Echoes of glory

by Ken Myers

[This article originally appeared in the July/Auigust 2016 issue of Touchstone magazine.]

In a 1990 essay entitled “‘Sing Artistically for God’: Biblical Directives for Church Music,” Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger observed that “church music is faith that has become a form of culture.” But in late modernity, “the inner connection of faith to culture is in the throes of a crisis.” This crisis is the result of the fact that for centuries, at least since the Enlightenment, “faith and contemporary culture have drifted apart more and more.” Since the eighteenth century, cultural life — especially in the arts — has been pursued  with a spirit of defiant emancipation from faith. Ratzinger lamented the fact that by and large, Christians are now “at a loss as to how faith can and should express itself culturally in the present age.”

The modern separation of faith from culture has consequences for culture no less than for faith. Modern culture “has been driven into a dead end in which it can say less and less about its own quo vadis. . . . The difficulties that art has gotten into through the complete secularization of culture are becoming particularly clear in the area of music.” And so, “the issue of church music is really a very vital piece of a comprehensive task for our age which requires . . . a process of rediscovering ourselves.” 

Cardinal Ratzinger’s call to cultural rediscovery was a call for musical ressourcement. Just as his theological colleagues Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, and others had rediscovered in the patristic and medieval tradition of the Church’s thinking and worshiping vital resources for confronting the peculiar intellectual confusions of modernity, so church musicians needed to look at (and listen to) the premodern musical wisdom present in plainchant, Renaissance polyphony, and the Church’s hymns. In those rich expressions of faith made culture, Ratzinger perceived an aural participation in the spirit of the Incarnation. “Faith becoming music,” he asserted, “is a part of the process of the Word becoming flesh.” The centrality of logos Christology for Ratzinger is evident even when he thinks about sacred music, which is not just our faith becoming music, but “the Word becoming music.”


Fitting composer

In 2005, Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI. Five years later, on the pope’s first official visit to the United Kingdom, his first stop was Glasgow, Scotland, where he celebrated the opening Mass to a newly composed setting by the Scottish composer James MacMillan. That Mass setting was also sung a few days later when Pope Benedict presided over the beatification of John Henry Newman in Birmingham.

The choice of MacMillan to compose this work was fitting in many ways. Not only is he one of the most honored and prolific living composers of sacred choral music (as well as instrumental works; his Fourth Symphony was premiered in a BBC Proms concert last summer), but he is also a devout and theologically alert Roman Catholic, and (perhaps most importantly) an active church musician. Since 2005, he has been choirmaster at St. Columba’s Church in Glasgow, for whose masses he has composed a large body of music. While his work is frequently performed in concert and on recording, much of his choral repertoire is deliberately liturgical in construction.


Musical bedrock

In addition to writing music for his choir and congregation, MacMillan has been very active in promoting the recovery of congregational use of Gregorian chant. In a 2013 article in the Telegraph, MacMillan explained that, as a composition student, he was required to write melodies in the style of plainchant. “This might have been the singularly most invaluable thing I have ever done in music. It lays the bedrock for so much — in melodic writing, in consideration of the building blocks of polyphonic complexity and in the search for spiritual serenity.”

Sir James MacMillan

MacMillan’s works for choir often exhibit the fundamental role of plainchant for his composition. Consider Miserere (2009), a complex a cappella setting of Psalm 51 for eight parts. The music is sometimes tormented, sometimes achingly beautiful, at the last quietly triumphant. In the middle of the piece, the choir sings, in a slow, lilting, triple meter, Asperges me hyssopo, et mudabor: lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor — “Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; thou shalt wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” The harmonies are simple and the melodic line slowly descends as the dynamics move from a confident fortissimo to a soft mezzopiano on the final but unresolved chord (one of those aching moments). After a brief silence, the four lower voices — reminiscent here of Russian chant —  sing: “Thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.” This is echoed antiphonally by the upper voices, again in a four-part chant: “Turn thy face from my sins; and put out all my misdeeds.” The pattern is repeated with the next two verses of the psalm. The effect is riveting, largely because of the simple clarity of the chant that defines the melodic line. 

MacMillan has invited the Strathclyde University Chamber Choir to sing in services at his parish a few times a year, and has written a series of Communion motets for them (currently numbering fourteen), now collected as the Strathclyde Motets. Most are Latin settings of the propers for Communion. One of the English language motets — and apparently the most popular with choirs — is O Radiant Dawn, a setting of one of the “O Antiphons” for the last week of Advent. Also notable are the triumphant Data est mihi (“[All power] is given to me”) for the feast of the Ascension, and the pensive Mitte manum tuam (“Stretch forth your hand”) for the second Sunday of Easter. This last work is a good example of the influence of Celtic folk music (including his use of the rhythmic device known as the “Scottish snap”) on MacMillan’s use of ornamentation.


The voice of the cosmos

Sir James (he was knighted last year) has long been a great admirer of Pope Benedict’s championing of musical ressourcement. In a 2013 article published in his parish choir’s website, MacMillan quoted an early essay by Joseph Ratzinger in which he upheld a high standard for the musical life of local churches: “The Church must not settle down with what is merely comfortable and serviceable at the parish level, she must arouse the voice of the cosmos and, by glorifying the Creator, elicit the glory of the cosmos itself, making it also glorious, beautiful, habitable, and beloved.”

While the dead-end culture of modernity has culminated in the celebration of inanity, self-indulgence, even death, the Church — if she rediscovers herself — can bear witness, verbally and musically, to the transformative presence of the Logos. I’m grateful that James MacMillan is committed to nurturing such rediscovery.


James MacMillan’s Miserere
performed by The Sixteen, Harry Christophers, conductor