No two choirs are ever the same in this. The important thing is that volunteers who are genuinely interested and willing can always benefit from training even if they have not had any before joining a choir. But they must have the benefit of someone who has some musical training. A director, like an organist, needs some formal training in order to be able to pass on the necessary knowledge and skills to choir members. It is important to note that choirs need never simply ‘lead’ the singing of the congregation. Choirs can and should assist the congregation, but they have a vital role in their own right as the Second Vatican Council Document on the Liturgy recognised. Choirs should be fostered because their contribution to the liturgy can deepen the appreciation and participation of the congregation. ‘Active Participation’ also includes listening in silence to a celebrant, cantor, choir or organist singing or playing music which is designed for the enhancing of the true spirit of the liturgy.


Faith Magazine

September/ October 2020