måndag 30 april 2012

What does it matter - only love the Lord?

Have have several friends who have long been Catholic but are slowly drifting away. First they stop going to confession, then they stop going to Mass every Sunday, and eventually they attend less and less often. But it does not stop there. Eventually, some of them have made contact with Protestant sects such as the Mormons or Jehovahs Witnesses and are even thinking of joining. When asked why they are going it, the answer that tends to come back is, "What does it matter so long as you love the Lord?".

This raises important issues, the key one of which was addressed at a meeting I went to this evening. The Catholic church is the channel of God's grace, through its sacraments, which are the work of the Lord Himself. So if one really loves the Lord one will, first of all, make it one's business to receive the sacraments of Confession and Communion regularly.

A fundamental point about the sacraments is that they are ex opere operato. The grace of a sacrament is always conferred by the sacrament itself. Ex opere operato literally means “from the work performed.” Provided that the Catholic receiving the sacrament freely chooses to receive its graces, the grace conferred by the sacrament will be efficacious (effective). It is not that the sacrament is a mere sign that the grace has already been given, or that the virtue of the priest or recipient determines the grace. Rather, Christ works through the sacrament itself.

It follows from this that even if the priests and clergy are wicked men and the liturgy is performed carelessly, the sacraments remain effective.

fredag 27 april 2012

Unpleasantness of much new church music

A couple of weeks ago we tried out a piece I had not sung before. It was the sort of music that would make me turn off the radio immediately if I heard it broadcast. It left a sour taste in the mouth. Literally. It was not particularly discordant, so what was this about? I discussed it with the lady who runs the choir, who was puzzled by my strong reaction. Given that some people "see" sounds as colours, the possibility of crossover between the senses is not so strange. I have almost perfect pitch which means that I could be more than usually sensitive.

But what was it about this music that caused the effect? The music was played through on the piano. The first issue was the tempo, which was erratic rather than regular. But then we got to a real ouch chord, over the threshold of pain. It was similar to the sound of a distressed baby. It was a particular combination of notes. When the offending note was changed, it was no longer painful.

This should not be surprising. There are nerve cells in the brain that fire sympathetically, so that one person can feel the pain of another. They are called empathy cells. If a child calls out when it is pain, an adult nearby will feel the pain. This has survival value, since the child is more likely to receive attention if it makes a call that positively demands attention. Some discordant sounds have precisely this effect. When two notes of different frequencies are sounded simultaneously, "beat frequencies" are produced, consisting of the sum and the difference between the frequencies of those notes.

If the notes are close together, the beat frequencies will run into a discomfort zone. Engineers are aware of this, since it has to be taken into account in the design of passenger-carrying vehicles such as cars and railway carriages, which have natural modes of vibration. There are certain frequencies that give rise to unpleasant sensations, such as distress and nausea. Penetrating sounds are of this nature. Some animals, particularly those living in a marine environment, have evolved so as to produce these sounds, which carry a long distance. The shriek of the seagull, for instance, is notorious.

It is not too far-fetched, therefore, to suggest that the dislike that some people have for church music written since the 1970s, is not a cultural phenomenon but is a reaction built into human biology. More research involving techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, would shed light on what is going on.

It looks as if the work of some recent composers should either be weeded out of the repertoire of church music or thoroughly revised before it is let loose to distress another generation of congregations.

måndag 23 april 2012

Trevligare än 70-talets kyrkomusik tycker jag

Spela på högst möjliga völym! Jag tycker att kompressors gnäll är verkligen spännande. Jag skulle hellre stå på någon perrong på en järnvägsstation än sitta i en kyrka och bli tvungen att lyssna på tråkig 70-tals kyrkomusik.

söndag 22 april 2012

Gregorian Chant is not for soloists

A week ago I was asked to sing the Proper for an Extraordinary Form Mass today because the regular cantor was going to be away. Rather foolishly I agreed, but I had no options. I obtained good clear copies of the music, rehearsed well, and was note-perfect an hour earlier whilst sitting on the train on the way.

I ended up singing the Proper on my own. The sparse congregation joined in the Ordinary of the Missa de Angelis, though I sang alternate verses of the Kyrie solo. The Vidi Aquam, Introit, Kyrie and Gloria were fine. Then I messed up the Gradual and Alleluia verses, though I am not sure anyone noticed. Credo III went all right, and the Offertory was done to a psalm tone, which was not a problem. I started the Sanctus much too high, the Agnus Dei went all right but I bungled the Communion verse, again I am not sure that anyone noticed.

What went wrong? I have near perfect pitch and had a tuning fork with me as well. I was a bit nervous and there was a lot to do besides, keeping an eye on the priest and following the text carefully so as to see when to come in with the sung portions.

What is there to learn from this? First, to get a pitch pipe and write down the starting note on the music itself. But more important is to go mob-handed - in other words we need to set up a Schola who can provide at least four voices whenever they are called for. For a start, I want my own funeral done properly.

fredag 20 april 2012

Why do I find this music so unpleasant?



There is a certain type of church music written in the 1970s and 80s that I find irritating in the extreme to listen to. There is a clutch of composers who were producing this kind of thing then, particularly in the Catholic church. If I hear it on the radio I will turn it off. Fast. If I think there is a risk of hearing it in a service, I will travel a considerable distance or get out of bed early on a Sunday morning to avoid it and find at least a silent service somewhere.

Why this is so I cannot understand. It is not discordant. It is actually quite tuneful. Perhaps there is something about the tonality of the music itself? Perhaps it stirs up an unpleasant memory? All I know is that I do not want to be around when it is being performed. Even less do I want to sing it. I know also that I am not alone in my dislike of the works of these composers.

I think, however, that it is a technical thing to do with the music, or even a biological effect, because it actually makes my flesh creep. The effect on me is exactly like an allergy to food or dust. There is something about it that repels the mind.

This is not as far-fetched as it sounds. There have been experiments done to see how different types of music activates different parts of the brain. It has been shown that Baroque music, in particular, has a calming effect and even helps recovery from operations, and not just amongst humans. It apparently has an effect on mice! Perhaps there is a professional musician out there who can explain?

Perhaps also it is because it STANDS FOR the deliberate ignoring and destruction of ancient tradition. Somehow it seems to embody the spirit of the the post-Vatican 2 church and the subsequent misinterpretation of the Council's deliberations. It is of a piece with plain polyester vestments, the mistranslation of the text into English, communion received standing, under both kinds and the Body of Christ in the hand, the insensitive and expensive reordering of perfectly good churches from the nineteeth and early twentieth century, new churches that could equally well be cafeterias in a park, railway stations or in the worst case, public toilets - the list goes on and on.

It might even go further than that: encapsulating the ugliness of an entire age - tower blocks, out-of-town shopping malls, multi-storey car parks, urban motorways, unpleasant new sliding door trains and one-person buses, cars styled by marketing directors...

And what is wrong with this, which everyone knows and needs no rehearsal?

onsdag 18 april 2012

Concerts in Catholic churches

I have always been disturbed by concerts in Catholic churches. The Blessed Sacrament remains in the tabernacle and has to be treated with due reverence. There is also the matter of what should, and what should not, take place on the Sanctuary. The latter can be solved if the choir is in the gallery.

There remains the matter of the music itself. This is often liturgical music of some kind, for example, a setting of the Mass. Yet it is rare in most parishes these days to find classical Mass settings used within the liturgy itself, which is precisely the purpose for which they were written.

A classical Mass setting in an authentic liturgical context would not consist of the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and Agnus Dei (ie the Ordinary) sung straight off without a break, but would include the Proper and readings.

Thus, before the Kyrie would come an Asperges or Vidi Aquam, followed by the Introit, and after the Gloria would come the Epistle, Gradual and Alleluia, then the Gospel, Creed, Offertory, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and Communion. The Proper would be sung to the traditional ancient Gregorian chants, and the Ordinary would take up little more than one-third of the total time of the Mass.

To sing the Ordinary straight off makes it difficult to understand the context of the music, as well as being very hard work for a choir.

This is, then, a plea for an end to concerts in Catholic churches. Guest choirs should instead be welcomed for the contribution they can make to real live liturgies.

lördag 14 april 2012

Mumbling priest with back to the congregation

Immaculate Conception Mass

The old Mass with the priest turning his back on the congregation and mumbling to himself in a language nobody understands.

If that is how one views the Traditional form of the Mass, it suggests not only a lack of proper catechesis but also a need to review how the Mass is celebrated in the Ordinary form. It is not a re-enactment of the Last Supper but a re-presentation of the Sacrifice of Calvary. Priest and people are praying to God together, a point that perhaps has got lost with the practice of celebrating facing the people.

As for praying silently - both priest and people are meant to be joining in the prayer. The use of Latin is a matter of practicality, since the Catholic church exists across all national boundaries. The priest can recite silently in Latin whilst the congregation, irrespective of where they come from, can join in the prayers silently in their own languages.

måndag 9 april 2012

After-Easter culture shock

Having been used to a traditional liturgy and being plunged over Easter, into what is a 1970s-style of liturgy, I am suffering from culture-shock. It has led me to ponder where the Catholic church is going. What are the implications for the New Evangelisation?

Whether it was intentional or based on a misunderstanding, the Catholic liturgy took a battering after Vatican 2, to the point that it can best be described as stripped-down. Several things happened simultaneously.

Latin was got rid of. This meant, first of all, that the liturgy was no longer the same wherever one went. The church, and even some parishes, split up into language groups. This has become a more acute problem with the passage of the years, as people have become more mobile.

In some instances, the translations into the vernacular were so inaccurate that new translations have had to be introduced, for example into English where a new ICEL version came into use last year.

The traditional music was got rid of. With the abolition of Latin, the traditional music - Gregorian Chant and the polyphony of composers like Palestrina and Victoria - could no longer be used and the Catholic liturgy acquired new sounds with a very different spirit. This was a particular problem for English where the rhythms of the language do not usually permit the re-use of music written for Latin.

Much of the music for the vernacular liturgy in English has been of poor quality. With the new translation, it is now obsolete and should be quietly forgotten. Here in Sweden the Gregorian melodies survive translation better than into English, and the translations themselves are more true to the definitive Latin. Paradoxically, this makes matters worse because it is harder to justify the use of Latin. However, it is difficult to justify the use of the Lenten setting of the Ordinary all the year round, which is what seems to have happened. And there appears also to be no setting of the Creed in Swedish. An adapatation of Credo I would probably be successful but has not to my knowledge been published.

A further issue is the use of round note/five line notation for Gregorian music in the translated versions. This is, seemingly a consequence of the dominance of chuch music by musicians. Yet the old four-line notation with square notes gives a clearer and more accurate depiction of the shape of the musical phrases and has the additional advantage that it can be sung at whatever pitch the singers a comfortable with.

Post Vatican 2 also saw an infusion of Protestant music. There is a large body of beautiful music written for the Anglican church, for example. Some of it, by composers such as Orlando Gibbons, was produced in the first part of the seventeenth century under the liturgical revival driven by Archbishop Laud. But however beautiful it is, this music is permeated by the spirituality and theology of its place and time. It cannot be otherwise. The same applies the more so to music written for the Lutheran church. One has to ask whether there is a legitimate place for it within Catholic church worship?

Silence was got rid of The traditional Latin Mass is characterised by a period of intense silence whilst the priest recites the Canon. Priests may choose to have a period of silence after communion but it does not fall naturally into the pattern of the Novus Ordo Mass.

Reverence was got rid of The Prayers at the Foot of the Altar and the Last Gospel were dropped. Communion was no longer received kneeling and on the tongue but standing and in the hand. These differences in gesture in turn give rise to differences in disposition and attitude to the Blessed Sacrament. It cannot be otherwise.

Bidding prayers secularised the liturgy All too often bidding prayers were used as an opportunity to wheel out a political hobby horse.

The priest celebrated facing the people No longer would the priest face the cross and tabernacle together with the rest of the people. Instead, the priest faces the people. What does this signify? More importantly, what does it deny and what does it imply? That the Mass is a re-enactment of the Last Supper, perhaps? That is now a widespread perception.

Undoing the damage
Piece-by-piece the damage must be undone. Where to begin? Congregations must be moved on slowly, sensitively and tactfully. Some English parishes have shown the way. The new English translation provides a good entry point. The Ordinary of the Mass is being sung in Gregorian chant as part of a mixed-language liturgy. So is the Pater Noster. Communion is being received on the tongue and whilst kneeling. The English Mass is being celebrated Ad Orientem. The Canon of the Mass could be recited silently by both priest and people, as suggested by Cardinal Ratzinger in his book "The Spirit of the Liturgy". The Ordinariate is one of the forces for progress in this direction.

The question is - where is the best point to start, and how should it be done without causing offence?

tisdag 3 april 2012

Lost icon

London Transport route 83 at Alperton

For 45 years these vehicles were iconic for London. Whether the "Borisbus" can achieve the same status remains to be seen. Design icons cannot be created out of nothing but require a particular integrity on the part of all of those involved in the design process. Unfortunately, since the 1980s, design has become an adjunct of marketing, being reduced to little more than styling. Once that happens, the possibility of creating a genuine design icon is slight.

The danger is that design icons are one of the means by which society creates the narrative about itself which helps it to understand what it is. If it cannot do this, the end product is a widespread and generalised sense of alienation and unfocussed discontent. This is why the privatisation of the Post Office is going to be so damaging - as an ancient institution like the church, it is part of the cultural landscape. Destroy it at society's peril. Sadly, the intellectual pygmies now running Britain have no inkling of what they are meddling with.

måndag 2 april 2012

Libertarians on dangerous ground

Libertarians are on dangerous ground when they try to defend private ownership of land. If I enclose a piece of land and call it MINE, then I am preventing anyone else from gaining access to that land except on MY TERMS. Sooner or later this creates a situation when all land is enclosed, and anyone who has not got in on what is in effect a scramble, has not option but to pay rent or work for wages or become a slave or accept whatever terms the LAND “OWNERS” choose to offer, merely to stay alive. And there is the libertarian dilemma in a nutshell.

Worse still, a claim to ownership, for it is nothing more, demands the existence of a structure of government that will defend that claim to ownership through its structures of law, administration, defence – all the apparatus of the big state that libertarians so abhor. It also creates the existence of a class of have-nots who have to receive a minimum level of subsistence if they are not to starve or rise in revolt. This ultimately leads, and has led, the the creation of the bloated and very costly welfare states that became widespread in the years after the second world war. Dismantle them at everyone's peril unless the underlying structures of property ownership are changed so as to remedy the exclusion built into the systems.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor

Please pray for the repose of the soul of Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor Bishop of the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton for 23 years ...