SSG Composers Group

This article by Alan Smith appeared in Music & Liturgy in May 2015.

The Society of St Gregory’s Composers Group has been in existence for over 50 years. All through this period the Group has provided valuable support for UK composers writing music for the post-Vatican II Roman Catholic liturgy. From time to time it has published some of the more interesting and useful compositions in book form, making the work of the Group and of its composers available on a wider front. Arguably, several of these publications have had a significant influence on the wider liturgical music scene. Certainly, the many composers who have attended its meetings over the years have been grateful for its support of their efforts to provide the post-conciliar Church with worthy music – and words too – with which to worship almighty God.

This article is not intended to be a definitive history of the Group, but it might one day form the basis of one. The is some history here, for sure, but anecdote and opinion too. I daresay there are mistakes also, for which I apologise in advance and take full responsibility. I am grateful to the various people who responded to my request for information and stories, and here I should especially mention Paul Inwood, Christopher Walker, Liz Mottram and Thomas Muir.

The SSG Composers Group has always been an open and inclusive entity. Anyone is welcome to bring along their work-in-progress for discussion by their peers, whether they are paid-up members of SSG or not. The only requirement is that their work is intended for use in the Roman Catholic liturgy. The Group has no preconceptions about musical style: everything is welcome and nothing is ruled out. Nor is any one style lauded above any other; all that matters is the quality of the music and its aptness for the liturgy.

Because it belongs to the SSG, the Group has always operated under the aegis of the Society’s Trustees who have, almost always, taken a very hands-off approach, trusting their nominated Group Secretary to promote the Group and be mindful of the Society’s best interests. What follows is set out according to the periods of tenure of the Group’s various Secretaries.

Early days

Before it ever ‘belonged’ to SSG, the Group was The Composers Group of the Church Music Association (CMA) and was founded by John Michael East when he was its Director. The first meeting took place in the very late 1960s at the KSC Club in Holland Park (now gone), where the SSG sometimes held its committee meetings. A large number of people were present on that first occasion — possibly as many as 50 — of whom Paul Inwood was one: ‘Some of us had optimistically brought compositions with us, but only a few were looked at. Mine was not among those selected. The greater part of the meeting, apart from “getting to know you”, was a talk by John Michael East, setting out why he thought such a group would be important in the life of the Church.’

Subsequent meetings took place in the Music Room on the first floor of the Challoner Club in Pont Street, Knightsbridge, with its white and gold baby grand piano. They continued to be held there until the Challoner Club went into liquidation some time before 1997. The first meetings after the initial one were infrequent and sporadic and Paul’s recollection is that the second meeting came almost a year after the first.

Chris Walker recalls those meetings in London. They were ‘shepherded by Geoffrey Boulton Smith – gracious and interminably enthusiastic. Every session was no holds barred. Of our compositions there was blood on the walls, broken limbs on the floor. As politely as we could, we cut and thrust and took no prisoners as we dissected each others’ pieces! That was how we learned our craft – in the privacy of that room we taught each other how to hone our compositional skills. It was a tough environment, but it meant that inferior work was seen and heard in the light and improved, if possible. It also means that many of us were, in the end, writing music that was far superior to anything being written in the USA at the same time.’

I recall attending just one of the Challoner Club meetings, when I distinguished myself by falling asleep during a talk by Robert Sherlaw Johnson, whose spoken delivery (I maintain) was as boring as his music was exciting. My first contact with the Group had been in 1986, when I attended a meeting at Stanbrook Abbey and rejoiced to discover a group of like-minded composers: some well-known (like Paul Inwood and Christopher Walker, who I met for the first time then); others completely unknown to me, but equally interesting to one who had been ploughing a lone furrow for over ten years. Mind you, you did need a fairly thick skin in those days, as Chris has already suggested: our meetings are much more polite these days! It was after that particular meeting that the next issue of the Society’s journal included a music supplement, complete with examples taken from the Composers handwritten manuscripts – no computer typesetting in those days – including my own. It was the first time I had appeared ‘in print’ and I was over the moon.

Paul Inwood (1972-1981)

John Michael East’s position as paid Director of the CMA was terminated in 1972 when Archbishop Derek Worlock cut off the hierarchy’s grant to the Association before it had ended its three-year national recruitment campaign. When the CMA re-amalgamated with the SSG in 1973/4 (having split off in from its parent in 1955 to become ‘the Church Music Association of the Society of St Gregory’) the Society took the Composers Group under its wing, along with John Rowntree’s Organ Advisory Group. Paul Inwood, together with Geoffrey Boulton Smith, had already taken on the running of the Composers Group after John Michael East’s departure. They ran it together, with Paul as the ‘chair’ and Geoffrey as secretary, doing all the logistical tasks (booking and mailings and so forth) for a number of years.

In those early years attendance was usually around the 15-20 mark, with regulars including Fr Laurence Bévenot, Bill Tamblyn, Michael Dawney, Fr James Walsh, Fr Charles Watson, Christopher Walker, Martin Hall and Tony Barr, as well as Geoffrey and Paul. Others who came less regularly included Fr Chris McCurry, Fr Philip Gaisford, Fr Alan Rees, Peter Smedley, Michael Coy, Stephen Dean, Paul Johnstone, Fr Romuald Simpson, Harold Barker, Geoff Phillips and Colin Atkinson. The tradition of having a guest speaker on a liturgical or musical topic also started in this early period.

Paul handed the complete running of the Group over to Geoffrey in 1981 when he moved out of London to work at Clifton Cathedral in Bristol.

Geoffrey Boulton Smith (1981-1995)

Geoffrey had studied composition with Edmund Rubbra at Oxford and, in the 1960s-1980s, was lecturer in music at La Sainte Union teacher training college (an associate college of Southampton University, long since closed down). His head of department was George Self, an imaginative music educator with whose work I was familiar thanks to my own equally adventurous mentor, John Paynter at York University.

In 1979 Geoffrey put together A Responsorial Psalm Book, the first properly published collection covering Sundays and major feasts of the complete three-year cycle, containing settings by a large number of composers, both existing settings and ones he newly commissioned for the book. As with all of his publications, Composers Group members were well represented in the book. Published by Collins, it went through several reprints, then fell out of print. It is, nonetheless, still widely used.

Also around this time, in the late 1970s, Geoffrey founded his own one-man imprint, Portsmouth Publications, which issued his Mass settings, a setting of the Exsultet and other works. Another one-man imprint, Paul Inwood’s Magnificat Music, published Geoffrey’s Psalm 65 (‘Shout all the world’, to a text by  Michael Hodgetts), and this was included as a supplement to the first issue of the Society’s journal Music and Liturgy in 1974 after the Church Music Association had rejoined it.

Geoffrey then edited Music for the Mass (the ‘red book’, Geoffrey Chapman, 1987), a collection which contained a good deal of the music from the one-man imprints, which effectively terminated the existence of many of them.

SSG itself dipped a toe into the self-publishing waters with the SSG Composers Group Music Pack 1989 which included music by Harold Barker (the much-loved Grand Old Man of the Group), Ray d’Inverno, Tony Hemson, Patrick Geary, Barbara Rusbridge, myself and others. Like most of the music from the one-man imprints, the production values were not especially high: the music was run off on a photocopier and packaged in a re-sealable plastic wallet.

Music for the Mass was followed by a second volume in 1993 (the ‘green book’) but it never sold well. Including music from younger composers (often, once again, Composers Group members), it was in this book that some of my own music and that of Patrick Geary was first published commercially. Music for the Mass 2 was jointly edited by Geoffrey and Fr Chris McCurry. For some years, Composers Group had been operating as two separate groups, designated North and South, and Chris McCurry, who was based in Liverpool, led the northern group. Ever the gentleman, Geoffrey wanted the second volume of Music for the Mass to represent the work of both groups.

One of the happier outcomes of this dual arrangement was, for a few years, a joint meeting of North and South at Stanbrook Abbey – a very congenial venue (especially after the completion of the modern Guest House) and a very appropriate one, given the Abbey’s prominent and important role in SSG’s own history. Several of the nuns usually joined us for the discussion sessions and, if they were ever shocked or even alarmed by our music, they never showed it.

For many years Geoffrey had run liturgy and music courses in the diocese of Portsmouth in collaboration with Dom Romuald Simpson of Douai Abbey and Fr (now Canon) Alan Griffiths. In retirement, Geoffrey became volunteer director of music for the diocese of Portsmouth. When the diocese set up a new paid position of Diocesan Director of Music combined with Cathedral Director of Music, Geoffrey continued to assist in the new set-up.

Almost his last publishing activity was to edit Rejoice and be Glad (1994), a collection of 12 Composers Group pieces, published in partnership with Clifton Music. This was better than the Music Pack in several respects: it was typeset (by me, in Finale), as Composers Group submissions increasingly were; it was attractively designed; and the music was generally of a higher quality, not least Geoffrey’s own exquisite Hymn to Our Lady to Patrick Lee’s characteristically fine text.

Geoffrey had come to believe that the tone-based approach to responsorial psalm singing as exemplified by his A Responsorial Psalm Book was not the ideal approach. He had an idea for a collection of more song-like settings – he called them ‘psalm songs’ – and invited me to co-edit it with him. I recall at least one marathon session at his home in Southampton during which we pretty much decided upon the contents. By now, however, Geoffrey had developed cancer, and his wife Marian was eventually discovered to have terminal cancer herself and rapidly predeceased him. Shortly before his own death in 1996, he was visited by Bishop Crispian Hollis, who pinned a Knight of St Gregory medal to his pyjamas in recognition of all his achievements for Catholic church music not just in Portsmouth but nationally. After the funeral, I met with Geoffrey’s son-in-law, David Ogden, the Director of Music at Clifton Cathedral, and we quickly agreed to see the project through to completion, not least as a tribute to Geoffrey. The three volumes of Psalm Songs were published in 1998, by Cassell in the UK and by Augsberg Fortress, a Lutheran publishing house, in America. Clifton Cathedral Choir recorded a fresh-sounding CD of a selection of the psalms. The contents of the books are almost entirely by Composers Group members and many of the pieces have worn extremely well.

Alan Smith (1995-1999)

It was apparent at the last Stanbrook Abbey Composers weekend (in 1995, I think) that Geoffrey was not at all well. We spoke confidentially and I offered to take on the role of Secretary to the Group if he felt the need to relinquish it and if the SSG Trustees agreed. In due course, this is what happened and so I led the Group for the next five years, until I was elected Chair of the Society and felt it best to pass the Secretary’s job to someone else.

While the meetings continued much as before, change was afoot in the way that composers were using technology. This was mainly apparent in the gradual but inexorable shift to typesetting the music that they presented. Some people invested in the ‘big hitters’ like Finale and Sibelius, while others made use of more affordable tools such as Noteworthy Composer or Capella. Handwritten manuscripts became increasingly rare and are almost never seen these days.

I continued the Group’s publishing tradition by working with Paul Wellicome to produce Baptised With Fire (SSG, 2000). This was an extremely eclectic collection, accurately reflecting the very wide stylistic range of its contributing composers. Once again, one of its highlights is a work by Geoffrey Boulton Smith to a text by Patrick Lee: If You Seek Me. Accompanied by a useful CD, performed by Paul’s chamber choir and recorded on location by me, the collection did reasonably well. Unfortunately, its underlying business model wasn’t sufficiently well thought out, with unsold copies cluttering hallways for far too long.

Paul Wellicome (1999-2002)

Having worked with Paul on Baptised With Fire, I was happy to recommend that he take on the role of Secretary when I became Chair. As an accomplished instrumentalist, he brought a fresh perspective to the work, just as he did to the task of directing Summer School music.

Liz Mottram (2002-2007)

Liz took on the role of Secretary in 2002 at a time when attendance was prone to wax and wane. However, a number of new slants brought extra interest to the Group’s activities and may have helped to keep numbers buoyant and introduce a good number of new faces to the Group. In addition, the Society’s Summer Schools did, in fact, began to hold composing workshops, raising awareness of its activity in this sphere.

There were specifically choral events, starting with a meeting in Southampton in 2002 with Ray d’Inverno at the helm. A composing competition attracted a handful of entries, with the winning piece by Peter Ollis being used at the Mass for the Dead at Salford Cathedral in November 2002. A meeting at the Carmelite Convent, Ware, and an overnight stay at Turvey Abbey provided us with a particularly tranquil atmosphere and wonderful hospitality. Record attendance of 18 was achieved at Birmingham (2003), hosted by Fr Peter Jones in his city centre parish. By 2004, Thomas Muir was reporting that the ‘elders’ of the Group were attending fewer meetings but that a nucleus of regular members could still provide ample support in presenting and critiquing the music brought to the meeting.

Between 2005 and 2007 we enjoyed the company of some prominent names in the composing world. James Macmillan led a meeting/workshop as part of his services to the Leicester International Music Festival on a sweltering day in June 2005. Robert Walker, a lifelong composer, led a workshop in March 2006 at Wellingborough and perhaps offered the most practical support in his analysis of the pieces presented on that day. On another memorable occasion, Colin Mawby joined us at Brentwood Cathedral to share and discuss his music with us. In 2007, Liz handed over the stewardship of the Group to Thomas Muir.

Thomas Muir (2007-2012)

Thomas regularised the Group’s meetings, holding four every year and aiming for a geographical spread between northern and southern parts of the country. He also aimed for (and achieved) a much greater variety of venues, partly because he he was striving for collaboration and coordination with composers in the Panel of Monastic Musicians (PMM) but these attempts to revive compositional activity in the PMM fell on increasingly stony ground as they veered more towards chant. London was avoided, however, mainly due to the introduction of the congestion charge! Thomas would have liked to hold meetings at SSG Summer Schools, but this idea didn’t find favour. Nor did his proposals for composers/arrangers workshops which would feed into Summer School liturgies.

Thomas was determined to foster a positive atmosphere at the meetings as he was very conscious of the Group’s lingering reputation for being harsh and over critical. At the same time he made a real effort to encourage the perception of composition as a craft, with a wide range of skills to be acquired: from each other, certainly, but also by means of more systematic training.

Nonetheless, the decline in attendance at the meetings, which had been evident for some years, continued. One factor may have been the lack of opportunities for the Group to publish its work as in former times. The way forward seemed to be online, with web publishing, but a workable model proved elusive. (There is no doubt too that SSG was wary of getting its fingers burnt, whether by financial or copyright issues: the unsatisfactory business model that underlay Baptised With Fire had not been forgotten.) In these and in other matters, Thomas and the SSG Trustees failed to find much common ground and Thomas’ stewardship of the Group ended in 2012.

Alan Smith (2012-present)

Having retired in mid-2011, I offered to undertake the role of Secretary to the Group once more. The Trustees agreed and, with their support (and that of Keith Ainsworth especially), the work goes forward. Meetings continue to broadly follow the long-established pattern: they invariably take place on a Saturday, starting at 10.30 am and finishing at around 4.00 pm with a break in the middle for a picnic lunch or a meal in a pub. Everyone is invited to present at least one composition which is then be discussed. Composers used to bring copies of their own scores but these days I provide them. It has always been up to individual composers as to whether these copies are taken away or handed back afterwards. Regular meetings in Salford, Pershore and London are now well established and next year we plan to introduce a fourth, in Yeovil, serving the South-West and re-establishing our link with Ray d’Inverno.

SSG composers played their part in providing new music for the new translation of the Mass. Currently, they are focusing on other aspects of ritual music. John Ainslie has given a strong lead on this, both with The Processional and with his English Proper Chants – settings of the entrance and communion antiphons from the new Missal. Other composers too are working in these areas, albeit within their own styles. Possible publications are beginning to be discussed, not least because we now have much more experience of online music sales. Another area that I am keen to explore and develop is that of screencasting (using online video tutorials) to support the craft of composition, something that current technology is ideally capable of.

In conclusion, the work of the SSG Composers Forum is as important as it has ever been. SSG is almost alone in providing this support, but is ideally placed to do so. The challenge and the opportunity before us is to make effective use of all the different approaches at our disposal, from the traditional face to face group meetings to fresh approaches made possible by new technology. []

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