Vatican Conference: Church and Composers

September 13 saw approximately 80 participants from 27 countries arriving at the Lumsa University next door to the Castel Sant’ Angelo, just a few minutes from St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, for a second music conference organized by the Pontifical Council for Culture. The first conference had been in March 2017 to celebrate 50 years since the promulgation of the instruction Musicam Sacram. This conference, spanning September 13-15, took as its topic “Composers and the Church” with the subtitle “Words and Sounds”.

At the end of the 2017 conference, Cardinal Ravasi had said that lessons had been learned and that the next conference would be different. This was a reference to the usual Roman way of holding a conference, where someone will stand up and speak for, say, 45 minutes, and then sit down, whereupon the next person will stand up and speak for another 45 minutes, followed by a third person, and so on, with no questions or interaction from participants. This time, not only was the timetable interspersed with workshops, but a good proportion of the presenters left time for interaction.

The overall organizer of the conference was Archbishop Carlos Azevedo, a charming man and the number two at the Pontifical Council, ably aided by Richard Rouse, an Englishman and a secretary at the Pontifical Council. They had cut their teeth on the first conference, and this one accordingly went much more smoothly.

Each day had an overarching theme: “Music and Word”, “Music and the Gospel” and “Music and Instruments”. Under those headings a wide variety of speakers shared a richness of knowledge and experience.

On Day 1, Cardinal Ravasi kicked off with a wonderful biblical reflection on the word and the voice. Having heard him speak twice now, he is a most underrated, interesting and learned speaker. He was followed by John Rutter, whose topic was “Composing for Christian Communities Today”. While giving a lot of insight into a composer whose work is mostly commissions from choirs and other bodies, it would have been even more interesting to counterpoint his experience with that of a leading composer working at the coal face at diocesan or even parish level.

Msgr Massimo Palombella, maestro di cappella of the Sistine Chapel Choir, presented a brief historical overview of the way in which the style of composing for the chapel choir changed, particularly around the 16th-17th centuries. This niche subject nevertheless proved most interesting for the majority of the participants. At this point it is worth saying that we had the benefit of simultaneous translation in Italian and English for most of the conference apart from some of the workshops.

The first morning ended with three workshops. Archbishop Arthur Roche, Secretary of the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, led one on “Translations, Music, and Composition”. The theme of Msgr Alberto Turco of the Coro Canto Gregoriano at the Papal Archbasilica of St John Lateran was “The Psalm, Psalms, and Singing Psalms”, while Professor Daniele Sabaino from the Department of Musicology at the University of Pavia had “Singing the Word”.

I attended Archbishop Roche’s session. Among the things he said, in presentation and in answers to questions: “This is a time of challenge but also of opportunities”. “The liturgy has been brought closer to the people but also people closer to the liturgy.”“The history of [Rome’s] collaboration with bishops’ conferences has not always been to everyone’s credit.” “Translators must adapt their style to the culture they are working in.” He was not happy about the way that in many European countries you can find the Gloria reduced to a paraphrase of the Gloria Patri (he was referring to the so-called “Peruvian Gloria” which used to be prevalent in England but has now largely disappeared) and thought this “patronising” and “unworthy even of a primary school”. Music should be at the service of the Word. “There is a need for composers to be persons of prayer; they must discern the right musical means for music to reach the heart.” There is latitude for adaptation, and the Motu Proprio Magnum Principium should ensure that this happens. In response to a question about metred Glorias, Archbishop Roche pointed to the Lourdes Gloria as a model to be emulated [it has a metred refrain with verses chanted to a tone]. “Liturgy is meant to unite us,” he said, “not be a self-referential expression of this community.” Texts are part of our identity, as with Irish “shanty songs” or family songs. In response to a question about the desirability of repositioning words in a phrase for musical reasons, he emphasized that we are looking not just for accuracy of translation but for proclaimability. We’re still in the early stages of translation and adaptation. With regard to modern developments, “It’s over to you”. We need variety. Bishops are free to approve antiphon settings whose texts are not exactly as in the Missal. Regarding the concept of “musicians as translators”, he pointed to approval processes, but also admitted that it is difficult to standardize music into norms. A Lebanese Maronite asked him to comment on the fact that the liturgical language Syriac was increasingly being replaced by modern Arabic as a language for worship. “Pastors need to respond to the capabilities they find in those they work with.” Creativity of the right kind is what we need.

In the afternoon we heard Msgr Marco Frisina, director of the Rome Diocesan Choir and a composer whose works are sung widely outside as well as within Italy, speaking about “The Bible and Biblical Songs”. The Word is a person, not a book, he said. Regarding the humanity of the Word, he noted that music is different when written for texts in different languages [an interesting observation when you consider how many of us translate from one language to another in order to use pieces we like, or attempt to write music that is bilingual or multilingual]. The composer is an explorer, and setting the Word of God is different from working with other texts. In order to reveal the essential, you must really know the Bible, the book of life. Humanity discovers its own voice which enables us to express the gamut of human emotions. Music in the cinema shows us what we cannot physically see. Music is important for memory. You can’t translate music. David was the biblical composer par excellence. Composing is a vocation, not a job (David was also a physician for the king). The psalter is in fact a pharmacy for every disease. Jesus sang at the Last Supper and in the synagogue; he sang on the cross; for it is part of the Jewish tradition to sing. Since Vatican II the composer has an additional responsibility, the participation of all, not accepted by everyone but for Msgr Frisina personally a great triumph. Now we have the great choir of the assembly! This music is aided by antiphonal forms, and hymnody has become theology for the people. The Responsorial Psalm form similarly does justice to the text, extracts the heart of the text, and is actually in some ways a catechetical form. As composers we can no longer make use of clichés. For example, motets have a very specific form which, knowing the Word of God as we do, we can no longer use, because the Word is the protagonist and music should be the handmaid of the Word, not the other way round. Words need to be understood. We have to find appropriate forms so that all may sing the Word. Musical history is normally viewed via the great masters, rather than through the “non-aristocratic” lens of the people. In the 1400s the vernacular Laude (Franciscan influence) became a means for resacralizing the people. Alphonsus de Liguori devoted himself to the poor without dumbing down; popular song became beautiful, using a two-level language: high, but simple; not narcissism but the glorification of God and the sanctification of our sisters and brothers. Music is a tool for evangelization through which we can revivify the surrounding culture. Even if millions of young people use rock music, that is not our language. We have to find another way to capture people’s hearts. We have to put our compositional gifts at the service of the People of God, so as to lift them up to God, joyfully. We should live in the present, collaboratively, and draw near to the Word of the Lord.

Msgr Frisina was followed by Thomas Forrest Kelly, a research professor at Harvard. His topic was “Music and Philology” and he gave us a fascinating talk, opening with a quotation from John of Salisbury, a 12th-century philosopher, Latinist and chronicler who eventually became Bishop of Chartres: “Letters indicate the shapes of voices. Frequently they speak the utterances of those who are absent.” After alluding briefly to Guido d’Arrezzo’s 11th-century treatise Micrologus and the anonymous 9th-century Musica Enchiriadis, Professor Kelly proceeded to his main point, which was about patterns and patterning. Language and music are processed differently in the brain (cf. stammerers who sing effortlessly), and music often, unlike language, requires repetition to be understood. The composer, he said, has three basic choices: do it again, do it differently, or just stop. He then presented, with the aid of a fascinating PowerPoint, a quasi-Schenkerian analysis of the opening measures of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, where repetition and the use of pairs were predominant. The same exercise was done with an extract from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The ABA form is itself a form of repetition.

Professor Kelly is a world authority on Beneventan chant, a form that was suppressed a thousand years ago in favour of Gregorian chant, so it was natural that he would show us some examples from this area. Four different recorded interpretations (“who knows if any of these are right?”) of the chant Doxa en ipsistis were presented, leading ineluctably to the conclusion that musical notation is a complete failure! The same thing is true for texts. His example was Super flumina Babylonis (Ps 136/7). In what in my opinion was the most important dictum heard during the entire day, he said “Music is a signal of the function of a text, not its meaning”, and then proceeded to demonstrate this by playing or referring to a number of different versions of the Super flumina: Palestrina, Victoria, (Bach Cantata BWV 12 and the Crucifixus from the B minor Mass), the 3(4)-part round “By the waters of Babylon”, Fauré’s Super flumina, Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, the iconoclastic American composer Harry Partch (inventor of numerous instruments such as the Chromelodeon), and finally the 1970 reggae-ish version by the Melodians.

Next up was Msgr Vincenzo de Gregorio, President of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music on “Music and Formation”. Starting with an overview of musical formation in Italy in general, and the Naples area in particular, he gave us a snapshot of the history of the Pontifical Institute, which has its roots in the monastic school at St John Lateran and then broached questions of the complexity of formation, focusing especially on monody. In responses to various questions, he extolled the virtue of simplicity, the need to hone one’s craft, and reminded the audience that what happened in the 14th-16th centuries was thought of as avant-garde at the time. When asked whether musical gratification was important to the composer, he responded that technical skills are needed to underpin everything.

The final session of the afternoon was a round table panel of Msgr Frisina, Professor Kelly and Msgr Gregorio, chaired by Fr Jordi-Agusti Piqué, president of the Pontifical Liturgical Institute at Sant’ Anselmo, after which all the participants proceeded to the Sistine Chapel for Vespers of St John Chrysostom with the Sistine Chapel Choir, using Gregorian chant with occasional Lassus fauxbourdons. The presider was Archbishop Paul Gallagher from the Vatican Secretariat of State. He preached a brief but excellent homily.

Day 2’s banner heading was “Music and the Gospel”. Proceedings were opened by Jesuit Fr Claudio Zonta of La Civiltà Cattolica, who focused on the need to include the sufferings of the world in the music that we use. Salvatore Martinez, national president of the “Renewal in the Spirit” movement talked about conversion experiences, David as a kerygmatic figure, the descralization of holiness, and the jubilus. His overarching premise was that it’s all about joy: praise and exultation are what we need. The participants then split up once more into three workshop groups. Nancy Uelmen of the Gen Verde International Performing Arts Group took “Spirituality and Songwriting in the New Evangelization”, while Richard Mailander, diocesan director of music in Cologne led on “Oratorio and Cantata: History and Perspective”.

I opted for the workshop led by Gabriel de Jesús Frausto Zamora on “Gospel and Composition”. Starting with definitions of Gospel and of the Word of God, his discursive presentation touched on a number of areas. We learned, for example, that the Mexican Bishops’ Conference has a national music commission and that they fund eight or nine music schools around the nation that offer broad musical formation as well as focusing on liturgical music. Zamora emphasized that seeing and hearing are not the same as true engagement, and introduced us to the work of the Mexican Society of Liturgists (SOMELIT). He discussed activa factica and contemplatio activa, and stressed the fact that text and music need to be at one with the ritual action, and that “simple” does not mean “unworthy”. He ended with a recording of a 6-part motet from a music summer school in Guadalajara, funded once again by the Mexican Bishops. The six parts were 25 female voices singing soprano and alto, while 80 seminarians (their attendance is compulsory, it appears) sang TTBB parts. In response to a question about antiphons and psalms, he discussed the pros and cons of cantillation as opposed to metrical verses.

After lunch we enjoyed Msgr Pierangelo Sequeri, head of the John Paul II Pontifical Institute speaking about “new forms”. His wide-ranging presentation started from the three ways of incarnating faith: aesthetic, philosophy, theology. Forms are not only general, music is form in a philosophical sense, giving shape. For Sequeri, quality is musical structure, as it is in the realm of architecture. It must be susceptible of analysis, and must have logic and consistency. If the form has no quality, the music is bad! Perfection is relative to the form itself. The ritual goal needs to be always borne in mind. There is a difference between forms and form: catechetical and ritual acts are different, and the music must actually be music!

Text and music are two doors by which we enter, for vocal music is not the same as instrumental music. (A hymn can be enchanting, even though it’s not a symphony!) The relationship with the semantic element is crucial, but eccesiologically the magisterium has never been very good at this. For example, Musicam Sacram 4: “holiness and goodness of form”. What does this look like?! The quality of structure is the determining factor. What is the relationship between music as a whole (aesthetic) and functional models? Many questions such as these await resolution. A song is a consumer product to be examined from the formal point of view. Forms can acquire value through repeated use. What are the possibilities for innovation in forms?

It is instructive to look at the dichotomy between art music (“high” music) and the liturgy. Art music resisted the secularization which founded the modern disciplines of philosophy, history, etc. In the 1900s composers did not sever their links with the sacred. They produced their music divorced from the liturgy, but these were still masterpieces. They explore the sacred rather than transcendence. A new genre, forming a middle ground between sacred and profane, came into being at the beginning of the 20th century. Despite Schoenberg’s break with previous forms, he nevertheless wanted to compose an oratorio (!) incorporating socialism, anarchy, etc, which involved him in a rediscovery of God and of prayer, even if not in a liturgical context. Does this music have a role in church today?

Sequeri evoked two “witnesses”. The first was Messiaen, whose religiously-inspired “Lisztian” works were an “antidote” to our understanding of religion. This was music that no longer expresses us but makes us filter what the eye cannot see but the ear can hear: music that is mystic rather than religious, opening us up to contemplation. His second witness was the Tatar-Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina. She began in an age where, as with Penderecki and Stravinsky, overcoming sonata form and opposing elements were in vogue. Question: can a piece be musically fertile, though spiritually sterile, and yet still give a religious slant to the way we express ourselves?

Sequeri was followed by Maeve Heaney from the Theology Faculty of the Australian Catholic University on “New Styles”. We theologize through music. There is a difference between a Christian poet and a poet who is also a Christian. New styles are necessary because Vatican II changed our theological perceptions, because music can do what words cannot, and because composing and musicmaking are at root theological acts. The meaning or words has changed and we co-create who we are. Beauty needs to develop and change because “we can lag behind truth”. Is there a Christian style? It was notable that, amidst all the thinking about music as theology that she adduced, her music examples were stylistically all rooted in light popular music of the last three decades of the last century. Additionally, none of the texts mentioned God at all: they were all directed at “you” (i.e. the listener) and were frequently theologically incoherent. It was difficult to see how these would fit into a ritual context.

A second round table brought together three proponents from “the movements”: Pippo Molino from Communione e Liberazione, Nancy Uelmen from Gen Verde (Focolare), and Luciana Leone from “Renewal in the Spirit” and wife of Salvatore Martinez who had spoken in the morning. Each protagonist presented their rationale for music. Molino explained that the Communione e Liberazione repertoire has it roots in Philip Neri’s Laude, with additional more recent influences from Russian chant. The objective is a “lively experience of Jesus”. However, all the examples he played were pretty traditional in sound, ranging from Victoria’s Caligaverunt from the Tenebrae Responsories to two compositions by Molino himself. Uelmen gave us a potted history of the Focolare movement, which she claimed had forged its own musical personality. However, the video example she gave us was essentially a modal folk melody dressed up with disco-pop trappings including flashing lights and dancers. Once again, the text was all about “you” again, with no mention of God. Leone told us that “Renewal in the Spirit” uses homegrown beat music (though they prefer to call it religious music). It became apparent that most of their music is extra-liurgical because “not all sacred music is suitable for the liturgy”. They have what they call “productions for Mass” in which they attempt to blend “their style” with the rite. “We have few songs for the Mass but lots of songs in the Mass.” Can we transfer this sort of thing to parish usage? “Our animators use gestures.” “Our movement brings some thousands together twice a week across Italy.” You get the idea.

Archbishop Azevedo asked a question about the identity of the movements and how they do (or don’t) integrate with the mainstream Church. In the answers it became clear that all three movements have problems integrating their members with what is going on in the life of the Church. A Belgian questioner observed that the kind of music used can in fact distance the participants from the liturgical action. It was admitted once again that their songs are “not built for liturgy”. “We go on a journey through the Triduum in which the mood shifts from suspense to joy in silence for me to talk to Jesus.” Another questioner observed that the official explanation does not tie in with what happens in reality. Unless you are an adept, it is difficult to “get into” these movements. Parallel liturgies during the Triduum are simply unacceptable.

Msgr Turco was asked to offer a comment. He described the complexity of the pastoral/evangelizational/liturgical problem. Everything we do is a preparation, like on the road to Emmaus, but words did not bring revelation, the breaking of bread was what opened eyes. It’s not our celebration, but a celebration of Jesus and the Church. We can say that people in churches should be “better trained”, but we should never say “they will play their role while I will play mine.” When the movements gather in a parish celebration, they tend to take over. This is not what a document like Musicam Sacram envisaged. Question: is every song suited to the liturgy?

The answers that came back from Gen Verde and Renewal were quite defensive. Church musicians have condemned “beat music” as the “original sin”, and yet (it was claimed), historically it was introduced by priests in the face of empty churches. [Really?] We ask our members to integrate, but there are communication problems. We make great use of paraliturgies and extra-liturgical events. It is a real challenge to be inclusive. CL, on the other hand, said that “We need to comply with the requirements of the rite, even if this isn’t my kind of song.” Using guitars in church depends on the type of liturgy and where it is. A liturgy with children is one thing, but you wouldn’t use guitars at a celebration in the Duomo in Milan. Some kind of liturgical objectivity is needed.

For Day 3, the theme was “Music and Instruments”. We began with three more workshops. Msgr Pierangelo Ruaro, director of the liturgy office of the Diocese of Vicenza, had “Organ, Guitar, Tambourine” as his theme. Marcello Filotei, a music critic, led on “Electronic Music”. I opted for Joana Carneiro, the conductor of the São Carlos national theatre orchestra in Lisbon on “Modes, Tones and Contemporary Times”. She led us through a historical tour of contemporary music, working her way from Mahler via Webern, Debussy, Messaien, Ligeti, Sofia Gubaidulina (again), and James Macmillan to Arvo Pärt, demonstrating different tonalities, scales and modes, tone clusters rather than triads, etc. No conclusions were drawn, and the question was left hanging in the air: can these idioms be a source of inspiration for liturgical music? There was no time to attempt to answer the question.

Next up was Gianna Fratta, a professional orchestral conductor, on “Instruments: one beauty, many expressions”. This impassioned rant at full speed was essentially a justification — no, a eulogy — for the role of the conductor in music. I don’t think anyone learned anything new from this presentation (conductors read scores vertically, as opposed to instrumentalists who read them horizontally — goodness me!), except how amusing simultaneous translators can be when the sheer speed of rapid-fire Italian makes it impossible to keep up.

It was a relief to turn to Simon Johnson, Organist of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Unlike some of his colleagues in English cathedrals, Simon is a genuinely nice man, not at all pompous, and even humble. He gave us a fine presentation on the pipe organ (“I saw and heard the voices of many around the throne”), along the way raising some interesting questions, for example regarding the inter-reaction of church music with the secular (and cf. Musicam Sacram 46), should we use music by non-believers?, the balance between music for music’s sake and music for God’s sake, improvisation, over-specialization, ending with a look towards the future.

The formal proceedings of the conference ended with a presentation by Olivier-Marie Sarr, a Benedictine from Keur Moussa monastery in Senegal, currently a liturgist at the Sant’ Anselmo Pontificat Liturgical Institute. He gave us a fascinating insight on liturgical inculturation and the use of musical instruments. In the light of Musicam Sacram 63, how can the newly-evangelized not use their traditional instruments? Liturgy is faith celebrated and incarnated. The intimate, authentic transformation required to produce a true symbiosis between faith, culture and liturgy requires, above all, time. Using the Kora (a kind of African harp) as a case study, he showed how the use of instruments had developed at Keur Moussa over the past fifty years. Having known the Keur Moussa recordings for many years, it was wonderful to have the backstory unpacked, and a great finale to the conference!


Despite the uneven-ness of some of the presentations, the whole conference was a very worthwhile meeting of cultures, minds and hearts. Only a Vatican body could probably have pulled together such a varied list of speakers covering such a broad sweep of topics. I was struck by the fact that the half dozen or so US and Canadian participants were people I had never heard of, from well outside the “mainstream” of NPM, etc, and seemingly working in isolation or in other areas such as film music, unlike those who came to the previous conference in 2017. I wondered whether this was also true of some of the other countries represented. No complete list of participants was provided, so it is difficult to know.

In the afternoon following the close of the conference, many of the participants travelled by bus to Assisi (I had to return to England so did not join them) for a concert in the Upper Basilica with St Jacob’s Chamber Choir of Stockholm, directed by Gary Graden. This was the final of the Francesco Siciliani international competition for a piece of sacred music, a contest promoted by the Pontifical Council for Culture every two years. The three finalists would be adjudicated by the jury for First Prize, with two other prizes awarded by the audience and by the music critics present. This year, the text to be set was the Gloria in excelsis Deo. Previous contests had specified the Apostles’ Creed, the Pater Noster, and the Kyrie eleison.


    1. Tom, the proceedings of last year’s conference came out as a thick paperback from Vatican Polyglot Press about six months after the event. We were told that this time it will be quicker: before the end of the year.

  1. I was very pleased to read Paul Inwood’s account of the recent gathering of musical composers in Rome recently. I, too, was there and enjoyed the breadth of interventions that were made. There is just one point that I believe could be misunderstood without context. Archbishop Roche’s presentation made it very clear that music was always at the service of the word and not the other way round. The comment, therefore, that the Archbishop said, “Bishops are free to approve antiphon settings whose texts are not exactly as in the Missal.” needs to be viewed within the context of GIRM n.48 which says: “It is possible to us the antiphon with its Psalm from the Graduale Romanum or the Graduale Simplex, or another chant that is suited to the sacred action, the day, or the time of the year, and whose text has been approved by the Conference of Bishops”.

    1. Thank you for the clarification! The statement “Bishops are free to approve antiphon settings whose texts are not exactly as in the Missal” is actually a verbatim transcription of what you yourself said when the Archbishop invited you to comment. I thought it too complicated to explain that in my report. My apologies. And I assumed, perhaps naively, that readers would be familiar with the provisions of GIRM 48.

  2. Dear Paul,
    Thank you for your comments on the conference, which is lovely to read. I also enjoyed it.
    In relation to the ones on my talk, the theme of the conference was Church and Composers, Music and Words – not a theme limited to ritual music. The examples I gave were NOT pieces I would generally use for ritual or liturgical purposes.
    The use of poetic phrasing in theology is grounded in the theopoetic strand of current theology, and recognizes the need for diverse types of language, in appropriate moments. I am sorry you received that as incoherent, but I do not think music or poetry should explain everything. Evoking is also a form of provoking thought.
    I am also aware my style of music is one that is culturally situated and I did not present it as an ideal. However, the need to open spaces on music to exemplify what we are saying seems important to me, whether or not the style is to the liking of all.
    In any case, it was good to see you there. Thank you again.
    Maeve Louise Heaney

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