Friday 27 August 2010

Mass and Metre

Today the booklets for the Papal visit arrived; hundreds of them, so it is just as well that we are not going to be asked to pay for them, because I cannot imagine shifting them all if we had to ask money; it is going to be hard enough persuading people that they want them for nothing.
That being said, it is true that the booklets are really rather well put together. I would buy one. They have everything one might require for assisting at the Papal Liturgies, and a good deal more.

What I immediately went to have a look at was the setting for the Mass throughout, by James MacMillan. It's only a melody line, so one has to imagine the harmonies, but for the most part this isn't difficult.
(Later note: You can see a link in the comments box, from Mac [thanks!], to a synthesized sound version)

I wrote a post about a week or so ago which I never put up on the blog for various reasons. Damian Thompson had been having a go at some music written by a friend of mine, which actually I thought was quite good. In the course of his piece, Damian extolled again the music of James MacMillan, and compared it (in general) to this other piece. It got my mind working. The bit that I wrote was to make the point that actually it is rather hard to write a Mass setting for unison congregational singing that doesn't resemble, by and large, all the others: MacMillan has a setting already in the general repertoire called, if my memory serves me right, the St Anne Mass, and it's a nice piece in a rather Scottish manner, but not head and shoulders above, say, the Dom Gregory Murray Mass or any number of others. His new Mass for the Papal Visit even uses what is for me the kiss of death, cantors singing lines for the congregations to sing back to them. (Again, see Mac's comments)

I think that the problem lies with a too-close approximation of these Masses to hymn tunes; I mean the feeling that one has to set the sacred texts to a four-square melody, more or less one syllable to one note, with the occasional melisma or modulation for interest. However, because most of the Mass texts are not metrical, but plain prose, the longer pieces, such as the Gloria do not sit easily with this style of music. To put it plainly, I don't think you can set the Gloria in 4/4 (or any other beat) at all without it sounding dull, and the same goes to a lesser extent for the other movements of the Mass. The Gloria especially is too long for a memorable melody; tunes simply wander around going nowhere in particular. You can spice it up in other ways (different movements, different forces, different keys) but if you're not careful it can end up sounding either like a Broadway musical or simply dull.

There are good congregational Eucharistic settings in English, but the best two I can think of are Merbecke's setting of the Communion Service and Shaw's Folk Mass (not at all what that title conjures up these days), both Anglican pieces. These two eschew time signatures, employing free rhythm and modal tonality—in short they have more in common with plainchant than with a hymn tune. Neither uses melismas, though, these being forbidden by Cranmer; this is a pity as they might have given further interest. Both settings work very well congregationally, and manage never to be dull.

In a Catholic context, I think of the astounding Missa Cum Jubilo of Maurice Duruflé. This is a unison setting for seminarians, and draws very heavily on Mass 9. It also requires a strong lead from an able choir, and an above-averagely skilled organist. But it is probably doable in a larger church, and has the advantage of being an important work in the classical repertoire in its own right.

The same (in a completely different way) can be said of Schubert's Deutsche Messe. However, in practice, as things stand, only the Sanctus of this Mass can realistically be used, because all the movements have been versified and paraphrased within an inch of their lives, and this practice, thankfully, is to be discouraged in future, I understand.

Paul Inwood has produced a Mass based loosely on the opening phrase of the Kyrie from Mass 11. I am familiar with the Sanctus from this Mass, and can say that it stands head and shoulders above anything of his that I have heard before. I am not so keen on one or two of the other movements, which would seem to return to a former style, but if this signals a greater interest in the 'feel' of plainchant, then it is good news. His Sanctus does have a time signature, but has enough atmosphere and, actually, brevity, to make it work; the music does not dominate the text but gracefully illustrates it. This setting has been commissioned by the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton for its forthcoming jubilee in 2015 (the diocese having failed to interest James MacMillan in the project). If Paul Inwood can be encouraged in the direction he has started out in for his Sanctus through the remaining movements, this Mass could be a serious contribution to a newer and better register for congregational settings, and this is something we need seriously to develop very soon, before we bed down again into the old tired style of which, I fear, our Papal Visit Mass may be simply one more example.

Thursday 26 August 2010

Nunciatures and Noise

I gather that the Knights of St Columba (overseas readers please note that this is not a misprint for Columbus or Columbanus) are organizing a nocturnal candlelight vigil opposite the Nunciature in Wimbledon during the Papal Visit.
I have a memory that when Pope John Paul visited in 1982, the group Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice (does it still exist?) decided to show its attachment to the Holy See by serenading the Holy Father the whole night outside the then Apostolic Delegation with traditional Catholic hymns. Eventually, at some ungodly hour, the Pope had to appear at a window and beg the people to go to bed and let the poor Pope get some sleep.
The Knights' vigil is prudently set to end at 8.30pm, by which time the Holy Father should have caught up on the latest episode of Eastenders, and be settling down for a mug of Horlicks and a game of Scrabble with Mgr Georg.

Some twenty years ago, I heard a story in Rome, from an official then high up in the Secretariat of State, which is presumably true. General Noriega, the dictator of Panama, having recently fallen from power, famously holed up in the Apostolic Nunciature, claiming sanctuary, or something of the sort. The Nunciature was promptly surrounded by hordes of gum-chewing GIs with guns trained on every window. Their war of attrition was prosecuted by loud American rock music (BAWN in the USA and the like) being directed at the Nunciature round the clock from powerful loudhailer systems.
In insomniacal desperation, the Nuncio contacted the Vatican Secretariat of State, and some high-up there telephoned the US embassy to the Vatican, threatening to send the Sistine Choir to sing under his windows unless the rock music was silenced.
There was tranquillity in Panama within the hour.

The Pope may not have many divisions; but he has got the Sistine Choir!

Tuesday 24 August 2010


Gossip is not infrequently sinful, especially when it does damage.
Gossip can make a delicate situation intractable.
The situation of the so-called 'Birmingham Three' was never a positive one.
But the gossip has already made a bad situation fifty times worse.
It might well all have blown over by now, but for the gossip.
And good people are fanning the flames, though no doubt with the best intentions.

The only justification for this gossip is old tabloid one
(foot in door, microphone in face)
'the public has a right to know'.
No it doesn't!
'we're just giving you the opportunity to give your side of things,
otherwise we'll write what we think'.

This whole business has the devil's hoofmarks all over it.
Far too many good people have been maligned, on all sides.
Enough, already!
I am going to vet comments on this post very strictly.

No Gazebos!

Among the list of banned objects which 'pilgrims' to papal visit locations are forbidden to bring are, bizarrely, gazebos. It's a delightful image, really; thousands of little wooden shelters all around Hyde Park, with people taking tiffin (with their regulation-size coolboxes and approved plastic cutlery) or possibly a strictly non-alcoholic chota peg or two……
Sadly, I imagine they meant those little canvas tents without walls.
I was pleased to see, when walking back to Shoreham along Brighton and Hove sea front the other day a young woman wearing a 'Team Benedict' sweatshirt.

Saturday 21 August 2010

Few things more beautiful

Pope St Pius X

Why did I bother will all that stuff about traffic in the Veneto? Well simply because it caused an interesting detour. From our hotel in Vicenza, city of Palladio, we visited the lovely Bassano del Grappa on our first morning.
Bassano is not a particularly famous tourist destination, but it is worth a visit.
This lovely wooden bridge over the River Brenta has been periodically destroyed by one thing or another, and rebuilt exactly the same each time. It was supposedly designed by Palladio.

And here is one horror I hadn't seen before: not electric candles, but little oil ones, presumably refillable.
We determined to press on to Treviso, but the heat, and the traffic, and the headlights at noon got to us, and so we made a little trip of pietas to Riese, birthplace of Pope St Pius X, whose feastday falls today in the new calendar.

Here is his birthplace, now turned into a museum.

The riposo, or lunchtime break and siesta, had just begun, so the house was closed. But they obligingly left the shutters and windows open, so I was able to take these pictures of inside.

This is the main street, with the church at the end (having the detached campanile so typical of the region) where he was baptised. Being the riposo, there was very little traffic, and soon we returned to Vicenza for our own lunch and riposo.
Treviso will have to await another occasion. I am sure that it is worth waiting for.

Today, Saturday, we celebrate our weekly Extraordinary Form Mass and, since we observe the new calendar (so as to avoid celebrating the Mass of some saints twice and others not at all), I prepared sheets for the people with the propers in English. The Latin texts seemed unfamiliar to me:
Extuli electum de populo, oleo sancto meo unxi eum; ut manus mea sit semper cum eo, et brachium meum confirmet eum. (Introit)
It's from Psalm 88, of course, but then the penny dropped. They had used Pope Pius XIIs new psalter instead of the Vulgate. Regrettable, I suppose, but not inappropriate for the feast day of the Pope who had started the process of liturgical tinkering.

Traffic in the Veneto

The Veneto is horrendously overcrowded. There are 4.8 million people crammed into this little corner, plus about 60 million tourists each year (both statistics from Wikipedia). Even the resident population is greater than the entire Republic of Ireland's (at 4.4 million). You can feel it, too, as you drive the overcrowded single-carriage roads past houses every few yards even in the countryside.
Driving, then is not a positive experience. On the whole, I find Italian drivers do not deserve their reputation. They drive at speed and with little regard for officialdom, but (at least in the north) I found them courteous and good humoured, and very, very alert and skilful. I never felt intimidated or at risk. There are some oddities, however, such as this symbol for a speed camera:

—an old fashioned bobby's helmet, in fact. Funny that that should be such a potent symbol of policing in Italy.
And then there is another curiosity. I should introduce this with a passage from Bill Bryson's Neither Here nor There:
But the most preposterous law of all, a law so pointless as to scamper among the outer margins of the surreal, is the Swedish one that requires motorists to drive with their headlights on during the daytime, even on the sunniest summer afternoon. I would love to meet the guy who thought up that one. He must be head of the Department of Dreariness. It wouldn't surprise me at all if on my next visit to Sweden all the pedestrians are wearing miners' lamps.
I'm afraid, Bill, that there is a law that is even more surreal. The same thing is now law in Italy. The land of sunshine! There we were, pounding up the miles at a steady two miles a fortnight (about as fast as you can go in much of the Veneto, on account of the traffic) in the blazing midday sun with our headlights on!

Thursday 19 August 2010

Slow Posting

Please forgive the slow posting: I have had a small eye operation (successful, Deo gratias), which has temporarily made using the computer slightly difficult. All is gradually resolving itself, so hpeoflly I shuodl be able ot tpye wthuot makking dpelling mistaks beforr too lnog.

Tuesday 10 August 2010

Child abuse—some emerging statistics

William Oddie has commented on the gathering evidence that (in the US, at any rate) the Catholic Church is (and has been) in fact a far safer environment for children than most other institutions that have contact with them.

Monday 9 August 2010


It's a well known thing that few real Venetians live in Venice these days, but have migrated to the mainland and the general hinterland. I have often asked myself how they could bear to do so, but I suppose I can understand that the day-to-day inconveniences (heat, smells, tourists, high prices, having to walk everywhere or take vaporetti or expensive water taxis &c) might overcome any other considerations.
So it was a delight to discover Chioggia. It lies just south of Venice, and is remarkably similar, only unspoilt, untouristy, and on a much smaller scale. They are real locals, too; I arrived on market day and, walking up the crowded main drag, I could barely understand a word: everything was being spoken in the local dialect which sounded a million miles from Italian (which I can get by in).
Here is the little (former) cathedral with its eastward-facing but also people-facing altar that I pictured a few posts back.
And the rather orphaned entrance gate to the main drag, with the market just about to begin on the other side.
It really could be Venice…
couldn't it?
However, unlike Venice, you can drive right into it.

Friday 6 August 2010

Renaissance men and women

I'm not really a philosopher, but I have studied some history. Over on his St Barnabas Blog, Fr Edward Tomlinson has lamented the late-mediæval divorce of spirituality and theology; he rightly notes that St Thomas does not seem to make this division, but says that this happened after his time.
It seems to me that, perhaps, this derives from the introduction of Aristotelian categories into the West. It wasn't all done overnight, but have we not seen, ever since, an ever greater breaking down of disciplines into narrower fields?
When I was a University chaplain, at the all-Science University of Surrey, I used to lament the sheer narrowness of the students' world-view. Without the arts, (or, rather, with arts being done in a rather self-conscious extra-curricular way) the students stood great risk of being, simply quite boring. Few of them enjoyed the subjects they studied for their own sake, and they had no chance to rub shoulders with arts students that might have made life more interesting.
In England and Wales, from the age of 16 or so, our young people are considered broadly-enough educated, and they specialize from then on. First, a lifetime choice between arts or sciences, and then only one subject for a degree from the age of 18. Scotland is much more sensible, as are some Universities in the USA, with broader curricula for longer. What has become here of the notion of the 'renaissance man'?
The Platonic system that preceded the Aristotelian, instead of breaking knowledge down into relatively unrelated parts instead sought to see all of knowledge as essentially one, tending in one direction, drawing its meaning from God Himself. Theology, spirituality, yes and science all increase our knowledge of God, for we study the Wisdom that lies behind it all. And thus it is that theology can also aid science, and music, and everything else.
This is very inchoate, I know, and possibly rubbish. But it seems true this afternoon.

Monday 2 August 2010


The delightful city of Ferrara was dominated for several hundred years by the D'Este family; they were clearly of a nervous disposition, for all their houses were alarmingly fortified. This is their little bijoux pied-á-terre in the middle of Ferrara. The only exception to this rule that I can think of was Cardinal D'Este's wonderful villa outside Rome at Tivoli, with all its spectacular water features.
I was very taken with the Cathedral in Ferrara. Here is the sanctuary; the Bishop's throne is in the traditional place, the altar rails are still there (and, being uninteresting in themselves, and made of wood, they could easily have been removed). The forward altar is of dark wood, and kept unvested when not in use; the high altar, on the other hand, could be used straight away, being fully equipped with cloths, candles and bust reliquaries.
The Blessed Sacrament chapel is beautifully appointed, and is very prayerful, being railed off from the tourists.
And all the side altars are vested and candled, unlike most of the other churches we visited.
In addition, there was a priest in the confessional doing a brisk trade, our Lady's altar was beautifully cared for and much visited……

In short, the Archbishop of Ferrara-Comacchio since 2004, Paolo Rabitti, and the administrator of the Cathedral deserve hearty congratulations for a beautiful, prayerful and Catholic building.

Sunday 1 August 2010

Ten o'clock

When I was a priest in the Oratory at Oxford, I was introduced to the custom of saying the De Profundis, at 10pm every evening, for the repose of the souls of deceased Oratorians. It is a custom I have tried to maintain since. Now I say the De Profundis when the church of St Mary in Shoreham strikes ten, both for the deceased of the Oratory, but now also for the deceased of my parish. A devotion I commend to you.