Parishes should ditch ‘third-rate nursery rhymes’, says composer Colin Mawby, and use only the best modern congregational music
Education plays an essential part in the development of parish music. Choirs need to be well-informed about new choral repertoire and choirmasters should keep abreast of recent congregational music. There is some superb contemporary composition, but there is much that can only be described as inane and unacceptable.
I was recently talking to a young nun who characterised much modern congregational music as: “ditties that make you feel good, music without any spiritual content”. How right she was: she put her finger on precisely what is wrong with so much contemporary liturgical music. I recently came across an excellent example of this when I attended a Mass at which a fine choral society sang. The Alleluia was sung to a particularly jolly ditty – it certainly had the vacuous feel-good factor. The next piece was Rachmaninov’s Ave Maria sung in Russian. Its depth and spirituality clearly showed the Alleluia to be ephemeral and tedious. The reaction of the congregation to Rachmaninov’s music was total silence wrapt attention and a palpable feeling of prayer. Needless to write, the Alleluia was accompanied by the usual noisy congregational “shuffle”.
This dumbing down is particularly noticeable in much of our schools’ liturgical music: contemporary thirdrate nursery rhymes with polite and anodyne texts. We have a grave responsibility as educators to introduce young people to fine music and the richness of our liturgical heritage. Would we fail to introduce fine poetry to classes for fear that they might find it too difficult? Would we insist upon students playing hopscotch rather than football because the latter could be considered dangerous? Why do we have one standard for academic subjects and another for liturgical music? I have been saddened to discover that many of our young people have no knowledge of plainchant (except that which is available in the pop charts) and little awareness of our traditional hymnody. As educators we must show respect for young people and credit them with sufficient cultural intelligence and perception to be able to appreciate our superb heritage.
I recently had an excellent example of the effect of fine liturgical music on young people. I was attending Sunday Mass in a fine German church. The Common, including the Credo, was sung and played by a professional orchestra, an excellent choir and some wonderful soloists. The congregation sang four chorales with great spirit and conviction. There were many young people present, including a number of altar servers, both boys and girls. During the Mass they were clearly entranced with what they heard. They listened in reverent silence and this, in a way, was even more impressive than the music. I had no doubt that I had been privileged to witness a deeply spiritual occasion, God-centred and uplifting. We have been extremely foolish to deny our own young people an opportunity to take part in worship and music of this quality.
There are many ways in which choirs and choirmasters can develop their knowledge and experience. Attend and participate in music festivals – hearing other choirs is always exciting and, in a peculiar way, one can often learn more from a bad performance than a good one. Another advantage is the introduction to new repertoire. One also learns a lot from watching other conductors at work. I have adjudicated at many festivals and it is always a pleasure to see a group that looks happy and animated; so many choirs look downright miserable. Our liturgical choirs need to express joy because it is central to our belief. Choice of appropriate repertoire is essential and the choirmaster must continually search for it. One can do this through studying other churches’ music lists or looking at publishers’ blurbs. When introducing new music the choirmaster must ensure that it is within the capability of the choir. Challenge the choir but do not overwhelm it. Give the singers good music rather than pap and do not regurgitate the dismal, experimental music that followed Vatican II. Bin it!
I recently took part in a Songs of Praise in my local Church of Ireland parish. It was a wonderful occasion and featured groups from many denominations. This is another excellent way of developing parish music. A lot of work is involved but the rewards far outweigh the difficulties. It is an excellent method of introducing your congregation to new hymnody. It is also a great stimulus to their singing. Your local radio station might be interested in covering this event if you choose the right occasion.
The formation of a children’s choir is a fine way of introducing young people to our wonderful tradition of sacred music. A co-operative headteacher will be of great help. Do not ask children to sing inferior work, challenge them with fine but straightforward pieces. Imagi native publishers have wonderful collections of children’s music that are easily available. A children’s choir will need great support from the parish clergy. The pro-cathedral in Dublin has recently started a girls’ choir to supplement the boys of the Palestrina choir. The cathedral’s administrator remarked that this was excellent because it introduced 30 more families into the life of the cathedral. Once again the pastoral possibilities of choirs were clearly underlined.
Many of our choirs fall into a comfortable rut and this inevitably leads to mediocrity – or even worse. Musicians must always remain open to new ideas and repertoire. A defensive attitude is nothing but a hindrance to musical development. Choirmasters must always provide inspiration and leadership. These qualities will eventually lead us out of the dismal situation which affects the music in so many of our parishes.
The final part of this series will appear next week