James MacMillan and the Musical Modes of Mary and the Cross

Program for the conferenceThis past weekend, composers, scholars, and performers met at the University of Notre Dame for a sacred music conference, sponsored by Sacred Music at Notre Dame, titled “James MacMillan and the Musical Modes of Mary and the Cross.” Not only did the conference coincide with the feasts of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and Our Lady of Sorrows, it also celebrated the 175th anniversary of the founding of the Congregation of the Holy Cross – the order which founded and oversees the University of Notre Dame.

Much of the conference focused on composers – beginning and established, from a variety of traditions – sharing their work, often in tandem with some reflections on composing or the role of sacred music. Many spoke of the sense of transcendence that music could provide. Some shared their inspirations – several mentioned being moved to tears by, say, a passage from Scripture, or the liturgies of Holy Week. Some discussed their compositional processes — what tonal languages they were used (“I don’t generally like to write triads,” one composer commented memorably), what affect they had in mind. A festival choir, including many of the sacred music students at Notre Dame, read many of the works.

James MacMillan gave an opening address in which he pondered the place of sacred music, both now and historically. He and several other speakers brought up similar points: the Church was once the greatest patron of music, but the relationship is far more complicated now. There is now a distinction between “secular” and “sacred” music which many at the conference were reluctant to accept. MacMillan pointed out some of his efforts to bridge this gap, such as including a quote of the plainchant “Ave Maria” in his Piano Concerto No. 3, and basing a percussion concerto on a rhythmic motive from “Veni, Veni Emmanuel.”  But these references would be lost on many listeners; it is no longer a given that such musical motives would be understood, as was the case for certain times and places in the past. MacMillan also spoke about some of his efforts as a volunteer parish musician in Scotland, and his efforts “to make God palpable for professional and amateur alike.”

Here are some of the questions which recurred:

  • How is sacred music to be understood in our time? What makes music sacred?
  • Is there really a distinction between secular music and sacred music? Could all music be said to be sacred? Some said yes; another speaker voiced his opinion that “Christian rock is a contradiction in terms.”
  • How does one accustomed to writing for the concert hall (for professional musicians) adjust to writing for a congregation (and for amateurs)? One speaker frankly admitted that the piece he shared with us had never been performed; it had proven too difficult for the group that commissioned it.
  • What does amplification do to congregational music, and our musical culture? Do we yet fully understand how amplification affects our music?

The first day’s speakers included many composers who were sharing sacred music for professional choirs. Two – Frank LaRocca, composition professor at California State University East Bay, and Daniel Elder, recently graduated from Westminster Choir College – shared their respective approaches to the text O Magnum Mysterium. LaRocca spoke of borrowing a music symbol from Bach – the cross (four notes in a cross pattern, such as Bach’s name); Elder spoke of using the choir as an instrumental ensemble, imitating various instrumental effects. Libby Larsen, raised Roman Catholic, spoke of the profound sense of loss she felt after the reforms inspired by Vatican II, when so much music that had evolved with the church was no longer used. Though she’s written little liturgical music, she calls herself a “mystic Catholic” and feels a strong sense of stewardship in her many sacred works, including the Marian works she shared.  David Davies (Houghton College), from the Reformed tradition, spoke of how he synthesized techniques from secular and sacred composition styles – borrowing non-functional harmonies from the former, say, and making the piece text-based from the latter.

On the second day, music for congregations was a greater focus. Caleb Wenzel (a master’s student at Catholic University of America, alumnus of Saint John’s University) discussed his work in both rural and urban parishes and how he wrote to try to develop the ear of the congregation. Jennifer (Kerr Breedlove) Budziak reminded us of the cultural diversity of our congregations, sharing a responsorial psalm that used both English and Spanish simultaneously. And then, in a whirlwind world tour, five master musicians gave the conferees a quick overview of various genres of congregational music. Among them: Steve Warner, from the Notre Dame Folk Choir, shared some Irish music that the choir had learned on their trips to the Emerald Isle; Mellonee Burnim, of Indiana University, gave a stirring introduction to spirituals and gospel music; and Samuel Sommers provided a brief overview of music in the shape note tradition.

The conference included multiple concerts of sacred (if not liturgical) music, performed with superlative artistry. The conference opened with what was ostensibly a vespers service featuring the South Bend Chamber Singers. The service was bracketed by two modern choral masterworks, Petr Eben’s  Prague Te Deum and MacMillan’s Magnificat. The following night, the Renaissance ensemble Pomerium presented a concert of Renaissance vocal music written for, or based on themes from, the Feast of the Seven Sorrows. While the pieces were sung, images of the manuscripts of these scores and of paintings contemporary to the music  were shown to the audience. And the closing concert, featuring the Aguavá New Music Studio and the Notre Dame Festival Chorus and Orchestra, included the premier of a new piece by MacMillan, Cum vidisset Jesus (based on an antiphon for the Feast of the Seven Dolours of Mary). This final concert also included MacMillan’s The Seven Last Words from the Cross, a dramatic work for chorus and strings.

This conference may be the first in a series; conference organizers mentioned their hopes that the Sacred Music at Notre Dame will sponsor similar events in the future.



  1. As a Notre Dame MSM grad, I wish I had been able to attend – it sounds like a wonderful conference.

    The oft-repeated reference to a mythical time period when sacred and secular music were indistinguishable always raises a number of red flags for me. The standard reference is usually the Renaissance, in which period we hear that madrigals, chansons, and sacred vocal works were all similar. That in itself is a great oversimplification – just as one tiny example, how is it that Palestrina composed a distinct body of works known as “Sacred Madrigals” in his life? (This one is dear to me, as one of these pieces showed up as a mystery score on my doctoral orals). In addition, there were many different schools of madrigal and chanson composition, each with distinct compositional characteristics. Some are just like motets; some are quite different.

    But let’s assume that these sacred/secular vocal genres were, in fact, indistinguishable (leaving behind other questions such as performance practice, which might have played a huge role in how the different pieces were heard in their time). Sacred and secular vocal works were not the only music of the Renaissance!! There was also folk songs, instrumental dances, and on and on. So were all of these other kinds of music indistinguishable from church music? Was there really no divide whatsoever between all the different kinds of music in Renaissance culture? Is it true that in the Renaissance all available music of the culture was freely admitted to the liturgy or to sacred spaces? These questions would be more helpful to answer than whether the various kinds of ‘high art’ vocal polyphony were constructed with the same techniques. I pose these questions because I never see them addressed.

    Finally, if all objections are answered and the mythic culture of indistinguishable sacred/secular music is a historical fact, doesn’t that by definition render said culture useless as a model for us today? If the music was/is the same, then there is/was no…

  2. One way to approach the question of sacred/secular is an historical analysis. Another route is a philosophical-theological approach.

    But another approach, no less important, is a pastoral approach. What music will help these people, in this time and place, to pray? Some musicians feel that “pastoral” is a dirty word used to cover musical sins. I say they are wrong.

    Part of the ministry of sacred musicians is to actively listen to the people they serve. Many push their own musical agenda, be it classical or ritual or ethnic or contemporary… organ or piano or guitar… red book or blue book. The church is better served by those musicians who listen without pre-concieved bias and try to gently move in a direction which serves their particular community of faith. Not that you can make everyone happy or always have something for everyone. But God gave us two ears and one mouth, let’s try to use them in that proportion!

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