James MacMillan: “I have decided to stop writing congregational music for the Catholic Church”

Oh my. Nothing shy about James MacMillan’s announcement: he will stop writing congregational music for the Catholic Church.

Because:

There is too much music being created, at the same time as the vast repository of tradition is ignored and wilfully forgotten.

MacMillan wants more cultivation of chant, and more appropriation of the chant tradition in the development of vernacular music:

My encounters with these initiatives have convinced me that this is the most authentic way forward for Catholic music, combining the participatory ethos of Vatican II with the deep history and traditions of the music of the Church.

And along the way, MacMillan has a few choice thoughts about Catholic liturgical music and musical composition in recent decades:

A lot of the favored new settings are musically illiterate, almost is if they were written by semi-trained teenagers, getting to grips with musical rudiments. The style is stodgy and sentimental, tonally and rhythmically stilted, melodically inane and adored by Catholic clergy “of a certain age.”

And this:

People with hardly any training and experience of even the basic building blocks of music have been convinced that there is a place for their puerile stumblings and fumblings in the modern Catholic Church because real musicians are elitist and off-putting. A whole industry has grown up to promote this material…

There you have it. The Telegraph has all MacMillan’s reflections on music.

42 comments

  1. “MacMillan wants more cultivation of chant, and more appropriation of the chant tradition in the development of vernacular music”.

    Umm, Popes and Church documents have been asking for this for quite a while, not just MacMillan.

  2. Why pick on congregations? It is not like we decide what music we will sing. We would sing it a lot better if we did, because it would at least be music that we knew.

    The Notre Dame Study of Parishes in the 1980s established that while people overwhelmingly like congregational singing, about 40% were unhappy with the music in their parishes. I suspect a similar study today would produce similar data.

    It is not like congregational singing and hymns are opposed to chant. My local orthodox congregation does four part chant, and Anglicans do a good job of having hymns and congregational chants in their liturgy.

    Why pick on the few members of my generation who were hippies? There are a lot of members of that generation who like Latin and chant and want to hear more of it in church. They even know how to sing it. They generally see pastors as the people who are saying “no” because it is not “popular” or “contemporary” enough and musicians as saying “no” because they don’t know how to pronounce the Latin let alone understand chant.

    This article has a lot of positive things to say and could have been said in a very upbeat manner but by picking on congregations and old folks Macmillan obscured the positive stuff.

    1. @Jack Rakosky – comment #5:
      There are a lot of members of that generation who like Latin and chant and want to hear more of it in church. They even know how to sing it. They generally see pastors as the people who are saying “no” because it is not “popular” or “contemporary” enough and musicians as saying “no” because they don’t know how to pronounce the Latin let alone understand chant.

      In my experience, it isn’t pastors so much as music directors. When pastors seem to be opposed to chant, I suspect it has more to do with their own feelings of inadequacy in singing their part than any real opposition in principle. It’s just easier to let the choir/cantor do it.

      I am also confident the 1980 ND study would be born out today. In my parish the congregation wants to sing, if they can. But they have problems with hymns that 1) are not in the hymnal, 2) if the hymn is not widely known and 3) is written in multiple part harmony. Chant solves many of these problems as long as it isn’t overly complicated.

      I am not a chant devotee in the same sense that some of our friends at The Chant Cafe are, but it has real uses, particularly in Mass settings. We have literally used 5 different Mass settings since advent 2011, and the poor congregation has struggled with each change. Sadly, they mostly knew the ICEL settings and I honestly can’t figure out why they aren’t used.

  3. Ah, the surety of youth. Ben, exult in these years, for you WILL be beset by many more years of doubt, introspection, humility (v. hubris) and above all, grudging respect for the opposite POV.
    Doubt me, wager me.

    1. @Charles Culbreth – comment #8:
      Don’t be so condescending. He believes what he believes.

      Church thinkers “of a certain age” seem to enjoy mocking youth. Maybe it’s because they’ve lost their own…

  4. While showing that “hippie punching” is never out of fashion at the _Torygraph_, MacMillan forgets Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of everything is crud. Most contemporary music is bad, and that was as true in 1713 as it is in 2013. Music of today will always suffer in comparison to the music from the past _that we still use_, because the bad old music has been forgotten. Go to a library and find a hymnal from 150 years ago–you won’t recognize most of the songs, and most of them will be awful.

  5. Ah, if only we could all breathe the rarefied air with James Macmillan. The super-sophistacates believe they are in exclusive possession of truth, goodness and beauty.

    1. @Scott Pluff – comment #9:
      I’m not sure that your criticism is fair, Scott (at least not in the way that you have expressed it). Mr MacMillan is the choirmaster in a working-class Glasgow parish, his day to day experience is far from rarified.

  6. For the last several months I’ve been singing hymns out of the Oregon Catholic Press, who seem to continue to want to put in their disposable hymnals the disposable hymns of the 1970’s. I’ve sung hymns out of this book that I haven’t heard or sung since my first assignment in Albany, Ga from 1980 to 85 where there was a very good folk group immersed in the 1960’s theology of folk music.

    It’s time to move on and to recover, like past time. What the Church Music Association of America is attempting to do in the “mustard seed” fashion with the Ordinary Form of the Mass, not so much in Latin, as important as that is, but with chant modes in English and for the propers themselves, is laudable.

    Hopefully the primary liturgists of the Church, meaning our bishops, including the pope, will start the real springtime for the Church in terms of liturgy by encouraging national hymnals in the vernacular that incorporate what the CMAA is doing with an appendix of “devotional hymns” from the best of our vernacular tradition for the Liturgy of the Hours, Benediction and popular devotions, but primarily focused on chanting the propers in the vernacular and a few very good settings for the rest of the Mass that all English speaking Catholics should know, starting with the Jubilatio Deo Mass that Pope Paul VI tried to get all Catholics in the world to chant.

  7. Proulx and Haugen can be heard almost as frequently in EPUSA and Lutheran churches as they became standard (ad nauseum) in Catholic parishes a few years ago. Now traditionalists fogies of all ages want all English hymndy thrown out and Mass turned into a concert of Mozart, Palestrina, and Byrd.

    Mr. Campbell will have a huge void to fill between Haugen and Byrd. Early Roman Greek chant, Ambrosian and Gregorian ? What about Orlando Gibbons?

  8. I believe that the inadequacy of contemporary Catholic music has been an on going problem for some time. No matter what style of music is favored, the primary issue is that it fails to create a sense of the sacred.

    Where more contemporary parishes often fail is in the loss of silence and quiet before and during the liturgy. Anyone who has been a parish priest knows the frustration of babies crying, people carrying on conversations and doing what would be more appropriate in an assembly hall than a church. The music of the St. Louis Jesuits, Marty Haugen, David Haas and other musicians that was mostly composed in the 70’s and 80’s is not in and of itself the problem. What is the problem is that few parishes have invested the time and monetary resources needed to create an effective music ministry that takes music seriously as an integral part of worship. Many parishes who have spent hundreds of thousands or more on renovating worship spaces are still content paying part time “organists” $75 a mass.

    Religious communities have an advantage in that they are all focused on making their worship meaningful and are all adults. We need to recognize that no one size will fit all.

    1. @Jim Howard – comment #18:
      Jim, you contend “….the inadequacy of contemporary Catholic music has been an on going problem for some time. No matter what style of music is favored, the primary issue is that it fails to create a sense of the sacred.” Then you cite a number of composers, not compositions and then finally conclude: “We need to recognize that no one size will fit all.
      This sort of macroscopic view of so-dubbed contemporary music actually fails to inform us of anything. That’s why I very much enjoy reading Rory and Todd’s blogs for their own exegesis regarding their specific compositions. For example, we can argue for days if someone utters “Chant is boring.” They can cite the ICEL Gloria (XV) as PROOF. Well, has everyone in a decision making position examined every possible setting of that one chant as well as the myriad of other a capella and accompanied Latin/vernacular chants and still stick to that banal conclusion?
      OTOH, I defy anyone to try to convince me that Janet Sullivan Whitaker’s IN EVERY AGE doesn’t convey a “sense of the sacred.” Is that a ringing endorsement of her, the composer, or of it, the composition? Is she the vehicle for my prayer or her song?
      I don’t particularly quibble with McMillan’s decision, and what’s more, don’t see much reason that decision needed a publicity splashdown in the UK periodicals. I agree with much of his premise of glut, but don’t agree that making a vow to leave the fray will advance the cause of the recovery of chant to the normative parish experience.
      If all of us would simply admit that we do change our attitudes and latitudes as we age (in ministry tenure) and the one thing that must remain consistent in that process is a thorough commitment to discretion and discernment of art’s worthiness, piece by piece, then why all the hubbub?
      BTW, Ben Yanke is a big boy, he can defend himself against the likes of me, who was not in the least condescending towards his zeal.

  9. Have a look at the video interview with James McMillan here. It is thoughtful, humble and edifying. It is all positive — about the contributions of popes Benedict and Francis, about the development of simple, singable liturgical music.

    Hearing him speak, it’s difficult to recognise the vitriolic, sarcastic voice of the author of that Telegraph piece. It’s hard to understand why someone of such obvious good will would allow inclusion of those photographs. Wait — who is McMillan’s editor? Is it Damian Thompson? OK, that explains much of the idiocy in the piece.

    McMillan is operating in a market economy for liturgical music. The simple English chants he recommends are easy to learn, singable — and inexpensive. Parish leaders are free to choose them — or not. Nobody imposes Proulx or Haugen or Gregorian chant on congregations. The best way to promote the simple chants is to emphasise their positives. That is just good marketing.

    Before someone jumps in to claim that Pray Tell is making the same error in critiquing the new translation: not at all. The imposition of the new translation was, understandably, a non-market phenomenon. Parishes have no choice but to adopt this botched work. Given the lack of choice — and I am not saying there was anything wrong with this — there should have been better consultation, and the last-minute uber-botch by Vox Clara, well chronicled here, should never have happened.

    McMillan, on the other hand, and his friends at Musica Sacra and the Chant Café, are competing in a market. A consistently sneering tone does not serve their cause.

  10. All of us would be better served if we toned down the rhetoric a bit, and took for granted that people with opposing views are not necessarily our enemies, and may in fact be working in grace toward the same end we are. I’m just so tired of all the “my way or the highway” talk, but maybe that’s just because I was part of it for so long. (Not so much on PTB, but the tone of the newspaper piece, for example.)

    A couple of other thoughts: music is not the church’s only problem in the quest for “mystery”. Neither is the liturgy itself. The core issue we aren’t dealing with is, what does faith mean and do in the 21st century? Who is Jesus and what difference does that make? Who is God? Why do I need anyone else to be part of that discussion? What we don’t have is a head-heart connection, we just have habits and opinions and weapons (like the internet.) We really do need the gospel. In my opinion, that’s where the reductio has happened, not in music or liturgy.

    Then there’s the matter of mystery itself, which is tied in with the matter of who God is, and what difference other people make. I get the feeling that some people insist that mystery can be manufactured by style, and this feels like a dead end to me. I’m old enough to know that there was a reason things had to change in the middle of the last century.

    As someone who has been full-time in parish work for thirty years, I can say that I agree that the market is saturated. Part of the reason is the competing theologies and ecclesiologies (and there are more than two!) keep manufacturing distinct repertoires. There’s no compelling center, really, attracting artists of different musical backgrounds to make their contributions.

    At any rate, I don’t believe that the success of parish prayer can be judged on aesthetic grounds. It’s has to be judged on missional grounds, on what’s going on between services. But that’s just one of the competing theologies and ecclesiologies, I suppose. I’m listening, anyway, and trying not to be disrespectful…

  11. >>The core issue we aren’t dealing with is, what does faith mean and do in the 21st century? Who is Jesus and what difference does that make? Who is God? Why do I need anyone else to be part of that discussion?

    One of the biggest problem of the modern age is the notion that these questions have answers which are temporally or culturally specific.

    1. @Adam Wood – comment #21:
      On the contrary, Adam, the answers to these questions always make sense only in a given time and culture. At least that’s how I read Gaudium et spes,, Paul VI’s Evangelii nuntiandi, and Pope Francis’s recent emphasis on Paul VI’s great document.

      Note, I’m not saying the everything is up for grabs and all the answers bend to whatever secular trends are popular right now. I am saying that the meaning of God and Jesus and faith have to be asked anew in every age.

      My read of Church history (eg Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus through the Centuries) is that the Church has re-asked these questions in every age. It’s not a new idea invented at Vatican II or under Paul VI or Francis.

      Pax,
      awr

      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #22:

        I disagree.

        I think that specific actions one takes in order to live out the Gospel are time-and-place specific, and the particular challenges and temptations one faces along the way also change over time (though, not nearly so much as some people would like to think.)

        And, of course, there is a gradual unfolding of truth over time.

        But the last few hundred years have given rise to the notion that ACTUAL TRUE THINGS – like the nature of Christ or the historical physicality of the Resurrection – are changeable or variable.

        It may be that there was time when we did not know something, and then came to know it. An understanding might be enhanced. But the actual true things (Who is Jesus? Who is God?) do not change.

        ——–
        If the truth had changed, your life would have lost its unity. The truth has not changed, but you have grown to fuller understanding of it, to larger capacity of receiving and transmitting it.
        -Phillips Brooks

  12. Tone aside, McMillan highlights a legitimate problem – the product-driven liturgical music industry. The major publishers need to sell product, just like any other business, and so work to create demand through attractive advertising of new song collections and mass settings, etc.
    I would agree that there is a glut of congregational music right now. And it’s being produced and marketed and sold far to quickly for any real judgment to be made about quality or lasting worth.
    Whatever your feeling about style, it’s true that if Catholic parishes generally got back to their roots with either public domain hymnody or free chant resources (whether latin or english), a huge and profitable publishing industry would be in deep trouble.

    1. @Jared Ostermann – comment #23:
      “I would agree that there is a glut of congregational music right now. And it’s being produced and marketed and sold far to quickly for any real judgment to be made about quality or lasting worth.”

      That’s a big part of the problem. Choir directors and pastors see the slick marketing and run after the lastest fad. More money is spent and in a lot of cases wasted, as music is found not to work or not so hot after all, and caste aside. And congregations are stymied (or silenced) by ever changing selections, thrust on them in the quest to make them sing.

    2. @Jared Ostermann – comment #23:
      A misdiagnosis on a few fronts. I’m no fan of some of the aspects of the publishing sphere, but most publishers do have a better vetting and editing process than what I’ve seen from the modern chant resources.

      The congregational repertoire has largely stabilized since the late 80’s. If there’s any reason why there’s still a glut of resources being published, it’s because publishers are still eager to crack into the “top-100.” There’s a thin opportunity for a new generation of composers out there, and a lot of younger people have legitimately superior craft.

      Liturgical music publishers are not in any kind of trouble, unless they’ve been shut out in the period of 1970-1990. MR3 was probably a boon for everybody, and will continue to be so until the Mass ordinary repertoire settles down in another ten years.

      “And congregations are stymied (or silenced) by ever changing selections, thrust on them in the quest to make them sing.”

      Sounds like the misguided quest to impose the sung propers. Another sad example of the song-of-the-week.

  13. This past week, the four hymn sung – typical contemporary ones – were what I call “homiletic hymns.” They were all addressed to the congregation. Recently, the communion hymn used “I” seven times in one verse. Because of copywriter requirements, the sung psalm response varies from the Biblical text. It is usually a hymn, not a sung psalm. I believe that singing is integral to liturgical prayer. However, I find myself less and less drawn into much of the music used at Mass.

    1. @Alexander Larkin – comment #24:

      While I sympathize with your general issue here, this:
      >>Because of copywriter requirements, the sung psalm response varies from the Biblical text.
      is one of those things that people say all the time that makes no sense has no basis in reality.

      1. @Adam Wood – comment #28:
        A well known composer told me that to avoid copyright fees for using the biblical text, he (and other composers) change the psalm text.

  14. Greg Merklin : While showing that “hippie punching” is never out of fashion at the _Torygraph_, MacMillan forgets Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of everything is crud. Most contemporary music is bad, and that was as true in 1713 as it is in 2013. Music of today will always suffer in comparison to the music from the past _that we still use_, because the bad old music has been forgotten. Go to a library and find a hymnal from 150 years ago–you won’t recognize most of the songs, and most of them will be awful.

    Exactly. That’s precisely why using older music has a sort of built-in quality protection: most of the crap from 100 years ago isn’t around. Most of the crap from today still is.

  15. Ben Yanke :Exactly. That’s precisely why using older music has a sort of built-in quality protection: most of the crap from 100 years ago isn’t around. Most of the crap from today still is.

    But you miss my point entirely. Retreating into a fortress decorated with antiques is not the answer. If we only use old music because it’s “safe”, we will never have new music. Don’t forget that at one time, polyphony was a scary novelty.

  16. Greg Merklin :

    Ben Yanke :Exactly. That’s precisely why using older music has a sort of built-in quality protection: most of the crap from 100 years ago isn’t around. Most of the crap from today still is.

    ### But you miss my point entirely. Retreating into a fortress decorated with antiques is not the answer. If we only use old music because it’s “safe”, we will never have new music. Don’t forget that at one time, polyphony was a scary novelty.

    No, I didn’t. I never said we should only play old music. I just said there’s a built-in protection with old music, so we just need to be much more careful with using newer music.

    Trust me: I love new music. Kevin Allen, Adam Bartlett, Jeff Ostrowski, Fr Webber, Aristotle Esguerra, Frank LaRocca, Arlene Oost-Zinner, Richard Rice, Andrew Motyka, Chris Mueller, Charles Giffen, among others, are all fantastic: there are many amazing new composers, and I’ve just named a few. I’ve heard or even sung music from all these composers. They compose new music.

    And luckily, all those composers mentioned (and many others) still keep the church’s vision for sacred music. If only all modern composers did.

  17. Bobby Stritch : @Charles Culbreth – comment #8: Don’t be so condescending. He believes what he believes. Church thinkers “of a certain age” seem to enjoy mocking youth. Maybe it’s because they’ve lost their own…

    Don’t worry, he’s not mocking me. I know him, and he frequently jokes about my age, among other things. It’s all in good fun.

  18. @Alexander Larkin – comment #35:
    That comment is not completely accurate. The pertinent term is “royalties,” not “copyright fees.” A publisher pays royalties to copyright holders on the sale of materials which include the latters’ copyrighted materials.

    For church music the industry standard royalty is 10% of the list selling price, often divided equally: 5% for the copyrighted music, and 5% for the copyrighted text. (These percentages are sometimes adjusted upwards or downwards in an actual contract. At times neither tune nor text is still under copyright. Someone making a new arrangement of “Amazing Grace” – tune and text both being in the public domain – would probably receive a 10% royalty on sales.)

    Now, if a 5% royalty is paid for copyrighted music and a 5% royalty is paid for a copyrighted text, it’s easy to understand how some folks have heard the call to become troubadours, writing both text and music, rather than remaining lesser-compensated music composers.

    Creating a new copyright-able psalm translation is not terribly difficult. One does not even need to know Hebrew. Simply assemble a large number of published translations on a large table and begin choosing different verses from different versions. Change something in each verse selected to the wording of another version. (There will probably be some phrases common to a number of different versions.)

    Some folks claim the resulting text is a psalm paraphrase. Not so if all the assembled resources are indeed translations. Also, the resulting text may be more sing-able than any of the versions on the table.

  19. Actually, for *sung* (not recited) responsorial psalms under GIRM 61 in the USA, one can use any psalm translation that has been approved for *liturgical* use (over on the CMAA boards, the list of those has been the subject of discussion from time to time). That said, using multiple renderings for the same scriptural excerpt can result in significant loss of resonance because of inconsistency in approach (I say that having done this and over time realizing this problem so that I am less sold on it than I was, say, 20 years ago).

    1. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #37:

      The US has always had a singular lack of resonance since the decision was taken to use NAB psalms in the Lectionary and Grail psalms in the Divine Office. North American clergy (and some laity) are somewhat psalmically schizoid as a result. At the very least, they have much greater difficulty in “loving” the phraseology of the psalms, since it is always changing. This peculiar situation does not obtain in any other country that I am aware of: the liturgical psalter is always consistent across the board.

    2. @Karl Liam Saur & Paul Inwood – comments #37 & 38:

      Liam and Paul, I would agree with you both about the “loss of resonance” issue.

      Liam, I think you are misquoting GIRM 61. “Approved for liturgical use” is nowhere used in the four paragraphs of that number. The fourth paragraph, referring to alternate versions of responsorial psalms, says that they may be used “provided they have been approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop” [sic]. We know that only the Apostolic See and the conference of bishops can approve anything for liturgical use; a diocesan bishop cannot. When a diocesan bishop approves the publication of a Catholic hymnal by a publisher in his diocese, he is not approving the contents of such hymnal as liturgical texts or liturgical music; he is only saying, with his approval, that the contents of said publication are free of doctrinal error. That’s my problem with the publisher, CC Watershed. They advertise that some of their publications have been “approved for liturgical use” by the office of worship of the Diocese of Corpus Christi! An outlandish statement in more ways that one.

  20. Paul Inwood : @Karl Liam Saur – comment #37: This peculiar situation does not obtain in any other country that I am aware of: the liturgical psalter is always consistent across the board.

    Well, there are some more traditional British contributors at the CMAA Forum who write about using the Coverdale psalms and even the Douay-Rheims translation.

  21. hmm…I think that in all honesty there are many points being missed here with music in the Mass and the Liturgical role of the ministry. We are ministering to the congregation and leading them into a deeper Spiritual connection with God and raising their voices as “one” in prayer. Determining the “style” of music preference in the Mass is a music directors responsibility. I think that it is paramount that we discern the reality of where the congregation is at. This approach has been listed in “Liturgical Documents” volumes one and two. The example I would give is that the pipe organ and gregorian chant in a cathedral is expected in a diocesan atmosphere, however, a mission church in Africa would not all under the same category musically. Why? because it creates a disconnect. We would not necessarily be enhancing the worship by culturally severing the relationship of music with an African mission because polyphony “works best” for spiritual prayer. So if you understand cultural traditions, we should also understand that each church within the Church has its own set of cultural and diverse congregations. A small country Catholic church will not feel the same results with the pipe organ and gregorian chant, as they would with something more “gospel”, or “country gospel”. This being said, I do not think that abandoning the musical traditions of the Church is at all the answer, but moreover, we need to take people where they are at and build from there. We would truly be missing the point of our role if we neglected to invite the congregation into true connection because of “our” opinion on musical stylings.
    I completely disagree with the point that contemporary music in the Church pales in comparison with “traditional sacred music”. I actually sense fear because we as musicians are ego driven by our own tastes and what we deem as spiritually correct.
    There are many indications from the Church that we need to take people where they are at in order to do our best ministering.

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