Page 10, 9th January 1998

9th January 1998
Page 10
Page 10, 9th January 1998 — Why don't Catholics sing?

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Locations: London, Cambridge


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Why don't Catholics sing?

ARK! How easily did 11 . you join in with the angels, as you strained to reach those top notes at Christmas? If you were with Protestant friends, probably it was not too hard, but if you were with fellow English Catholics, I bet it was a struggle, for among us singing is as lurid as sinning.

In 1950s Cambridge it was well known that young members of the university who went to parties on Saturday night went to the Polish Mass on Sunday morning. At noon they felt it was too early to follow the Latin of the canon and they sler through the Polish sermon, but in one way the occasion was unforgettable: from start to finish everyone except for the partygoers sang. It was not like a normal English Catholic Mass.

I believe that in recent years the number of Poles at the 12 o'clock Mass has fallen, the singing is less inspiring, after the Second Vatican Council there is no Latin for the nonPole; and anyhow there is an evening Mass to go to instead. In the meantime have English Catholics learnt from continental Catholics how to sing out? Maybe in Cambridge, which is a more cosmopolitan city than it was 40 years ago, but what about elsewhere, especially in the suburban parishes, where most Catholics live?

As we put back the sheets of Christmas music on the shelf till December 1998, we may wonder why as a group we are shy of being heard

St Luke's account of the birth of Jesus includes the three new canticles of our religion, the, the Benedic-tus and the Nunc Dimittis, each of them woven together from threads of the psalms that all pious Jews would chant; and when Bethlehem shepherds heard angels glorifying God, it is hard to believe that the angels merely spoke. Any picture of the nativity shows that Christian painters never had any doubts their angels twang

their heavenly harps and bow away on their heavenly viols.

On earth too music was always part of the liturgy. In the New Testament there are fragments of hymns; and from the earliest days Christians used the psalms. Like Jews in the synagogues, they took over the music of the Temple, they too had their expert cantors and yet the whole assembly of believers sang, so that one conamentaror tells how the noise of their singing was heard in the streets outside. Standards of performance varied according to the congregation. Eventually music in the abbeys, cathedrals and royal chapels was too elaborate for most of the faithful, but, just as St Francis made Christmas accessible by inventing the crib, so friars encouraged ordinary people to sing carols. In all circumstances the principle remained constant: music was essential to Catholic worship.

In this island the Reformation changed everything. As plainchant dissolved with the monasteries, metrical psalms (unaccompanied) came in with Calvinism, carols continued for a while and, in the cathedrals and the chapel royal, the medieval choral tradition survived almost intact, Catholics lost their zest for music. They were cut off from the new forms, pioneered abroad and remote from those developing at home.

WIWEN REVIVAL Catholics seemed either Irish or Italian. Newman, a convert, wrote his hymns in national, Protestant language. Diffident laymen were trained to obey and be silent. They got used to cutting verses off hymns a practice that irritates converts they got used to harmoniums and, outside Catholic schools, there was seldom much of a choir.

From the 1920s the treble choristers of Westminster Cathedral have been famous for the continental timbre of their voices, which I am not alone in preferring to the more precious tone current in some Anglican chapels, but away from London there have been few such treats, even in the cathedrals. Thirty years after the Second Vatican Council it was still a question of luck. A good organist here and some do marvels with an harmonium and a dynamic priest there may make all the difference, but it seems to be only in Catholic churches that the loudest man in the choir sings flat or the leading lady has so lost control of her vibrato that she seldom wavers back towards the note.

The contrast with our Christian neighbours is humbling. The continuance of choir schools (with or without girls) means that dozens of choirs in the Church of England sing with professional panache. The Salvationists are as remarkable for blowing the brass as for helping the homeless. After John Wesley had preached to miners and fisherfolk, Charles Wesley wrote hymns for them, so that wherever there are Methodists there are singers.

It is not only South Wales that boasts male voice choirs. Holidaymakers in Connyall will recall with affection the Carohires that take place by harbour walls, led by the choirs of little villages like St Keverne or Marazion and all this is an offshoot of the activity of the chapels. It would be easy to go on. A Seventh Day Adventist Gospel Choir was elected choir of the year, the Osmonds are Latter Day Saints, Harry Secombe is brother to a vicar, then there are the Russian Orthodox...

DCRING THE Everyman programme The Virgin and the Abbey a Downside monk pointed out that monks are not chosen for their musical ability. The programme itself,

and the commercial success of the CD the monks cut (following on CDs from Amplefortli and, of course, from Silos), demonstrated that under the direction of an able musician a community of amateurs can sing well.

This is also my experience of going to church in Brittany (and in many other parts of France). In our local town there the singing at Mass is conducted by a young woman, who may be a music teacher but who might equally well be a lawyer or an accountant. She has a clear soprano voice, and she leads. The people expect to sing, they know the cantiques almost by heart, they do what she asks.

Such practices might have spread to England. Dom Gregory Murray, one of the most influential English Catholic musicians of this century, was trained as a boy at Westminster Cathedral before becoming a monk at Down

side. After being involved in some heated arguments about the correct way to sing plainchant, he turned to the musical education of the laity, wrote the People's Mass (not one of his successes) and then took up the cause of the Gelineau psalms. These have on obvious merit like the music of Taize they involve a c antor coping with a slightly difficult chant, while the congregation has to master only a simple refrain.

Unfortunately such reforms took off only in a small number of parishes. Had they wacirked, they might have made it a pleasure to be in church (-which would never do). Singing with joy is something for AEricans or South Americans car the happy-clappy crowd at Holy Trinity, Brompton.

I recommend a penance for English Catholics: note time you go to church, pretend that you've strayed into Cardiff Arms Park.

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