Thursday 18 December 2008

James MacMillan - top man

From this week's Catholic Herald.

Rediscover real Church music
Composer James MacMillan says that authentic Advent and Christmas music can help drive out the dreary rubbish imposed on Catholics in recent decades

19 December 2008

Every Christmas I think to myself: Why I have not written much Christmas music? I have written loads of stuff relating to Lent, Holy Week and Easter. A lot of my instrumental music is inspired by this period, and I have recently set the St John Passion, as well as the Seven Last Words from the Cross. I have also composed motets for Pentecost, the Ascension, Christ the King and Advent. But my Christmas music is rather meagre - one of the new King's College Cambridge commissions for the Nine Lessons and Carols, and a Communion motet for Midnight Mass, and that's it. On one hand, Christmas is so full of music that the modern composer can hardly get a look in - all those famous carols, sung lustily all over the place by believers and non-believers alike. On the other hand, Christmas has been so effectively colonised by secularism that Christians can sometimes feel dispossessed of their festival entirely. That hasn't happened with Easter or the other feasts, and neither is it likely to happen.One of the pernicious influences of that secularism is that Christmas seems to be getting earlier and earlier every year. The great god Mammon, who has muscled in on our festivities, wants to get the consumer-fest under way in November, or even, so it seems nowadays, at the end of October. I should not have been too astonished to discover that this is having an effect on some of the faithful, too. A priest friend of mine is under annual pressure from some pushy parishioners to include Christmas music during Advent. "Empowerment of the laity", indeed.The Church needs to respond to this challenge by rediscovering the wealth of our Advent treasury. The great "O" Antiphons are largely lying dormant, and could be reinvigorated. I set "O Radiant Dawn" recently, and get my little schola in St Columba's, Maryhill, to sing it during the Sundays of Advent. The Introit and Communion Antiphons for Advent are rich and full of the theological preparation necessary for the faithful to make Christmas a genuinely holy time. But like most of the Church's rotating Propers, they are edged out by the obligatory hymns which make up the "bread" of the modern Church's dreary and unedifying four-hymn sandwiches. Parishes can go into autopilot when it comes to standard liturgical practice nowadays, and the fundamental stumbling block to genuine imagination and authenticity in our liturgy is the modern Catholic hymn book.It would be wrong to be pessimistic, though. Pope Benedict's liturgical reforms may take time to find their feet in Britain, but his encouragement to good practice is a breath of fresh air, and they will surely come. One glorious expression of Advent is the hymn "O Come, O Come Emmanuel", which can still be heard in many Catholic churches today - a proud survivor of the decades of interference and "improvement" strategies of the now ageing and fast-fading hippy "liturgists" who moved in, opportunistically, to reshape the liturgy in their own image after the Council.I remember attending Mass in a Huddersfield church on the first Sunday of Advent in 1991 and hearing this glorious and rousing hymn. The experience inspired me to write my own Veni, Veni Emmanuel, a percussion concerto for fellow Scot Evelyn Glennie (pictured below), which has become my most performed work. I was in Rotterdam a few weeks ago performing the same piece (again on the first Sunday of Advent) with Colin Currie, another Scottish percussion virtuoso. (Why do we Scots like hitting things?) The concerto is a kind of journey which begins in Advent, with much anxiety, hope and expectation, but ultimately leads to the Resurrection. At the end of the piece all the orchestral players put down their instruments and pick up little bells and join the soloist in a joyous peal for the Risen Christ. The performance in Rotterdam's wonderful De Doelen concert hall reminded me that the coming of the Saviour, in the shape of a little child, is the start of a world-changing life, marked by the shadow of the Cross. Advent and Christmas may be overshadowed by the drama of Lent and Easter, and they may have been wrenched out of our hands by a new paganism, but they are essential periods of the Church's year in helping us understand the process of God's great narrative towards the Sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, and his Rising from the dead.It might be time for me to think seriously about how I can address the lack of Christmas music in my catalogue. A musician friend of mine raised the question of a new Cantata for Christmas. That would be one way of doing it. But getting church choristers to sing new Christmas music is also important. Even more important than that is the re-energising of our Catholic congregations, not just to sing as well as our Protestant cousins, but to value the wonderful liturgical heritage of the Roman Church. Gregorian chant is our music. It is paradigmatically Catholic. We could discover the true depth of Christmas by trawling deep in this profound musical and liturgical reservoir. We need to remind ourselves in sound of what it feels like to be Catholic in our souls. In true Catholic fashion, that points to a balance of our ancient roots and our contemporary mission.There is a place for the living composer in the Church's 21st-century liturgy, but that composer needs to have a healthy respect and understanding of the continuum of Catholic history through the ages. There is a core essence to the "sound" of Catholic worship, and it has nothing to do with the sub-Joan Baez protest songs that have been imposed on us for the last few decades. The rediscovery of our Catholic souls can begin with music. But it can also begin with the counter-cultural reclaiming of Christmas as a truly prayerful and holy Christian festival. "The Holly and the Ivy", anyone?

Apologies for the lack of paragraphs.

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