Wherein composer James MacMillan writes about aging hippies and Church music.

I would like James MacMillan to set to music Hopkins’ The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo and also Wilbur’s The Christmas Hymn.

In the meantime, from The Telegraph, I picked this up.

Ancient flower children, or Catholic liturgists?

Too much Catholic church music caters to old hippies. Fortunately there’s a simple solution

By James MacMillan

I have decided to stop writing congregational music for the Catholic Church. [HUZZAH!  “Who is John Galt?”] Those who follow these things will be aware that liturgical music can be a war zone in Catholicism. We need not detain ourselves over the reasons and fault-lines in the ongoing debates and struggles, but it is clear to me that there is too much music being created, at the same time as the vast repository of tradition is ignored and wilfully forgotten. [Do I hear an “Amen!”]
In the last year I have established a new organisation dedicated to reviving the practice of chant in the Church, Musica Sacra Scotland. Gregorian plainsong is the very sound of Catholicism and there have been recent attempts to adapt this music to English translations. [I don’t like it in English at all.] Anglicans have had four hundred years of doing this kind of thing, so when the Ordinariate was established a truly great practical application of Catholic principles returned to the Church.
Also, the Americans seem to be ahead of the game and are producing new publications which enable the singing, in the vernacular, of those neglected Proper texts for Introits, Offertories and Communion. The creators of this music are curators of tradition more than “composers”, with all the issues of individuality, style and aesthetics attendant on the word. But what these curators are doing is remarkable.
In taking the shape and sound of Catholic chant, they are creating an authentic traditional repertoire for the new liturgical directions in the Church. They are making simple, singable, functional music to suit the nature of ecclesial ritual for a Church which went through various convulsions after the Second Vatican Council.
The British version of this is even more intriguing. The Blessed John Henry Newman Institute of Liturgical Music was set up in the wake of Pope Benedict’s visit to the UK in 2010 by Fr Guy Nicholls, an Oratorian priest from Birmingham. His Graduale Parvum is a most promising form of Proper chants, based on the pioneering work of László Dobszay.
Instead of relying upon newly composed simple chants, the work is based on the very thoughtful realisation that the Church already has a vast store of simpler Gregorian melodies, the antiphons of the Divine Office. These may be paired with the Proper text to form a new unity, with the authenticity of a true, ancient, Gregorian melody
This is a brilliantly thought-out project, and easy and lovely to sing. Also, over the last 35 years Westminster Cathedral has developed its own chant-based congregational music for the office and the Mass, in use daily, but particularly for 1st Vespers and Morning Prayer of Sundays throughout the year – the office is sung to chant by all without the help of a choir.
My encounters with these initiatives have convinced me that this is the most authentic way forward for Catholic music, combining the participatory ethos of Vatican II with the deep history and traditions of the music of the Church. It is an encouraging development after decades of experiment which spewed forth music of mind-numbingly depressing banality. A lot of the favoured new settings are musically illiterate, almost is if they were written by semi-trained teenagers, getting to grips with musical rudiments. The style is stodgy and sentimental, tonally and rhythmically stilted, melodically inane and adored by Catholic clergy “of a certain age.”


Read the rest there and enjoy the embedded videos.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. I also very much dislike the combination of English and chant. It’s like chocolate with sardines.

  2. Theology Nerd says:

    If only we could get more composers of Catholic Church music to retire!! ;)

  3. The Masked Chicken says:

    “In taking the shape and sound of Catholic chant, they are creating an authentic traditional repertoire for the new liturgical directions in the Church. They are making simple, singable, functional music to suit the nature of ecclesial ritual for a Church which went through various convulsions after the Second Vatican Council.”

    Tommyrot. Chant is only authentic when done in the original language. This is just rationalization for the sloth of the general population to learn simple Latin. Vatican II never envisioned chant bring translated into the vernacular. It adulterates the history of the Church and its music to do so.

    The Chicken

  4. Legisperitus says:

    Masked Chicken – true enough. You don’t “create authentic tradition”; you receive it and hand it on.

  5. OrthodoxChick says:

    I’m still fairly new to the EF and chant. I’ve only ever heard it in Latin. I can’t imagine it in English – blah. Although I guess an English translation of chant can’t be too much worse than Kumbaya, Morning Has Broken, and the rest of the hippie trash that passes for music – still. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that chanted latin anything sounds like a real prayer, while Kumbaya sounds like it was written by someone who dropped acid in the parish parking lot and was still trippin’ when they hopped up on the altar dragging their tambourines beside them.

  6. moon1234 says:

    “combining the participatory ethos of Vatican II”

    Blech. Points out that the author does not understand what true participation really means. I think that once he figures that out that the focus on outward actions (singing, etc.) will necessarily become more traditional and less about “How do we stuff a traditional melody into a non liturgical language.”

  7. nykash says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with the comments posted thus far. What I find irritating are masses that shun Latin, but embrace ethnic folk hymns (keep in mind, lacking the audience of the selected hymn).

  8. mamajen says:

    As a lifelong “Novus Ordo Catholic” I can say that I very much prefer Latin hymns. I don’t think translating chant is a good idea.

  9. Midwest St. Michael says:

    “Ancient flower children, or Catholic liturgists?”

    Okay, I’ll take a guess… Um, Yes?


  10. Sid Cundiff in NC says:

    You hear an Amen.

    Also for “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo”. Milton plays an organ, Tennyson a symphony orchestra, and Hopkins a jazz band!

  11. katieg says:

    As a sacred musician in a Glory & Praise parish, the turning of the musical ship is a marathon not a sprint. The composers of propers in English have done an excellent job with translating and making musical sense of the Latin propers, but even they will tell you that it is not designed to replace the propers in Latin but to be a stepping stone. I have had a great deal of resistance to adding the propers back into the mass since people are used to the 4 ( dare I say!) hymn sandwich. Singing the propers in English is designed to place the prayerfully rendered text superior to the musical line, hence curtailing the sappy sentimentality. They will never have the mystical grace brought about by 2000 years of edited Latin; English is an ugly unmusical language. Pray for the day that all pastors insist on the use of mass propers.

  12. David Zampino says:

    In my view, the Ordinariate has quite a bit to offer (primarily from those converts from a “High Church/Anglo-Catholic” background. I myself am a convert, and during my years at Nashotah House Seminary, all students were required to learn both Gregorian and Anglican chant; how to both point and chant Collects, Epistles, and Gospels; and how to officiate in sung Morning and Evening prayer. The Chapel-Master (who had a certificate from one of the Academies of Music in England) pointed the entire Psalter in Gregorian Chant and we chanted the Psalms on a daily basis.

    In my youth, there was a very Anglo-Catholic convent a few miles from my home and the sisters chanted the Divine Office daily. If you take a look at “The Anglican Missal” — that bastion of (Extremely High) Anglo-Catholicism, you will see that the Introits and Propers are all there — and intended to be chanted.

    So, while Latin has (and should have) pride of place, there is a lot that the now Catholic “Anglo-Catholics” can contribute with regard to liturgy and music.

  13. Volanges says:

    OrthodoxChick, although I loathe “Morning Has Broken” I don’t think it’s fair to blame the hippies for that one since it predates them by a good 30 years.

  14. tcreek says:

    How could anyone possibly equate the spiritual inspiration of present day liturgical music with this?

    Credo in unum Deum

    Credo with Pope Benedict XVI at Mass

  15. Joe in Canada says:

    The 400 years of Anglican practice of chant in English is not only something good the Ordinariates bring, but something worthwhile in and of itself. I attended a High Anglican college and can still chant the Magnificat in English and still remember its beauty.
    In my home diocese in Canada the liturgists have solved the ‘problem’ of the Church’s documents. They still sing Haugen-Haas but CALL them opening and closing chants.

  16. PA mom says:

    Apologies, but I don’t believe that Latin only is the best path, or most likely to succeed.
    And I would LOVE chant to return to my Parish.
    Progress is being made, after all, I just saw the covers of this year’s Breaking Bread hymnals, and if the inside has experienced any of the improvement that the outside did, we could be very lucky indeed.

  17. AMTFisher says:

    Morning is broken:
    somebody fix it!
    Blackbird has spoken:
    write a new song!
    Give us a new tune,
    something with substance,
    please someone write it,
    write it real soon!

    I do definitely agree that we need to get back to the old Latin chants; especially at Adoration and the Holy Sacrifice, but to go to only having chant would, I would say, be a bad move. Just to look back at history, in the Syrian Church during the Arian controversy, they had to deal with the problem of bad music as well. This music was popular, and blantantly heretical. When St. Ephrem became a deacon and was put in charge of the choir, he wrote new music, orthodox music that became more popular than the Arian stuff from before. There was a return/renewal of the older forms (exs: the Gloria, the Phos Hilaron), but there were a lot of new hymns/chants that he wrote as well. When the modern Roman Rite’s music will be redeemed, we can expect that it will come much in the same way: an actual return to the sources (Gregorian, Ambrosian Chant), a renewal in older hymnody (both Medieval [exs: Stabat Mater, both the Pange Lingua’s, Dies Irae, the Marian Antiphons] and more modern [exs: Faber, Caswell. It could also come in part from baptizing old Protestant hymnody: Watts, Wesley, Neale]), and through new Orthodox compositions (possible examples: Maher, you?); so long as there is true continuity between what is new and what is old, then renewal can take place. If we are to exorcise the fluffy, liberal, unholy triune demon of Tolerance, Relativism, and ‘Being a Nice Person’ from Catholic teaching, liturgy, practice, et cetera, then 1. It will happen through liturgical renewal. 2. We can’t shoot ourselves in the foot and limit ourselves to either only what is old, or only to what is new.

    -my $0.02

  18. MAJ Tony says:

    Brick by Brick. I sing in as many as 3 Masses most Sundays: AU, OF, EF. I began a year ago because the AU was just starting at Holy Rosary here in Indy, and they needed help. We chant introit, offertory, and communion from the Plainchant Gradual (a very close approximation in English to both the text and chant of the Graduale Romanum) and Gradual/Alleluia in Anglican Chant. While I do prefer to chant the Latin version as we do in the 11:30 EF (it certainly flows more fluidly in it’s native Latin), the PCG version, while sometimes a bit stilted, actually is a decent rendering of the GR in English for what it intends to do (sound like the GR Latin proper of the same Mass, and still say the same thing in English). It is currently the most liturgically appropriate English work that takes the GR as it’s basis, of which I’m aware. We sometimes use the Simple English Propers for the OF, and sometimes mix it up, using SEP for one proper, PCG for another, etc.

  19. Patrick-K says:

    MacMillan didn’t say “create authentic tradition” — he said “creating an authentic traditional repertoire.” Yes, I’d prefer chants in Latin to English, but it’s a step in the right direction. This sounds like a great idea and I hope people don’t trash it just because they think it’s not quite traditional enough for their exquisitely refined sensibilities. I certainly am not in a position to criticize someone like James MacMillan when it comes to music.

  20. OrthodoxChick says:


    Maybe so, but don’t tell that to Cat Stevens.


  21. Salvelinus says:

    Don’t forget the Protestant pop songs….
    My old parish had folk, mariachi, and Protestant pop top 40

  22. Volanges says:

    Cat Stevens recorded an old hymn from the 30s and got a hit out of it. I thought it was sad that Eleanor Farjeon hadn’t lived long enough to see her hymn reach #1 on the US Easy Listening Chart in 1972, having died in 1965 but perhaps she was spinning in her grave to see her hymn go secular. I don’t so much hate the lyrics as I hate the tune BUNESSAN.

  23. Supertradmum says:

    The popes for centuries have told us that the Gregorian Chant is the music of the Church. Why is this ignored by choirs, choirmasters, liturgists? I think it is a symptom of the need and search for novelty, which is the opposite of what ritual really is.

    Ritual by definition is rooted in a tradition. To create just for the sake of change moves away from the ideal of ritual.

    Too much ego…

  24. katieg says:

    @supertradmum. Gregorian Chant was given pride of place at VII. However, as mass was hurriedly changed to the vernacular, mass propers were left by the wayside. The assumption was that the mass–all of the mass should be in English. The mass propers had no translation and were abandoned. This left a void in the mass to be filled at the discretion of the parish musicians and pastors, and the slippery slope began.

  25. The thankfully developing tradition of plainchant in English ought not to be snidely criticized. I certainly prefer Gregorian chant in Latin as at the Sunday EF I attend regularly. But at the weekday vernacular OF I also attend regularly, I hear the propers and ordinary chanted in the plainchant tones given in the newly translated Roman missal 3e, and this is an ineffable improvement over anything previously heard in typical parishes. It makes Holy Mass actually seem and sound holy. It’s also the future of the OF, Deo gratias, so get used to it, and be thankful.

  26. Fr. Denis Lemieux says:

    While it is not easy to do well, chant can indeed be translated in English with beautiful results. The Dominican Nuns of Summit NJ produced a hymnal some years ago which had quite a bit of just that, and we use many of their chants in my community. It takes quite a bit of artistry to adapt English linguistic rhythms to Gregorian tones, but it can be done.

  27. RafqasRoad says:

    As one raised Anglican (prior to wandering off into the quicksand pools of Seventh Day Adventism at 13 years of age), though admittedly ‘Evangelical’ or ‘Sydney’ Anglican, even back in the 70’s and early 80’s, I have a great deal of time, respect and reverence for English sacred music tradition, especially that bequeathed to us from a long line of English composers of sacred and liturgical music/hymnity. The Anglican Ordinariate, in my thinking, is one of the best things that has been done for English Speaking Anglicans – and Catholics – in our age. Catholics have lauded PBXVI’s SP, but have remained largely silent upon or completely ignored AC, that has brought Mary’s Dowery back to Holy Mother Church – or at least laid the foundations for said return. The sacred works of Sullivan, Parry, Howells, Britton, Dark, and into our time Tavener and even Rutter cannot, and in my thinking, should not be relegated to neaer impiety solely due to the language of their wordage. If you want to become acquainted with how sublime and reverent English sacred music can be, you need go no further than listen to the amazing polyphonic chanted Psalm settings favoured by the Choir of Kings College, Cambridge and their ilk. Transcendant as any Latin sacred music in my thinking!! This is not synthetic tradition or forced tradition, it is valid and to be welcomed, forstered and not mocked. I come away from reading many of the comments with the distinct impression that many here consider the sacred hymnity and tradition I have outlined, the thoughts of a few knowledgeable and considerate commenters notwithstanding, along with the entire Anglican Ordinariate as something to be at best ignored and not advanced and at worst next to heretical or at the very least utterly inauthentic. Remember, the self same BXVI who gave the Western Church SP gave her AO also and never forget it.


    Aussie Maronite, soon to be South Coast Catholic.

  28. Suburbanbanshee says:

    There is nothing wrong with the tune BUNESSAN. (Or to be excruciatingly Gaelic, Bun Easain.) It’s a really beautiful Scottish Gaelic hymn tune, and if you sing the Gaelic Christmas carol it’s meant to be sung with (“Leanabh an Eigh”, aka “Child of Wonder” or “Child in the Manger”), it’s a very beautiful tune.

    And “Morning Is Broken” is a perfectly serviceable poem, which is a pleasant devotional song when set to BUNESSAN. The problem is that it’s been over-simplified and run into the ground.

  29. CharlesG says:

    Chant in English, like the Simple English Propers or the Lumen Christi Missal, when well done can be beautiful, and in the current environment is a very good way to reintroduce people who have been brought up on Haugen and Haas to the whole idea of sacred music and sacred chant, which Vatican II said should have pride of place, as well as to the idea of singing the propers, and not just any old hymn. If people can get used to those concepts, then singing authentic Latin chants from the Graduale, which of course would be the ideal, will not be so foreign to people. Come on, Father, brick by brick!

  30. Elizabeth D says:

    In the absence of real breviary hymns, I like Morning Has Broken entirely fine for morning prayer. I don’t think I have ever heard it at Mass.

    For Mass of course we should have Gregorian Chant!

  31. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    David Zampino (and anyone else who knows), How different are Gregorian and Anglican (monophonic) Psalm chant? Are they analogous? Does the Anglican borrow (but adapt?) Gregorian ‘resources’?

  32. David Zampino says:

    Venerator Sti Lot,

    Anglican chant is sung in harmony. It is also pointed differently. If you can find a Standard Choir Edition of the 1940 Episcopal Hymnal, there is an excellent discussion on both kinds of chants, with specific examples. It begins “Good chanting is primarily good reading aloud” . . . and continues in that vein.

  33. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    David Zampino,

    Thank you! I’ll keep on the look-out for that Hymnal! (It suddenly springs to mind that C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot were together on the committee that revised the Church of England Psalter: I suppose someone was keeping an eye on singability!)

  34. Stephen Matthew says:

    I claim as definite fact that English can be well suited for chanting and singing.

    I also claim as a definite fact that it is done poorly often enough to lead to a reasonable suspicion to the contrary.

    There is a reason each language seems to have slightly different musical traditions associated with it, but there is no reason that good sacred music, in English, can not arise out of the Gregorian tradition. The Gregorian chant in Latin has the advantage of about 15 centuries of development, while in English chant has at best 4 centuries and in the Catholic world English chant only has a few decades of work and experience behind it. Call me in a thousand years if English chant has still proven unworkable and I will concede, until then I continue to hold that it can be done, and that in fact there are some early indicators of success.

    I firmly hold that certain items should be widely known in the traditional Latin forms (Tantum Ergo, O Salutaris, the ordinary chants of the mass, etc.) and be widely used. I also firmly hold we should be willing to find the way forward for vernacular chant. In fact, I think that this is mandatory so far as there is to be any provision for vernacular liturgy. Let me repeat that: if vernacular liturgy is to be permissible at all, then vernacular chant must be developed. Chant is not just some nice add-on for liturgy, it should be an integral part of it. The sung liturgy must win through to be the norm in Catholic worship, anything else will be a failure of the “save the liturgy, save the world” project and will gravely distort the faith “lex orandi, lex credendi”, for it is not only the words that matter but also how those words are said/sung. For this to happen vernacular chant must come into its own, even if that means something not strictly “Gregorian”, but it is likely to take some time to sort this out.

  35. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Stephen Matthew says, ” if vernacular liturgy is to be permissible at all, then vernacular chant must be developed.” That sounds sensible enough, and not only for English, but for any and every modern language with respect to Latin liturgy, and for the liturgical languages of any other Rites which are no longer as intelligible as they were to their first chanters. And yet, that need not be to say that all sung liturgies must each be sung/said throughout in one and the same language. Rather in the way (late) mediaeval verse and song effectively mixes vernacular and Latin (the Boar’s head and Agincourt Carols, and the poem set by the young Benjamin Britten as “Of one that is so fair and bright”spring to mind), so, in its own way, can a liturgical celebration.

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