Friday, July 13, 2012

The Importance of Spirituality in Liturgical Music

Vivace! 104 July 2012
The Importance of Spirituality in Liturgical Music

The Sistine Choir recently visited London and sang at Westminster Cathedral. It was a wonderful occasion and I will be writing a few articles about it (one is below). But first I want to focus on what for me was the main thing that came out of this experience of hearing the Sistine Choir - and that is the vital importance of spirituality in liturgical music.

In a way this is more important today than it has ever been in the past. The world is a violent and disturbed place and sacred music should provide a space where people can not only take refuge but also experience the love and creativity of God. We question where the soul of sacred music comes from and it’s not easy to find a comprehensive answer – the mystery of God is beyond our understanding.

The quality of the music being performed is highly important. So much contemporary work is devoid of spirituality. Much of it is well written and ‘comfortable’ but unfortunately it is banal and meaningless. Christ so often said that one must take up one’s cross and follow him. The quality of pain is rarely to be found in contemporary liturgical music; happy clappy is fine but its expression is severely limited. The Resurrection came from pain and death, it didn’t happen as a result of undisciplined and unrestrained joy. Liturgical music needs to express the fullness of our belief. It will not bring lasting peace to people if the quality of anguish is missing.

Writing for the liturgy is a great challenge for composers. Understanding of the text is essential and you cannot write well without this. Technical competence and vocal knowledge are also important but the music must spring from the composer’s own spirituality. It must speak from the soul.

The attitude of conductors and singers is another factor. Unfortunately for some choirs, singing at Services is primarily a musical experience and the much wider context of spirituality is overlooked. This will always show and cannot be hidden. A conductor has a responsibility to ensure that a performance goes far beyond musical and technical perfection. Both are essential but they are a means and not an end. The choir is expressing beauty and belief in a totally unique manner.

I have also been much impressed by the congregational response to hymnody. Hymns mean much and speak to people’s deepest feelings. The appeal of a good hymn is universal.

As the Pope has said, sacred music is an important part of the process of evangelization: this places a great responsibility on the shoulders of the liturgical musician. We need to be aware of the meaning of sacred music and our singing must be infused with prayer and religious feeling. We must never allow our music to become a ‘whited sepulchre’: it must always display a deep internal meaning.

Colin Mawby KSG

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