Liturgical Renewal and Church Music
Liturgical Renewal and Church Music

Liturgical Renewal and Church Music

James MacMillan CBE FAITH MAGAZINE May-June 2013

The renowned composer James MacMillan discusses the current state of Church music and the renewal taking place within it.

In recent months much has been written on the subject of music in Christian worship. For example, there was a heated discussion on the subject on the Letters pages of my local (secular) newspaper, The Herald, in Glasgow. Such discussion reflects a healthy and deep-seated concern for sacred music among members of almost all Christian denominations.

In the context of Catholic liturgy, music adopts a particular significance and missionary purpose. The Church would stop being the Church without its liturgy. The liturgy is the pinnacle and summit of our entire Christian life. It has to be of our highest and best, whatever the circumstances. Hence our liturgical music has to be more than mere utility music. Before he was Pope, Joseph Ratzinger said: “A Church which only makes use of ‘utility’ music has fallen for what is, in fact, useless… For her mission is a far higher one. As the Old Testament speaks of the Temple, the Church is to be the place of ‘glory’, and as such, too, the place where mankind’s cry of distress is brought to the ear of God. The Church must not settle down with what is merely comfortable and serviceable at theparish level; she must arouse the voice of the cosmos and, by glorifying the Creator, elicit the glory of the cosmos itself, making it also glorious, beautiful, habitable, and beloved.”

He went on to say: “The other arts – architecture, painting, vestments, and the arts of movement – each contribute to and support the beauty of the liturgy, but still the art of music is greater even than that of any other art, because it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy, because it is so intimately bound to the sacred action, defining and differentiating the various parts in character, motion and importance.”

It is therefore regrettable that discussion on the subject of Church music can often become polarised, with some debaters appearing entrenched in their positions. This need not be so, and is mostly occasioned by a lack of understanding.

Unfounded fears need to be allayed. Nobody is proposing a reversion to a rose-tinted status quo ante in our Eucharistic celebrations. Reference to tradition does not in any sense represent the thin end of an extremist, ultramontane or Lefebvrist wedge, nor does it posit a stale and arid musical uniformity. Least of all do frank appraisals and suggestions for improvement seek to denigrate the sincere efforts of parish musicians over the past few decades. On the contrary, every effort should and must be made to support liturgical formation in ordinary parishes.

Thus our discussions must be characterised by Christian charity; emphatically not by a false charity which seeks simply to appease or mitigate doctrinal error – but rather by a true and informed witness, a caritas in veritate. In contrast to members of other Christian denominations, as Catholics we owe fidelity to the Church’s Magisterium. For that reason, discussion should at all times be guided and nourished by Church teaching, allowing for a freedom of enquiry framed by a distinctly Catholic ethos. In this regard, a meaningful discussion can proceed only upon acceptance of the Second Vatican Council and two clearly defined premises.

Gregorian Chant

The first of these premises is that Gregorian chant is the official music of the Roman Church – a rich gift from history and the foundation of all Western music. This has been the case since the early Church, when it was collated by Pope Gregory the Great. The chant developed symbiotically with the liturgy itself. Chant began as part of the Jewish tradition, in which Christ and his apostles were raised. Thus chant is not really a musical style as such, but an expression and audible embodiment of the liturgy itself. It is not one option among many, but the actual musical medium of the Roman Rite. Sacrosanctum Concilium states that “all other factors being equal, chant should be given pride of place in liturgical celebrations”.

Music for a sacred ritual needs to project sacredness. In the liturgy “sacred” means “the glorification of God and the sanctification of the faithful”. Gregorian chant gives an elevated tone of voice to the texts of our sacred praises, conveying the special character of the words and the holy nature of what is being enacted and undertaken. The chanting of the holy texts raises them up from the mundane and presents them “as on a platter of gold”, in the words of Fr Josef Jungmann. Gregorian chant is unlike anything from the everyday world and conveys the clear impression that there is something uniquely holy in the actions of the liturgy. Gregorian chant is holy.

It is also universal as it is supra-national and thus accessible to those of any and every culture equally. It rises above those forms of music which are associated only with localised cultural experience, and it operates separately from styles which are associated with high, artistic, classical derivation and aspiration. Therefore it is essentially anti-elitist and simultaneously pure. Gregorian chant is for all.

The beauty of music is a crucial element in the “edification and sanctification of the faithful”. Beauty is the glue which binds together truth and goodness. To paraphrase Hans Urs von Balthasar: without beauty, truth does not persuade and goodness does not compel. The general function of music in the liturgy is to draw together a diverse succession of actions into a coherent whole. That is what makes Gregorian chant beautiful.

The Gregorian sound, and the practice of chanting, whether by specialists or by non-specialists, gives the most perfect context for the hearing of the words of the sacred scripture. It provides an elevated tone of voice that takes the texts out of the everyday and confirms them as sacred. It provides a goodness of form, which is in itself beautiful. And this, in turn, adds a sense of delight to prayer. It takes our divine praises into the realm of the transcendent and the eternal, and it is the music’s sacred character which enables this. There is a melodic and rhythmic freedom in chant which is hard to find in any other music. Chant not only enhances the text, it also breaks free from the restraints of metre. It is the antithesis of “rock” and pop with their incessant and insistentlymind-numbing beat. It embodies the ethereal and spiritual aspects of the liturgy. It is the free-est form of music.

Latin: The Normative Language of the Liturgy

The second premise for a fruitful discussion of Church music is that Latin is the primary and universal language of our Church. Its primacy was in no sense revoked, or even questioned, by the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. Latin also remains the primary language of our Divine Liturgy. The Novus Ordo Mass (often referred to as the Ordinary Form), promulgated by Pope Paul VI, remains in essence a Latin Mass. Vatican II mandated the use of vernacular translations for pastoral reasons, but always envisaged that Latin would remain the primary language of the Mass. Pope Benedict gave particular prominence to this in his own ministry, as reflected in his public celebrations of Mass. This is not to say that the use of the vernacular in liturgy and liturgical music is a mistake. Onthe contrary, it is to be positively encouraged.

Deviation from these two objective realities based on either ignorance or well-meaning idealism puts Catholics at odds with the strong currents of Church guidance.

New Initiatives in Church Music

My own activities in the field of liturgy have centred on my involvement with Glasgow’s Dominican community. Since 2005, I have served as choirmaster at St Columba’s in Maryhill. Our little choir comprises volunteers from within the parish, many of whom cannot read music. When we started, the congregation was accustomed to singing four vaguely apposite hymns slotted into the liturgy; in short, they were singing at Mass, rather than singing the Mass. Over the past seven years this approach has been altered to give chant (mostly in the vernacular) “pride of place”, as instructed by Vatican II.

Moreover, instead of replacing the Mass Propers with hymns, the assembly have starting singing these important prescribed texts, using a range of accessible resources. Of course the ideal source to which we aspire is the Graduale Romanum itself, the single most important book for any Catholic choir and the definitive source of Gregorian chant. Much of this chant is, however, beyond our choir at this stage in its development, which is why we have sought out a range of other chant resources – staging posts, as it were, on our path of liturgical betterment, and with the congregation’s involvement foremost in mind.

There’s the Graduale Simplex, published by the Church for smaller churches just like ours, with a range of Mass Propers for each liturgical season. There are also many exciting chant adaptations in English, clearly devised for congregations, which are well within the capabilities of ordinary parishes. The Graduale Parvum, now being completed by the Blessed John Henry Newman Institute of Liturgical Music in Birmingham, offers simple and extremely usable chant Propers in both English and Latin, drawn from a range of authentic Gregorian sources. Our congregation is gradually assimilating some of these. Then there’s the Simple English Propers by Adam Bartlett: easy, freely composed chant Propers for every Mass of the year. We use at least one of these almost every Sunday. Our choir isbecoming more fluent in this idiom all the time. Recently, we have been able to introduce Communion antiphons from the Graduale Romanum. A richly rewarding American publication is By Flowing Waters by Paul F Ford; it’s a large and full collection of chant-based liturgical song. Those who find their prayer heightened by the modality and supple rhythms of chant will find great riches in these collections. Wether in Latin or the vernacular, chant is an integrall and important part of our Christian heritage and living tradition.

A step in its direction is a step towards a deeper look at the meaning of liturgical renewal and its musical implementation. This music is for those parishes and communities who are serious about the liturgy, and singing the liturgy.

You might be wondering how parishes with limited financial resources could possibly acquire all this material. The good news is that everything I’ve mentioned, and much more, is available free on our website – – where it can be downloaded, reproduced and used with no copyright restrictions. In this Year of Faith, Pope Benedict invited all of us to read and study the documents of Vatican II, so that we might become ever more convinced and convincing witnesses to the unchanging truth of the Gospel message. He reminds us that the council “formulated nothing new in matters of faith, nor did it seek to replace that which is ancient”.

We are now also providing sound clips, articles and links to dozens of sources of expert information. We also host a forum for parish musicians to share experiences and advice on best practice, to which everyone is welcome to contribute. Future practical events, including a conference, are being planned. Since launching at the end of December 2012, the site has attracted more than 5,000 views from readers in more than 25 countries. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. While our increasingly global readership gives us great encouragement, we are especially keen that our efforts become known here in the UK, where we believe there is a real need for such practical support. Please visit our homepage, send us a message, connect with us on Facebook or Twitter, and tell any interested friends. We are here to help. The internet allows parish musicians to take ownership of their development, unfettered by redundant and exclusive structures, which hark back to a more restricting and controlling age, long before the arrival of instant communication and clear accountability.

Faith Magazine