James Macmillan to cease writing congregational music

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James Macmillan to cease writing congregational music

Post by JW » Fri Nov 29, 2013 7:34 pm

I read in 'The Tablet' that James Macmillan is to cease writing congregational music for the Catholic Church because there is too much music being created, at the same time as the vast repository of tradition is ignored and wilfully forgotten.

By the same logic, will he also cease to write music for choral forces, given the vast amount being created by the likes of himself, Jonathan Dove, John Rutter, John Taverner (RIP), Patrick Hawes, Bob Chilcott, Howard Goodall, Peter Maxwell-Davies, Arvo Part, Eric Whitacre, etc. etc.? Then good choirs and choral societies would be able to concentrate more on the choral works of Tallis, Byrd, Palestrina, Vittoria, Haydn, Bach, Bruckner, Poulenc, Rheinberger, Howells, Messiaen, etc, etc, which can be displaced in concert programming by the more contemporary composers.

Please, I enjoy the music of all those current composers I've mentioned, as well as those church composers that Macmillan excoriates. Oh, I suppose I must be one too as I've composed an approved Mass!

And I won't even mention modern(ist) high-art orchestral music - Oh! I have! So should Macmillan not compose violin concertos because the likes of Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Bruch, Brahms, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Paganini, Elgar and Shostakovich have already been there and done that, though some of these works tend to be ignored and wilfully forgotten?

Also, there is rank ageism in Macmillan's blogging. I would have thought that someone with his credentials would know better.

The fact is that different types of people are assisted to worship better using different types of music. Some (the minority of congregations) find Gregorian Chant helpful, others (and not only children) prefer the 'Clapping Gloria'. Catholic composers need to respect each other and also serve the needs of their particular congregations.

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Re: James Macmillan to cease writing congregational music

Post by HallamPhil » Mon Dec 02, 2013 5:31 pm

I wasn't aware of any particular skill he had for composing congregational music. I enjoyed singing the St Anne Mass in its original form but the changes to accommodate the revised texts are disappointingly careless in places. And the additional sections he must have been required to contribute to get it re-published do not give the sense that he spent much time on it at all. Not what I would have expected from so celebrated and outspoken a composer.

His choral music, as indeed his work in other genres, is worthy of much attention.

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Re: James Macmillan to cease writing congregational music

Post by JW » Mon Dec 02, 2013 8:38 pm

I suppose, if he's not very good at it that's a reason to stop, though it didn't stop me :lol: That's not the reason he gave though :wink:

I love the choral music I've heard, connects sensitively with the texts and is reverent and prayerful. Didn't connect with his Violin Concerto though and I will be interested to see if it's still in the repertoire in 10 years. In particular, I felt that it added nothing to have the orchestra yelling in German during the performance. A review of the performance I heard also seems to be lukewarm in places. http://bachtrack.com/review-bbc-prom-28-2013-sso-runnicles-repin-macmillan If you're going to do that sort of thing, I prefer the Cab Calloway approach (see 0.53 and 1.50 etc here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8mq4UT4VnbE! ), which will raise a smile to most faces (remember we are supposed to be joyful!)

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Re: James Macmillan to cease writing congregational music

Post by Nick Baty » Tue Dec 03, 2013 12:06 am

Oh, I prefer the Fry and Laurie version:

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Re: James Macmillan to cease writing congregational music

Post by dmu3tem » Mon Dec 09, 2013 10:28 am

I have not read the Tablet article, although I have heard on the grapevine about James Macmillan's decision. Nonetheless it does highlight a series of problems concerning the relationship between Church music today and serious 'art' composers.

[1] Many 'art' composers seem to prefer Latin or at least 'old fashioned' sounding texts. I also note that Cathedral choirs (Anglican as well as Catholic) often seem to behave in the same way. They will sing Latin Masses but pay much less attention to modern Vernacular liturgical texts. In some respects I find this somewhat mystifying. A 'good' modern vernacular text can be made to sound as effective as a Latin one; although the fact that the text is instantly comprehensible does supply a different dimension.

I suspect though that there are copyright issues that composers find off-putting. Latin texts are out of copyright; modern verncalar ones often are not; so it is understandable that composers and choirs jib at having to go through all the palaver of getting permissions. The approval system for all new Catholic Mass settings using the new texts adds to the disincentives; given that it is geared towards congregational participation.

2. 'Art' composers have a penchant for writing sophisticated music. It is much easier to do this with trained musicians than with congregations. 'High quality' sophisticated musical settings for congregations are amongst the hardest things to compose. One solution, of course, is to have effective 'backing' from trained musicians (choirs as well as instrumentalists) but at parish level they are often hard to come by. Moreover, sophisticated settings often require specific vocal-instrumental forces ('colour' is an important aspect in any sophisticated composition); and this is often difficult to supply at parish level.

3. Against this the attitude of many liturgists and senior ecclesiastical authorities is often most off-putting for 'art' composers. Here are some of the issues:

(a) An assumption by liturgists that the job of music is merely to accompany or 'support' the text; not to add to it. In fact, if they thought about this at all I suspect they would be very alarmed by the prospect of a composer adding their own 'take' to a given text.
(b) The often ignorant or at best superficially informed way many liturgists write about the technical aspects of music. Just because they may be strong on texts and their significance this does not necessarily mean that they are equally expert on recommending the best music techniques to put this musically into practice. A proffessionally trained composer (i.e. one who has taken a music degree, gone to a conservatoire or just is musically and compositionally very experienced) finds this insulting.
(c) The 'automatic' assumption by church people who are not musicians that church music is about SATB choirs, (plus congregations) and Organs is irritating to those who see the possibilities inherent in using other instruments. A similar issue surfaces with plainchant. Much plainchant is very beautiful; but to assume it is always necessarily 'superior' (artistically, liturgically, or practically) to other musical genres sounds stupid to me. A composer whose taste is not very conducive to plainchant will find this off putting.
(d) There is also a strain in much liturgical (and more general Christian) thinking that is antipathetic to individualism. So often the message is that we have to subsume our (supposedly selfish) individual instincts for a 'greater good'. However 'art' composers by definition are often individualists. They have often been trained to regard a 'good' composition as something that 'breaks new ground', or that 'says something new'; and this of course encourages them to make 'personal statements'. Anything less than that and they are apt to regard such music as 'safely anodyne'.

To sum up; there appear to be problems on both sides. However, unless they are addressed (and resolved) many 'art' composers will continue to 'fight shy' of composing congregational settings using modern vernacular texts to the detriment of the quality of church music generally.

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