söndag 28 april 2013

Some things can not be improved


RT2240, originally uploaded by jon jon be good.
Some things can not be improved. One example is the RT bus. Introduced in London in 1939, and the standard London bus after the war, the type remained in service until 1979. A perfect marriage of form and function, there is nothing about it that could be added or taken away which would make it any better. It looks good from every angle. Faultless detailing and clean lines are enhanced by the simple livery and the LONDON TRANSPORT logotype on the side, in gold letters in the special Johnston typeface.

The same can be said of the Tridentine Mass. In comparison, the Novus Ordo Mass is like one of those clumsy rear-engine jobs which weighs over half as much again, but without a corresponding increase in the number of seats, and with a fuel consumption to match its bloated weight.

Mass this morning

fUnnerstal-preview by Nerammah
fUnnerstal-preview, a photo by Nerammah on Flickr.
Mass this morning looked more or less like this. Thanks to Pope Benedict and his document Summorum Pontificum, and thanks to our parish priest who took the initiative, we can, and do, have an Extraordinary Form Mass every Sunday, unfortunately at 8.00 am, which is hard when the mornings are dark and cold, and a difficult time for working people with families. There were about a couple of dozen people in the church, some of them regular weekday attenders. Unfortunately too, there was no opportunity for coffee afterwards so everyone just went straight home without talking to each other. The Mass was accompanied by discreet organ playing, though looking around at who was present, it could with preparation have been sung instead of said.

There is a different atmosphere in the church. The action is simple and uncluttered. The sense of flow is smooth and quiet There is a stronger sense of presence. One is not straining to hear words which are hard, sometimes impossible, to hear anyway because of the acoustics, the public address system, and people's dialects and unclear diction.

It would be an excellent thing if some of the weekday evening Masses were said in this form, so that an increasing number of parishioners had the chance to get used to it. At some time in the future, the use of the EF form could then be extended to feast days and to some of the main Sunday morning sung High Masses.

If the church is to flourish and grow, the use of this form of the liturgy must be a key element in its evangelistic efforts.

lördag 20 april 2013

Are we Recusants?

In Elizabethan England, a stubborn minority refused to convert to the Protestant religion but remained Catholics. One of these was the famous composer William Byrd, who nevertheless somehow managed to hold on to his position as Court composer. Many were tried and executed. Others fled to the continent or suffered a persecution as severe as many in twentieth-century communist regimes. Another composer, who became a refugee, was Peter Philips, who in 1593 found himself imprisoned in the Hague under allegations of being involved in a plot to kill Queen Elizabeth. He was one of the great Tudor composers of keyboard music and vocal polyphony.

It sometimes feels as if contemporary Catholics are in a similar situation. It is not through persecution outside the church, from which point it is largely regarded as an irrelevancy, but from the inside, from the clergy and hierarchy. I have just resigned from the parish choir because a stubborn and not very perceptive new choir master got it into his head that I should start singing bass, after nearly forty years singing as a tenor. I agreed to give it a try, just for the fun of it, but quickly ended up with a sore throat after rehearsals and found that I could not reliably sound the tunes in my head at the lower bass notes. Unfortunately he didn't get the message when I mentioned the problem so I took direct action and just sang an octave higher, at which point he told me to sing at the lower pitch. Not wanting to have a quarrel in front of everyone, I just left quietly.

The choir director had taken over the choir at the start of the year in circumstances which should never have arisen. It was always going to be a difficult task for a new director to follow in the footsteps of the previous one. He quickly proved not to be up to the task, upset most of the members of the choir for different reasons and was, I have to say, the worst I have encountered in three decades of singing in choirs. The vacant post should have been advertised and the candidates and choir given the opportunity to meet each other.

I am not altogether sorry because although it was a Catholic church choir, the amount of genuine Catholic church music it sung, ie Latin Gregorian Chant and Polyphony, was minimal. There is, in the parish, a determination to include in every Mass a good helping of music that is definitely not Catholic. The predominant sound is Protestant, with hymns mostly of Lutheran, Anglican or English Nonconformist origin - with the odd bit of Catholic music thrown in as a sop to keep people like me quiet. As a result it feels like a Protestant church, worse, in fact, because the mixture creates a sense of confusion and incoherence.

There is nothing wrong with Protestant church music and some of it is very beautiful and intensely moving. But it is imbued with the spirit of Protestantism, which is exactly why it was written the way it was, and that is before taking into account its Protestant associations. It should be kept firmly out at the door.

When, added to that are the practices of celebrating Mass always in the vernacular, facing the people, standing in a queue for communion and then receiving it in the hand, whilst still standing, and the near-disappearance of Confession, what is the end result? Catholicism Lite. Which it would be very difficult to distinguish from Lutheranism or middle-of-the-road-Anglicanism, except that the latter in particular generally make a better job of the actual celebration of the Liturgy than is customary in Catholic churches.

torsdag 18 april 2013

Four decades of Catholic music - 6

Demolition job
Soon after Fr Dickerson retired, the other priest were moved away. If I recall correctly, Fr van der Most and Fr Benyon had gone by then and Fr Mark Elvins was curate. He went to St Mary Magdalen's, Brighton and Fr Michael Reynell was brought in to St Peter's from West Byfleet, where he had imposed the full panoply of changes following the Second Vatican Council. He was accompanied by an elderly priest as curate.

The first thing to go was the Ad Orientem celebration of Mass (true east at St Peters), followed by most of the Latin - ie the responses and the Canon. This left just the Ordinary and the Proper in Latin. By the standards of today, that would be considered a respectable proportion of Latin, but the changes annoyed the congregration and it annoyed the choir, partly because the liturgy kept swapping languages in a messy way. The parish shed about one-third of its members pretty much immediately. Presumably some of them migrated to the neighbouring parishes of Sacred Heart and St Mary Magdalens, which were still holding out against the unwanted changes. They too were to go the same way within a decade, and after that there was nowhere left.

The parishioners begged the priest to leave things as they were but to no avail. He soon gained the nickname Obadiah, as in Rev. Obadiah Slope, a character in the Trollope novel Barchester Towers. A few weeks after his arrival there was a hostile meeting between Father and the choir in the choir loft, in which it was obvious that there would be no room for compromise. Tempers rose and one choir member called him a worm. This stuck, because he must have told his fellow clergy of the incident, and if they had to see him (he also held the office of Dean), they would say "I'm off to see the wur'rum."

Letters to the bishop, Cormac Murphy O'Connor were of no avail either. "Nothing to do with me, Guv", was the bishop's response, in the same tone as would be used by a local British Rail manager in reply to a complaint about an epidemic of cancelled trains. Of course it was everything to do with the bishop but he did not want to admit responsibility. The other priest (I think he was called Fr Paul), was more than sympathetic but could do nothing.

Nevertheless, things continued in much the same vein for three years or so, with the introduction of Protestant metrical hymns at a few points, first and last verses only. The son of the choirmistress took charge. His full-time job was as tenant of the Bedford Tavern, a popular pub in the middle of Brighton, and he had the engaging habit of handing round Jaegermeister miniatures at the start of the Sunday rehearsals, in case anyone had a hangover from the night before.

For some reason, Fr Michael had an objection to Marian hymns at the Offertory and these was a source of tension at first, though eventually we got to know his foibles. Further conflict was avoided but there was always an underlying animosity in both directions.

The axe came three years later, when numbers attending Mass had dwindled to the point when the 11.00 Latin Mass and the 12.00 Folk Mass could be merged. The two groups of musicians were then told that their services would no longer be required.

With the opposition thus despatched, the church building then became the subject of a determined attack. The original marble altar and altar rails dating from 1915 were smashed up and replaced by a dull array consisting of chair, altar and altar, sufficiently in keeping to get the approval of the local planning authority, at a cost of £30,000, a hefty sum in the 1980s. This was in the days when ecclesiastical buildings were exempt from planning control and at that time the church was not included on the list of protected buildings of architectural and historic interest. This did not happen until much later, and partly as a result of the years of rampant and unchecked clerical vandalism.

For the choir, however, it was a new beginning. We refused to be silenced and were unanimous in our determination to continue. The choir took the name of SPEM, the accusative form of spes, meaning hope, and standing for St Peter's outside the walls.

onsdag 17 april 2013

Four decades of Catholic music - 5

July 1978 saw me back in Hove and singing with the choir at St Peter's, Portland Road. It was a stable choir in a stable situation. Most of the time was necessarily spent learning the music for the following Sunday High Mass, which was all in Latin apart from the sermon and readings. There were three priests, the ageing Fr Dickerson and his two curates, the Dutchman Fr van der Most and the young Fr Chris Benyon. The latter had encouraged the setting up of a folk group which sang at the 12 o'clock Mass, accompanied by guitars. I think Fr Dickerson gritted his teeth but the ruling principle was live-and-let-live.

We slowly increased our repertoire with some polyphony, including pieces by Palestrina. A few people left when they moved away from the area, and a few joined when they arrived from somewhere else. The music consisted mostly of the Gregorian Chant Ordinaries and the Propers, sung to psalm tones. The choirmistress tried to vary these from the usual tone 8g which it is tempting to stick to all the time. We also learned the correct Introits for the main feast days: Christmas, Easter, Ascension; Pentecost; Trinity; Corpus Christi; St Peter and St Paul; Assumption; All Saints, and a few others.

The guiding principle was to do simple things and do them well. The music was chosen so as just to stretch the ability of the choir, which had the reputation of being one of the best Gregorian chant choirs in the Diocese. We rehearsed once a week from 8.00 to 9.30 and then retired to the pub. On Sundays we would arrive an hour before the start of Mass to warm up our voices and have a final run-through. This was in the church hall and the choirmistress smoked most of the time, often singing between, and even during, drags.

I do not recall the choir ever being expected to sing music that people did not like, in part because when it comes to Gregorian chant, the music is the music and like and dislikes do not come into the matter. Singing the music is a task to be done, just as the priest has to say Mass. Likes and dislikes began to enter into the equation with the introduction of the vernacular and new music to go with it, but as this had not happened at St Peter's, we could just get on with doing what was required.

A new bishop, Cormac Murphy O'Connor, was installed in the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton, and he must have leaned on the priest, to say Mass facing the people, as a new movable altar was added, for use during the week. This was similar in general appearance to the original altar and placed just in front of it. It cramped the sanctuary and gave a strange double-vision effect, but it was put to the side for the main Sunday Mass so nobody minded too much.

The Parish Priest was not as fearsome as he seemed at first impression and he took both choirs out to dinner at a country hotel once a year, as a token of his appreciation. Fr Dickerson retired just before the Summer holidays, in July 1983, giving a memorable farewell speech. Naively, nobody really expected any significant change. After all, things in the parish were running smoothly, with well-established traditions which could have continued in the same way for decades. The liturgy was set up so that there was something to suit all tastes. We could not have been more wrong. We had underestimated the wrecking skills of the bishop.

söndag 14 april 2013

Organ failure

Lincoln College organ by Elmar Eye
Lincoln College organ, a photo by Elmar Eye on Flickr.
Music in the chapel at Lincoln College, Oxford used to be supplied by this modest organ by Harrison and Harrison of Durham, but was replaced in 2010 by a new one by William Drake. The old one was a bit undersized and the sound would die from lack of air if too many of the stops were pulled. When I was a student at the college I used to enjoy listening to my friend playing Bach. He was a chemistry student from Shipley and a really good player.

Our own parish church acquired a second-hand organ that was probably originally in a much larger building. It can sound impressive. It can also be a hazard, especially for the choir if it is played too loud when they are trying to sing, which unfortunately it often is. Then they can't compete and end up with sore throats. Worse still, the sound levels can exceed the recommended safety limits.

7 Hz weapon
The organist also has a taste for discords, especially in the bass register. These sound unpleasant. A sound similar to that of a crying baby, or an air raid siren, will arouse feelings of fear and dislike through association and memory, which might be considered a cultural response. It is not just a matter of taste or personal preference, though that comes into the picture. Our feelings of distaste are a biological response. Low frequency discords create infrasound as beat frequencies. Two notes played together in the lower octaves will generate infrasound in the range of 4 Hz to 15 Hz, where people are not even consciously aware of it. The frequency of 7 Hz is notorious. A vehicle designer once told me that it was important to avoid creating structures - railway carriages, for instance - with a resonant frequency of 7 Hz, as it would make passengers feel sick. The same frequency has been mentioned in connection with a US weapons programme, using infrasound at this frequency.

'Acoustic Trauma: Bioeffects of Sound,' by Alex Davies states that the most profound effects at this infrasonic level occur at 7 Hz , which "corresponds with the median alpha-rhythm frequencies of the brain. It is also commonly alleged that this is the resonant frequency of the body's organs and hence organ rupture and death can occur at high-intensity exposures."

In one UK study, it was found that the extreme bass frequencies instilled strange feelings at a concert hall. Effects were "extreme sense of sorrow, coldness, anxiety, and even shivers down the spine." [source; Organ Music Instills Religious Feelings,' by Jonathan Amos, 9/8/2003]

7 Hz infrasound can be produced on an organ by playing at the same time the C below middle C and the C# a semitone above (130.8 and 138.5 Hz). In lower octaves still, for example on the pedal organ, the disturbing infrasound frequency can easily be generated by playing certain chords, in which case the amplitudes will be much higher due to the greater energy in the lower registers with their long pipes. Bottom A and C# are a very unpleasant chord. I wonder if the organist knows this and does it deliberately? I would expect that this piece of information is well known amongst the organ playing fraternity.

An organist at Brompton Oratory used be able to clear the large church in about half a minute by playing the appropriate music. It was more effective than a fire alarm. People made a dash for the exit, probably without realising why. Perhaps this is one reason why I have developed a distaste for my local parish church.

lördag 13 april 2013

Funerals


I have been thinking a bit about funerals these last few days. I was asked to prepare the Requiem Mass for Anne Furse, a member of my old parish in Brighton, who died a couple of weeks ago. By chance (?) I had a couple of her drawings on my computer, one of which was of Mary Magdalen with her pot of ointment, anointing the feet of Jesus with her hair, and the other was an illustration of the Holy Spirit. They were perfectly suited for the service sheets and much admired by her relatives. She had never realised her potential "in the world", due to epilepsy and other conditions, but she was in a way the spiritual heart of parish. I would have liked to have been present in the choir to sing, though she would probably have preferred for me to be serving at the Mass. Ann used to compliment me by saying how nicely I served Mass at funerals.

Tomorrow, 13 April, is the eighth anniversary of my mother's death; the funeral took place on the following day. Next week is Margaret Thatcher's funeral, a state event with military honours. In my view it is a mistake. Given how divisive she was and how divisive she remains, a quiet event would have been more in order, with a memorial service.

No doubt my own funeral will be a quiet event, but I would hope it will be a full sung Mass, on a modest scale, preferably in the Extraordinary Form, and including the Dies Irae, and followed by a burial, not a cremation. I don't want a pean of praise. Please just pray for the repose of my soul.

onsdag 10 april 2013

Real Catholic traddies don't bash the Pope.

Pope Francis seems to be sorting out the real Catholic traddie men from the boys. If you are a real Catholic traddie, you do not criticise the Holy Father because you do not like his liturgical style.

Stop knocking the Pope

I wish people would stop knocking the Pope, now for bringing out the ugly ferula that was used by Paul VI and John Paul II. He has only been in office a few weeks. We should bear in mind that the Catholic church has always had many tasks in the world, many things to say, and many different ways of saying them.

Personally I would like to see the wretched object melted down for scrap. But why don't we all wait a couple of years, or decades, before passing judgement? For those of us who are in favour of a traditionalist approach to liturgy, the initial reaction must be one of disappointment. His style is not my cup of tea. What really counts, however, is what goes on in our own patches where we can do something about it.

Benedict has made his contribution and it is up to us to continue get on with putting those ideas into practice. He unlocked the Tridentine Mass, which we should be thankful for, and now we should be doing our best to encourage the clergy to bring it to the wider Catholic community.

There are other tasks waiting to be done. The social teaching encyclicals are seriously defective and they need to be put in order, in a world increasingly dominated by an economy of rent-seeking, speculation, exploitation and a widening gap between rich and poor. The Catholic church cannot stand by. Benedict made a start with "Caritas in Veritatis", but the ideas there need to be worked out. There is also an need to develop the material set down in the huge volume of material left by John Paul II. Then there is the growing influence of Islam in Europe to be countered.

We should not get too hung up about the weird cross. It can be read as a message of identification with the poor and oppressed. I would not be comfortable with a parish where there was fine liturgy but nothing was done for the beggars at the church door. We have to do both.

Deo gratias.

måndag 8 april 2013

The evil legacy of Margaret Thatcher

No such thing as society
Thatcher's exact words, I am told were "There's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people and people must look after themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves, and then, also, to look after our neighbours." 1979

There is everything wrong with that statement by Thatcher and you see its evil consequences the instant you step into Britain. There is a such a thing as society and consequently a public realm.

In Britain, this public realm is not valued as it is in other countries, and it is noticeable, down to the minutest triviae. People don't generally drop litter in Scandinavia. The pavements are not spotted with chewing gum. If you travel in a train you will find a brush and paper towels in the toilet. That is only possible when everyone is recognises that there is such a thing as society.

Duties of government
There is the individual and there is the family on one side, and there is government on the other, and yes, government is made up of, but is more than the sum of, individuals. Individuals, families and government all have their particular duties.

Amongst the duties of government are:
  • to defend the realm, to apply justice,
  • to deal with emergencies,
  • to ensure that everyone has the means to provide themselves and their families with a livelihood, and
  • to collect the rent of land
This latter is because if government does not, all sorts of undesirable consequences follow. Not the least of them is that large numbers of families end up being unable to provide themselves with a livelihood. Then comes socialism. More and more become dependent on welfare, which eventually consumes ever-increasing public funds.

Now I would have thought that a recognition of those points described above as the minimum duties of government would form the basis of a genuine conservative programme, but sadly the Conservatives just thrash around instead of getting a coherent policy together, and the resultant misery and anger envelops the country like a poison cloud.

Thatcher's foolish statement seems to have its origins in US libertarianism, perhaps in the writings of the evil Ayn Rand. At a more general level, it has promoted the f*** you attitudes which have brought us to Broken Britain. She has a lot to answer for. Thatcher, together with the changes that came with 1960s "freedom", gave assent to the change in social attitudes that have brought us to broken, bankrupt Britain 2010.

The rise of home ownerism
Home ownership went up during the Thatcher years. In the end it led to a house price bubble and bust (in reality land price bust) in 1992, followed by four years of serious depression. This recovered and then we had a re-run, only ten times, worse ending in the collapse of 2008. And homes became unaffordable as the price of land spiralled up. We need, amongst other things, a different model of home ownership than Thatchers.

Oil revenues squandered
Another of the evils of the Thatcher government was the way it squandered North Sea oil revenues to shut the coal mines, which were not uneconomic. They then used the money to pay for the high levels of unemployment, especially in the former mining areas, during much of the time it was in power.

The mines were abandoned and cannot be reopened and we are faced with an energy problem despite the fact that most of Britain is sitting on a layer of coal, sufficient to last 300 years.

Now we have vast tracts of the country with a dead economy, dead, drug-ridden societies, a mood of hopelessness and a burden on the taxpayer ie hard-working people. Conservative policies lead to exactly the same problems as socialist ones, which is why it is a good idea not to attach oneself to any political -ism but to look around for oneself and see what is happening on the ground.

And looking on the ground we see Norway which used its oil revenues to build good infrastructure and for other investment. It is no accident that the Norwegian krona is one of the few currencies in the world which is not crashing down.

Then there was the ludicrous Poll Tax which finished off the silly woman. But her sour legacy, not least of which are the nonsensical cult of managerialism, the notion that everything must look good on the bottom line and that is all that counts, and that the Conservatives are not trusted in this country.

What a wonderful politician.

torsdag 4 april 2013

Four decades of Catholic music - 4

London interlude
In January 1978 I moved to Crouch End in North London. The nearest Catholic church was in Muswell Hill, and I discovered that a woman was starting a choir. She explained that she was trying to get together a group to sing the English liturgy. It was not quite what I had expected, which was that it would be a choir for singing Gregorian chant. Nevertheless I was willing to give it a go. It turned out that we would be singing in English, and so I assumed that we would be singing music from the Anglican repertoire - which has no shortage of good quality material from the Tudor period onwards. But there was another agenda. We were introduced to a young man by the name of Paul Inwood, who handed out sheets of music he had composed himself. It was difficult to sing and sounded awful. I stopped after a couple of weeks and never discovered if the attempt to start a choir came to anything.

After that I migrated to the Jesuit church of St Ignatius, Stamford Hill, which was a bit of a hike away. The choirmaster was David Williams. The repertoire was slightly more ambitious than the Hove choir, but we usually pulled it off. The pieces included Jubilate Deo K117 by Mozart, Ave Verum Corpus by Byrd, a Kyrie by Viadana, and Factus es repente by Achinger. The latter was sung at a confirmation service with the bishop present and went badly wrong in the second half, at which point David lost his temper. The Sunday High Mass alternated between Latin and English. Despite the odd hiccough, it was a good choir to be in and I was sorry to leave it after just four months when I returned to Hove and the choir at St Peter's.

måndag 1 april 2013

Nineteen-seventies legacy

Easter Sunday Mass by Lawrence OP
Easter Sunday Mass, a photo by Lawrence OP on Flickr.
The Catholic church has inherited many buildings of this type. It is nice to see it full, but I wonder if I am unusual in finding that going to Mass in such an architectural setting is not an uplifting experience.

Cult of ugliness

Compare and contrast. The former seems to have been inspired by the latter, but which is the more elegant? Fatima shrine. German bunker, J...