LONDON, ONTARIO – We’ve been allowed back into our churches – at one third of their old capacity – for the last three and a half months. This is almost precisely the same amount of time as we were locked out of those churches when our civic leaders determined back in mid-March that the best way to cope with the Chinese Batflu pandemic was to persuade everybody but grocery store personnel and truck drivers to hide under their beds until we ‘flattened the curve’. For a Church which is largely defined and animated by the multiform idea of “presence” (Christ came for us and it is our obligation and privilege to turn out for Him) being forced to sit out the holiest season of Easter this spring was a desolating experience.
While our churches were deemed off-limits, I kept up my prayer life and continued to read what Bertie Wooster calls 'improving books' but I never warmed to the zero-calorie option of watching Masses broadcast on TV. Some people I love and respect found such supplemental fare rewarding. I just found it desiccated and sad. I enjoy watching a good sermon on the tube but not the sacrifice of the Mass. So with the lifting of the ban, I've been happily attending stripped-down, under-populated and cordoned-off services these past few months and have found this infinitely preferable to staying at home and tuning in. More recently I have even donned the mandatory face diaper without complaint though I suspect the real reason it was imposed had more to do with power-tripping than 'science'. Unquestionably, going to church under this new regime has required some adaptations, most of which I long to jettison just as soon as I possibly can.
My frustration with the new protocols peaked that very first week we were allowed back in. Wary of the need to maintain social distance at all times . . . to queue up here and make sure you don't cross over this line taped out on the floor as you receive the Host . . . but only in the hand and don’t even think about wine . . . then consume the Host on this ‘X’ed out bit of tape here . . . and make sure you don’t take too long . . . and now proceed in this direction while carefully maintaining a safe distance every step of the way . . . I only realized once I was back in my pew that I was so preoccupied with the minutiae of manoeuvre that I failed to prayerfully experience my first reception of the Eucharist in seventeen spiritually famished weeks. Aaaaargh!
That was maddening all right. No doubt about it. But even so, it wasn’t even ten seconds later, back on my knees in prayer, when my eyes filled with grateful tears to be back at church under any terms at all; and to behold those who were navigating that same nervous dance of Eucharistic reception after me. What struck me with such poignancy was the care and concern so earnestly exhibited by giver and receiver alike. Everybody was trying their best to get this right. Okay then, we may not have executed this first week back like a well-oiled machine. Nobody here but us humans. But with any luck, we’ve all learned a few of the ropes and mapped out this new terrain and will find a way to comport ourselves more attentively next week; to fail again (as we will, of course, in a million tiny ways) but with a little more grace and a little more reverence and a little more presence of mind.
Certainly these restrictions are inconvenient and irksome and make for a ceremony that is less than aesthetically ideal. But let’s not lose sight of the real prize here; of the essential importance of the Mass in all of our lives and our joy to be able to partake of it once again. And as the weeks of a resumed Church calendar have continued to tick by, I find myself more than reconciled to at least one of these imposed changes. I’ve been most content to no longer have my focus shredded each week at the climax of the Mass - just before receiving the Eucharist - by the requirement to turn around and greet my neighbours and possibly shake their hands.
And while the ban on singing - apparently those Covid droplets are particularly virulent when propelled by hymns - theoretically constitutes a bit of a sacrifice, my predominant sense regarding the absence of hymns is one of relief. Yes, for the great feasts and special ceremonies such as last summer's Requiem Mass for Bishop Sherlock, our church can still offer up music that is eminently worthy to be sung. But during the less exalted run of what we call 'Ordinary Time', we too often end up warbling the most hackneyed dreck and sentimental swill. ("And He will raise you up on eagle's wings . . . ") What a vacation from misery it has been these past few months to not feel one's spirit sag whenever the cantor announces that our next selection can be found in the dreaded Gather hymnal.
The wretched state of hymnology in most Catholic churches is an inexplicable thing. Thirty years ago Thomas Day wrote his eye-opening jeremiad, Why Catholics Can't Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste, and the situation hasn't improved today. And most galling of all, it does not have to be this way. One of the perks of having a two thousand year-old institution which for nearly all of its existence has nurtured and commissioned magnificent art of every kind, is that there is an inexhaustible mountain of truly sublime church music for choir directors to choose from.
Before the pandemic hit, we were frequently attending the Latin Mass at Holy Angels Church in St. Thomas, precisely because their tiny choir took such care in selecting and performing music that was both estimable and apt. And though it's apparently a secret too little known by choir directors today, here and there can still be found contemporary composers whose church music, though adapted to our time, is fit to compare in scope and execution with such past masters as Palestrina, Tallis, Byrd, Victoria, Poulenc and Haydn.
My favourite living composer these last ten years has been the incredibly prolific Sir James MacMillan; a devout, lifelong Catholic born in 1959 in a small town in the Scottish mining district of Ayrshire. So far he has composed five symphonies, three piano concertos, two percussion concertos, single concertos for violin, organ, viola and cello and loads of chamber music. I have barely begun to explore any of that. Much of what I have sampled of his instrumental music, for now at least, is too jarring and edgy for my taste. But his choral music and church music - several Masses, two Passions, a Stabat Mater, a Requiem, numerous motets, Tennebrae Responsories, a Miserere, hymns galore and a sublime cantata, Seven Last Words from the Cross - is to die for.
MacMillan's mom loved classical music, got him his first records, books and scores, and knew how to read sheet music, often playing selections from Chopin and Schubert and Beethoven on the family's upright piano. His carpenter father was able to play piano by ear and some of the young boy's earliest memories were of waking up to the sound of his dad downstairs pounding out old hymns. But more than either of his parents, and more than the music he imbibed each week at Sunday Mass, MacMillan credits his grandfather for really awakening him to the wonders and possibilities of music-making. A retired miner of limited means, the old man's life was saturated with music. Of course he sang in the choir at the MacMillans' parish church and he still played the euphonium in his colliery band. He took young James along to band practices and concerts, got the boy his first cornet and imbued him with an enduring love for the music of brass and silver bands which turned up in one of his selections three years ago when MacMillan was the featured guest on the long-running BBC Radio chat show, Desert Island Discs .
One evening his grandfather persuaded MacMillan to join him in watching the Benny Goodman Story on TV and he greatly admired the easy way in which Goodman could switch between big band and classical music with equal proficiency. Another of his Desert Island selections was Benny Goodman playing a Mozart clarinet quintet. But the most surprising selection which he tagged on that show as one of his lifetime favourites, was Silver Machine by bombastic prog rockers, Hawkwind; a fond indulgence left over from his teenaged years as the keyboardist in a rock band that mostly played Cream and Rolling Stones covers.
So clearly the boy loved music from virtually the moment he was born and knew that he wanted to play it. But he held off on declaring his intention to become a composer until the ripe old age of ten when he came home from the first day of a new term at school with a cheap, plastic, recorder that had been issued to every kid in his class. There was something about the immediacy and simplicity of this particular instrument - you cover certain holes with your fingers and that determines the notes; you blow your breath into the mouthpiece and that produces the sounds - that awakened him to a new sense of possibility. As a musician he suddenly realized that he wasn't just playing notes. He was making them. He was making them in the sense of producing them but now he understood that he could also make them in the sense of conceptualizing and arranging them in any sort of patterns that he liked. And just like that - starting with some piano pieces - he began producing the first manuscripts of his very own music; every last one of which he still has filed away.
Indeed, the only piece of paper MacMillan seems ever to have discarded was his membership in the Young Communist League; an adolescent affiliation which he eventually came to regret as it detonated a never-repaired falling-out with his grandfather who was profoundly disappointed in him. It's a little agonizing to watch MacMillan talk about that rupture forty-five years after the fact and see how he still beats himself up for being such a lout. Yes, he outgrew it and now can say with a gentle laugh, "I've lost all my youthful certainties." But he is haunted to this day by the thought that he caused such pain to the man who did so much to help him find his path in life. Is it fanciful of me to wonder if this heavily charged memory is where he draws some of his inspiration when composing liturgical music that explores the miraculous healing power of mercy and forgiveness in the wake of appalling transgressions?
Remarkably enough, even while MacMillan was running and consorting with Bolshies, he never drifted away from the Catholic Church. Indeed, his fascination and regard for the Church only deepened throughout his teenaged years. He got into a lot of late night arguments with young Stalinists in pubs railing on about the uselessness and the menace of religion but MacMillan never gave them an inch. With a decided twinkle in his eye, he remembers attending weekend-long conferences with his comrades in the big city and quietly slipping out on a Sunday morning to seek out a church where he could attend Mass. "That didn't go down well," he recalls.
There are dozens and dozens of recordings of James MacMillan's music available. Much of his choral and church music has been recorded by three top-flight groups in particular: The Sixteen conducted by Harry Christophers, The Westminster Cathedral Choir conducted by Martin Baker, and Capella Nova conducted by Allen Tavener Recordings by The Sixteen and Westminster tend to feature major works, whereas the Capella Nova collections gather up a wider assortment of shorter works and thereby probably make better introductions for a new listener who wants to sample the range of what MacMillan can do. Those Capella Nova releases - Tenebrae (2007) Who Are These Angels? (2011) and Alpha & Omega (2013) - also come with extensive interviews with the composer in their booklets in which he conveys some pretty striking insights about the relationship between music and faith:
"There’s a lot of suspicion about the religious artist but there needn’t be. And in the artistic world, music especially has always held a candle for the sacred right through the 20th century. Perhaps in the other arts they’ve gone down other roads, round corners and even into cul-de-sacs, but in music, composers especially have always been on a search for the sacred – whether it’s actually writing for the churches or not. You can detect this degree of searching in Schoenberg, Stravinsky, even in the work of John Cage with his interest in eastern religions, and in British composers like Britten, Leighton, John Tavener and Jonathan Harvey and so on. And you see it in Eastern Europe too – when the Iron Curtain came down this whole abundance of religious composers: Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Silvestrov, Arvo Part, etc. Music has always held this candle for the sacred and for that reason I feel quite confident in what I’m doing. I feel very much part of the mainstream rather than a kind of rebel.
"I never want my music to ‘preach’ and I don’t use my music to push some kind of agenda. I am a lay Dominican and the Order is the ‘Order of Preachers’ and it is an interesting concept in a world where preaching is such a loaded and negative word that you have to remind yourself continually of the charisms of St. Dominic. What he and others such as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Catherine of Siena were about was witnessing the love of God through their own lives, one way or another. And you become aware of other ways of being witnesses, not just by what you say but also through what you do. What I do is write music.”
Another great resource to check out if you're interested in sampling MacMillan's music is YouTube which has numerous works posted as video and audio clips. Five shorter ones which I would commend to you are O Radiant Dawn, A New Song, Ave Maris Stella, Advent Antiphon and Serenity (make sure you get the choral version of this and not the one by a female vocalist). And if you want a more extended work, try Seven Last Words from the Cross.
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