Academy of Sacred Music in Scotland will counteract “lousy music at Mass”

Speaking prior to the launch of Scotland’s first Academy of Sacred Music (AOSM) in Glasgow , Ms. Dillon, its founder, said: “There has been some pretty lousy music sung in Catholic churches and that is where things have gone wrong, why congregations are shrinking.”

As one would hope and expect, renowned Catholic composer James MacMillan is involved in this new endeavor.

This is impressive: charitable work is part of the musicians’ formation.

Read more here.


  1. Ms. Dillon is a lover of what she refers to as sacred music. She designates other forms of music as happy-clappy but provides no examples. She leaps to a conclusion regarding young people leaving the church in droves because of too much happy clappy and not enough sacred music but without a shred of evidence. I watch some popular TV shows which feature happy clappy music which draws young people by the droves. The generalization is far too sweeping to welcome these comments uncritically. Is she talking about “Day by Day” from Godspell or “Here we are all together” by Ray Repp, both of which haven’t been used in decades. Is she talking about Gather us In or All Are Welcome? One Bread, One Body…..Pan de Vida…..You are Mine…..One Spirit, One Church? The more contemporary repertoire is vast and cannot be dismissed in toto in favor of what? Gregorian or other plain song chant…..Palestrina……Beethoven and Brahms?

  2. Be not afeared, Fr. Jack, the missus and I are planning to set up camp in Braemar this July and I’ve informed her not to plan on my return to the states as I will go off the grid to save Catholic worship music in the land o’ the Scots and of me heritage.
    And we’ve had a taste of it before in Glasgow, which is also to Edinburgh as Oakland (my home city) is to San Francisco, where me, the wife and the daughters led the singing at 10:00PM Sunday evening Mass in a forlorn parish, presided over by an East Indian Jesuit, who was apparently quite happy for the motley Yanks in the front pew bringing a spot of new world cheer in ’97. (Don’t know if the natives were so happy aboot us singing away with abandon.)
    And anyways, I left my beret in the parish church in Braemar, and I’m sure it’s still right where I left it in the front pew. Cheers. Happy Black Friday.

  3. Without needing to get into the specifics of repertoire, I think anyone who’s spent a few Sundays in various parts of Scotland will recognise that liturgical music in this country is in a proper stramash. Whether that’s the main driver of lapsation … well, it’s not fanciful to think it may be a factor. Yet high quality, participatory sacred music (no need to be scared of the term) is being produced in some places, often with very little in the way of financial resources. I’m thinking of St Columba’s in Glasgow, the work of the Schola Glasguensis and the Schola Sanctae Margaritae, the commitment of the Sons of the Most Holy Redeemer to high standards of liturgical music for the Extraordinary Form, Pluscarden Abbey and its apostolate of teaching liturgical music, the work of Forth in Praise to facilitate the composition and distribution of good congregational music for the new translation of the Missal, the liturgical compositions of James Macmillan – many of which are extremely accessible, the recordings of professional groups like Cappella Nova and Canty, which bring exposure to great Scottish liturgical music of every era. And yet this encouraging activity does not always filter down to the parishes. If this new Academy can help to bridge the gap, and actually help ordinary Christian communities avail themselves of what’s on offer, then it will be making a huge contribution to the life of the Church in this country. And it doesn’t strike me, from its website, as in any way an elitist project – Brahms is not mentioned, Fr Feehily, but music teaching for children and charitable outreach in Haiti and Sri Lanka are. May it flourish!

  4. Young people need the transformative power of sacred music to balance that, but instead they are getting banal, happy-clappy stuff at Mass.

    The stuff that the young people are choosing for their teen oriented Masses around here seems just banal. It isn’t from the hymnals; there is a separate sheet with the lyrics. This was the opening song:

    Let the glory of the Lord rise among us
    Let the glory of the Lord, rise among us
    Let the praises of the King, rise among us
    Let it rise.

    I searched the internet and there seem to be a lot of versions of this song out there. Most of them have some instruments or vocalists to make the sound more attractive than what I have heard in the parishes.

    When this type of music is done in the local parishes it makes “Gather Us In” sound like classical music by comparison. It does not even seem to be “happy-clappy” just banal.

    Where is this music coming from? Why are young people interested in it?

  5. Re: Jack Rakovsky’s comment at #5. The lyric you quote suggests that the composition could be categorized as part of the “Praise and Worship” genre of music that has developed within Roman Catholicism within the last 15 years or so, although its roots appear to be found within certain streams of evangelical Christianity. This genre tends to be categorized by texts that do not so much propose progress of thought on a particular topic (typical of hymnody) as to revel in some quasi-biblical phrases repeated over and over. (Interestingly, this technique seems similar to some of the mantra-style music produced by Taize, but the musical genre is less “baroque” in its harmonization and performance and more “indie-rock.”) It appears to attract a certain swath of millennial and post-millennial Catholic Christians, though its integration with the ritual requirements of Roman Catholic liturgical music has yet to be worked through. Your comment about the importance of performance (the importance of the quality of the instrumentalists and/or vocalists) raises some fascinating questions about whether or not this music might be more suited to evangelical and catechetical settings than those of liturgical worship where the focus might be on the music-making of the assembly itself (at least in the liturgical dialogues, litanies, acclamations, and hymns). On the other hand, it appears to be attempting to present the gospel message in musical formats that would be familiar to listeners for whom this style would be au courant (in ways that the 60s-70s “folk-pop” sound of “Gather Us In” [cfr. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”] would be be perceived as outdated.) Please understand that my comment on “Gather Us In” vis-a-vis “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” is deeply appreciative: I think Marty Haugen attempted to infuse the power of the equivalent of Gordon Lightfoot’s contemporary ballad writing to a gathering hymn for liturgical worship. Like my “On Eagle’s Wings,” it responds to its era, for good…

    1. @Fr. Jan Michael Joncas – comment #7:
      Why would you even qualify you last statement with “or ill”? Yes, the 2 pieces you mention (and many more!) respond to their “eras” but so do pieces by Bach, Peloquin and Palestrina or any other composer you care to mention. The fact that they are not “dated” is born out by the realization that people, young and old, are still singing them. People are still praying with these beautiful melodies and texts. The fact that some on this list prefer that these pieces and all of their genre would go away notwithstanding, they are considered sacred music by a vast majority of church attending Catholics!

  6. Since we’re talking about Marty Haugen’s “Gather us in”, I would tend to disagree with Mike Joncas’s categorization of it as 60s-70s “folk-pop”.

    The form of the piece is A1-A2-A3 (transposed)-A2, i.e. a coherent shape not found too often in folk-pop music of the period. And in my view it’s only the use of strummed guitars that gives it the pop-y flavour. Leave them and the harmonies on one side and take the melody on its own and you have a classic Dorian-mode folk tune (“folk” in the older sense) in the best traditions of old English folk music. I also find myself in admiration of the subtle affirmation of the assembly’s musicality — viz. the built-in congregational diminuendo (as they progressively run out of breath!) on the long notes at the end of A2 each time.

    It therefore seems to me that this piece is rather different from others that were being written around the same time, and I don’t think that it will feel outdated nearly as easily as much else from the period.

  7. I suspect young people like music that will give them a high and that they could care less though about the lyrics or instrumentation, they want a hypnotic high that will be like the bath soap Calgon and “take them away” from the troubles of this life and those in music leadership in parishes are happy to give it to them like the street dealers who sell them the prescription drugs that so many are now hooked on that accomplish the same thing in a mechanical way.
    But that isn’t anything new to this generation. The Baby-boom generation liked it too but under the guise of guitar Masses and folk music which accomplished the same thing, giving an emotional high through vapid means. As a disclaimer when I was young I liked it too and went to folk Masses for the adrenalin rush the kicked up instrumentation and tempo gave during Mass.
    The question arises though as to when those who are the primary liturgists of each diocese (the bishops of course) will say enough is enough and we’ll get back to some sense of common sense as it regards liturgical music for Mass and establish a common repertoire for Catholics in the Latin Rite that is true to our Latin Rite, whether it be in Latin or the vernacular. It is here that I think the Church Music Association of America is on the right track providing workshops to help move the Church forward but it has to be more than a fad, it has to be mandated by local bishops for the Latin Rite as the true means of liturgical music reform and recovery:

  8. ‘On Eagle’s Wings’ on Top in Catholic Music Survey-Vol 11, No 4-Spring ‘06
    Music Ministers and Parishioners Rate Parish Singing-Vol 13, No 4-Spring ‘08
    Bringing Young Adults into the Full Life of the Church-Vol 7, No 2-Fall ‘01
    Parishioners Prefer Familiar Songs That Are Easy to Sing-Vol 12, No 4-Spring ‘07
    All from the CARA website and easily understandable. With apologies for those with alternate tastes and longing for nostalgia, numbers do not lie.

  9. Re: Linda’s comment at #10. Thanks for your kind words about “Gather Us In” and “On Eagle’s Wings.” The reason I wrote “for good or ill” is that I genuinely do not know what the judgment of history will be on the contributions we church composers (whose compositions began to be widely used in the English-speaking world in the 1980s) have made to the post-Vatican II liturgical renewal. I can pray that our settings of biblical, liturgical and hymnic texts have allowed and will allow assemblies to sing their faith in ways that further the liturgical action, but I also believe that there is a sorting process by which the People of God signals which compositions outlast their own era. The most I can do is offer my compositions to assemblies, usually through scores and recordings prepared by publishing companies, to be evaluated by music directors who program repertoire for their assemblies. How those compositions are “received” by the People of God varies. Whether or not they will or should survive this era will only come to light long after I have entered, I hope, into eternal life with Christ.

    1. @Fr. Jan Michael Joncas – comment #11:
      Of course, you are correct. Only time will tell what is lasting from each era, and we will never know what will be sung and prayed in 2500! But here are MANY pieces written in the same time period as the 2 you mention that are never used or heard anymore. I have bookcases full of them!! So there is some proximate sorting already happening! Being over here in Italy has also opened my eyes to some proximate sorting as to what the Italians are using at liturgy.
      Also, as I have examined some of newer hymnals, it is interesting to see what has been retained as “standard” repertoire and what has been deleted.

  10. Re: Paul Inwood’s comment at #8. Actually, Paul, I think what you have written supports my categorization of “Gather Us In” as “folk-pop” in style. I agree that it is in strophic form (although I would have marked its four periods as A / A1 / B / A1) unlike the refrain/verse form of other folk pieces. I also agree that the melody is in Dorian minor mode, like many other folk pieces. But as you note, the harmonization and the strummed guitar accompaniment in 6/8 does to the melody what the harmonizations and guitar accompaniments of other “folk-pop” groups of the 1950s and 1960s (foremost to my mind being Peter, Paul and Mary) did with the folk tunes they inherited or in whose style they created. That’s what I mean by “folk-pop,” i.e., incorporating or inspired by “genuine” folk music (anonymously created, orally transmitted, usually exhibiting variant traditions), harmonized and accompanied both vocally and instrumentally in a more “popular” style. It should also be clear that this is not a negatively prejudicial term for me. A contrasting “folk-classical” style for me is represented by the choral arrangements that Alice Parker has produced of various American folk hymns (and, frankly, by some of your lovely choral compositions.) Please also note that I won’t go to the death for this categorization; my real point was trying to indicate the difference between what has been categorized as “folk” worship music produced in the 1980s and the “Praise and Worship” music being produced today.

  11. Re: Fr. McDonald’s comments at #9: I’m not sure that it’s helpful to categorize an entire age-group’s musical capacities or tastes in the following way: “I suspect young people like music that will give them a high and that they could care less though about the lyrics or instrumentation, they want a hypnotic high that will be like the bath soap Calgon and “take them away” from the troubles of this life and those in music leadership in parishes are happy to give it to them like the street dealers who sell them the prescription drugs that so many are now hooked on that accomplish the same thing in a mechanical way.”

    The difficulty with such an assertion is that one could equally state: “Late-middle-aged people like music at Mass that will soothe them; they could care less about the lyrics unless they are in Latin that only the choir will be asked to sing or the instrumentation unless it is organ and orchestral; they want a hypnotic high that will allow them to float on the perfumed harmonies of the Faure Requiem that will be like the bath soap Calgon and “take them away” from the troubles of this life; those in pastoral leadership are happy to give it to them like doctors overprescribing medication.”

    PLEASE NOTE THAT I AM NOT SAYING THAT THE FAURE REQUIEM IS BAD LITURGICAL MUSIC OR THAT IT SHOULD NEVER BE PROGRAMMED FOR THE EF. My only point is that it is difficult to make such broad assertions about entire groups of worshipers. The complexity of people’s responses to music is part of what made Aquinas and Luther rejoice in it as a gift of God in worship (for Luther to be prized next to theology itself), Pambo and Zwingli forbid it in worship as distraction, and Augustine and Calvin to allow it in worship but with rather intense suspicions and safeguards.

    To get back to the topic of this thread, I’m delighted in the initiative of founding an Academy of Sacred Music for Scotland. Let them bring forth treasures both old and new to enrich the Church’s worship!

    1. @Fr. Jan Michael Joncas – comment #13:
      But of course it’s one thing to get high on something that’s worth getting high on like a fine bottle of wine verses Boons’ Farm. But your point is well taken that liturgical music, new or old, traditional or contemporary should have some depth to it and not be vapid or banal and take root in young people rather than prepare them to leave for the non-denominationals or nothing at all.

    2. @Fr. Jan Michael Joncas – comment #13:
      I suspect that in many cases music is selected for young (and older) people. If they are asked to choose they will select from the ones they are familiar with. I suspect also that it is a small, and self selecting group, who do the choosing.
      If this institute creates greater awareness of the rich heritage there may be better choice and appreciation of music.
      Probably we are back to the problem of SC: who will train the trainers?

      1. @Peter Haydon – comment #19:
        Yes Peter, widening the awareness of what we have is an excellent goal, as long as it does not lock out what we could ALSO have! Even our most revered pieces of music were, at one time, new and even rejected by some.

      2. @Linda Reid – comment #21:
        How right you are Linda.
        But having endured “Shine Jesus Shine” this evening I am inclined to treat most new music with caution: that does not mean that I am right to do so or that you would be wrong to have different preferences.

  12. I know that in my parish, which is perhaps 2/3 Latino (ie., Mexican-American) and 1/3 “Anglo”, and quite rural, most of the hymns have a very folksy sound, and guitars are used for accompaniment. We use hymns like “Gather Us In”, “Pan de Vida”, “I Am the Bread of Life”, and Fr. Joncas’ “On Eagle’s Wings” is a favorite. Most people participate enthusiastically in the singing and appear to be genuinely spiritually uplifted. Harmonies arise spontaneously and are easy for many to sing, which adds an extra emotional quality.

    We don’t do any of the incantatory “worship” numbers discussed earlier, but these are very popular among young Catholics, who have caught on to them from evangelical friends and from hearing them on Christian (ie., evangelical) radio. Lots of older folks like them, too, but in lower doses. I think most kids are genuinely spiritually moved by these worship hymns, and are not into them for a “hypnotic high”. They would be amused by statements that such music is vapid, banal, or superficial. It moves them spiritually. Hey -they’re kids.

  13. We also have to keep in mind the great diversity of people in the Catholic Church in the United States. Music which appeals to highly educated people in big cities, colleges, universities, cathedrals, etc., doesn’t work, for example, for most uneducated, rural laborers in relatively small parishes out in the boonies.

    1. @Mark Emery – comment #17:

      Mark: We also have to keep in mind the great diversity of people in the Catholic Church in the United States. Music which appeals to highly educated people in big cities, colleges, universities, cathedrals, etc., doesn’t work, for example, for most uneducated, rural laborers in relatively small parishes out in the boonies.

      The smartest person I ever met is not myself. If a person presumes that his brothers and sisters are not intelligent enough to appreciate so-called “high liturgical” music, then the not-so-implicit message is that the “uneducated” are unable to appreciate any liturgical music.

      My parents’ urban parish sings the ordinary of the Mass in Latin. The pews are a sea of different ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds. When the priest intones the incipit for Credo III, all rise and sing the chant in unison and with gusto. Would I dare to turn to a materially poor brother or sister and rudely say that he or she cannot appreciate the Credo? I suspect that she has looked forward to this Mass all week.

      1. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #22:
        I drink fine wine and listen to classical music- “Thank God I’m not like that poor woman in the back of the temple” Many of these posts are simply class judgement. Enjoy the wine and music, but Jesus warns us about receiving our rewards here on earth. We do not place a judgment on the prayers and praise of others. They are between the persons and God. Are other posters here purporting to tell God that he shouldn’t listen to the prayers and praise of others? That’s pretty outrageous. We can get pretty comfy in the Beethoven barn we’ve built, but we may not be here to enjoy it tomorrow.

      2. @Will Roach – comment #28:

        Will: Are other posters here purporting to tell God that he shouldn’t listen to the prayers and praise of others? That’s pretty outrageous.

        Perhaps if I weren’t a teetotaler I would understand better. I did not actually believe that Mark Emery is prejudiced or convinced that God does not listen to the prayers of certain people because of the liturgical music they prefer. I merely wished to point out the very weak correlation between various factors such as age, ethnicity, background, and economic status and liturgical preference. This reality must be kept at the forefront unless certain liturgies are pigeonholed as “intended” for persons of a certain background.

        I have long thought that the turbulence after the introduction of the reformed and vernacular liturgies, particularly in North America, have had little to do with Latin and more with struggles for persons to find their “place” within the new liturgical landscape. It’s important to shatter the notion that persons have place within liturgies because of their backgrounds. The notion of “assembly” is supposed to gather in people of different experiences into one body. Has this been successful? Perhaps it’s best to say that we have just started along this road.

  14. By the way, IMO, congregations aren’t shrinking because of “lousy music”, but because of the appeal of the World, the Flesh and the Devil. It seems to be an old story…

  15. Jordan, thank you for your comments. The intention of my post was not to express condescension toward my fellow parishioners by suggesting that they were unintelligent and too ignorant to appreciate high liturgical music; and that’s not what I think. If I came across as sounding rude, my apologies.

    My point was simply that different kinds of liturgical music “appeal to”, or spiritually resonate with, different groups of people based on their cultural, educational, vocational, etc., backgrounds. And of course it has a lot to do with what they’re accustomed to. My comments were in no way an evaluation of their abilities or willingness to appreciate different kinds of music.

  16. ” “Day by Day” from Godspell or “Here we are all together” by Ray Repp, both of which haven’t been used in decades”

    Well then, Scottish Catholics are more fortunate than some American ones, because I assure you I have heard the former within the past four years, and the latter within the past four months.

    1. @Rose Ackerman – comment #30:

      Rose, Day by Day may not be your style, but I don’t think there anything intrinsically evil about the song-prayer itself. There may be an issue of imposition here, that people are being disrespected by someone imposing what they think is good music on them. If it is the music, then you have to provide a reason why you think the music should not be used. Imposition on people is a different story. I like Day by Day; it has a melody I can make interior without being physically active- but I really dislike, to put it politely, when a worship or activity leader makes everybody get up and be physically or vocally active. I then become a robot for this leader can feel self satisfied. This issue can go both ways as both contemporary or “traditional” music can be imposed on us by a person who thinks he or she knows what is good for us as if we are children and our personal, intimate relationship with God is irrelevant to them. An example of this on the “traditional” side is volume of organ music that drowns out the people in the pew, thus telling the people, God likes the music- not you.

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