Monday, November 20


James MacMillan and the Development of Liturgical Music

In honor of Saint Cecilia, whose feast is Wednesday, some musical ruminations.....

Left: St. Cecilia Window, choirloft of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, Chicago

I talked a bit last week about the problem of trendiness in American Catholic liturgical music, and indeed it is a problem. So much liturgical musical history in our country has been a matter of going from one style of often bad liturgical music to the next, with little organic continuity. Occasionally, and I think we are entering another such period, the tradition of sacred chant receives its due. But the danger is that chant can become another trend if it is not rooted in a broader approach that encourages legitimate development and moves against trendiness once and for all. There may have been a chance at this before Vatican II, when the excellent Pius X Hymnal was published, but it never really got off the ground and soon found itself caught in the whirlwind of the 1960's and 70's, with the move from "Kumbaya" to the St. Louis Jesuits ("hey, at least it's Scriptural") to the works of Haugen and Haas in the 1980's.

The approach in more traditional Catholic circles, especially those where liturgy is important, has often been to cringe at recent trends and to go back to the music that was popular before. The problem with this approach, however, is that some of the music from bygone ages, especially in our own country, was just as schlocky as what we have now, if more orthodox in terms of lyrics (for examples of this, try singing some of the hymns in The Saint Gregory Hymnal). Lost in much of the trendiness and other bad tendencies has been the fact that it is possible to write good new music while being respectful to the tradition. Thus is the tradition truly "ever ancient, ever new" as the Beauty of its God, showing us the sacred mysteries in new and sometimes surprising ways.

In the vanguard of new music within the Catholic tradition is Scottish composer James MacMillan, a third-order Dominican who has recently made headlines with his controversial article about how "Bad Music is Destroying the Church." MacMillan himself has taken up the task of writing good music, in what I would describe as a "postmodern style" comparable to the likes of Tavener or Pärt. He composes challenging, beautiful music that might at first seem on some levels disturbing, but that is worth taking seriously and integrating into the liturgy. His "A New Song" is a particularly ethereal and beautiful anthem whose choral interplay beautifully brings out the text and leads the listener to contemplation. MacMillan has also composed a Mass setting that is perhaps the most challenging and dissonant version available of our current ICEL translation - one that takes our inadequate translation to heights one might not consider possible.

The Church always needs a musical avant garde to help develop the tradition, to bring it in new and interesting directions. In the past it was the likes of Palestrina, or later of Widor, who helped accomplish such development, and today MacMillan stands out as someone who is making wonderful contributions to the Church in the area of sacred music by respecting the tradition and at the same time moving it forward. Let us applaud him for it and challenge any would-be composers among us to take up the call.

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