A reflection on Lent

Thinking about Lent now that it is over, I return to a favourite quote by Oscar Wilde as he suffered his incarceration in the 1890′s:

Reformations in morals are as meaningless and vulgar as Reformations in theology. But while to propose to be a better man is a piece of unscientific cant, to have become a deeper man is the privilege of those who have suffered. And such I think I have become.

To many people, Lent is a time for self-reformation, asceticism, working on a particular fault of character (losing one’s temper too easily for example). Historically, it is the preparation of the Catechumens for Baptism, and by extension, the preparation of the baptised for the renewal of their Christian commitment and the reconciliation of excommunicated public penitents with the Church. Often we do well to be hard on ourselves and gentle on others.

All too often, I’m not hard enough on myself during Lent, and not being in a monastery makes serious fasting and abstinence impractical. When my wife is out at work, I would often do a vegetarian lunch, or simply eat leftovers even if they contained some meat. Fish used to be a cheap substitute for the meat of birds and mammals – no longer. I find fish and shellfish a most enjoyable delicacy, and they cost serious money. Technically you can eat lobster on Good Friday and technically observe the fast and abstinence – but it would be monstrous hypocrisy! Things have changed. Even in monasteries, fasting is adapted to the kind of work a monk does, and I have been doing quite a lot of work in the garden while translating work was scarce. We have to be realistic even if there is a risk of self-justification in our complacency.

Charity and alms-giving? Money is also quite scarce, hard-earned and over-taxed, and it is more rewarding to help people in difficulty directly. My wife helps people with her legal knowledge, and she and I have a friend who needs help with many everyday things because he has psychological difficulties. It seems better to do that than fritter away precious resources for organisations and agencies we don’t know and do little more than collect money and show glossy pictures of hungry people in Africa.

Regularity with prayer and the liturgy? I have to say in all modesty that I haven’t missed a liturgical day, and have treasured the liturgical and biblical texts that guide us through the forty days. We were reminded of our mortality, but above all that the spirit is more important than the letter. Our hearts have to be in it as much as our reasoning faculties. We are reminded about human wickedness such as caused our Lord’s Passion, and meditate on it deeply, lest we should be even worse!

What was more important to me was to work on the shadowy recesses, my whole purpose in life and my vocation. Was the heart I had and have in Christianity ebbing away? It can happen when we are alone spiritually and surrounded only by non-religious friends and colleagues. I looked back at the days of before seminary and many things in life of which I am deeply ashamed and for which I have already been forgiven by God through the ministry of a priest. From being guilt-ridden, I found moments of light and intuition that I felt at the time had to be sacrificed for a deeper Christian commitment and a vocation to the priesthood. I grappled with ideas that penetrated my being as a child, as a boy of twelve or thirteen, and as a student in my late teens. I found a great amount of light when reading about the Romantics and the way they reacted to the inhumanity and madness of the French Revolution and The Machine. The man who lives with his heart and not only his head wrestles with the darkness and anguish of his Sturm und Drang, and returns to nature in a quest for strength, beauty and love. That is me, the kind of person many churchmen see as not very good material for the priesthood of team players and company men!

Indeed, Lent has its deepening and mellowing effect is we are so disposed to get down to the roots and be brutally honest with ourselves. By the time Passiontide arrives, we become heavy and tired, and tempers can fray. I remember some appalling moments at seminary when some normally calm and serene men would fly into a rage. I notice that we all become quieter on the internet in those times, no less now during this Easter Octave! Lent this year seems to have taught me more compassion, as I see where my own failings are and how badly I understood and felt my vocation as a priest. I went through the worst, whilst the TAC as I knew it crumbled around me (I know many commendable efforts are made to rebuild in England, South Africa, the USA and elsewhere) and I had only to see my own failings to know why I wasn’t Ordinariate material. I didn’t even bother to apply. I express again my gratitude to Bishop Damien Mead for having me in his Diocese in the Anglican Catholic Church.

A great theme to meditate upon through Lent is not only our mortality – we won’t live forever on this earth and we won’t take our possessions with us – but also our capacity for evil and sin. It is also a face-to-face with ourselves in our failures and loss of innocence. It is when we are faced with this reality that we can begin to rebuild with the resources we already have within us. We can’t replay our lives like winding back a tape and pressing “play” again. But, we can find many things in our secret gardens and treasure chests we thought we had lost. Failure in the Roman Catholic priestly vocation caused me to look back and discover that nothing is lost. This is why I have decided to revive my desire to compose music, reigniting it little by little with short and simple pieces, and seeing how far I can go. It goes with my sailing, another childhood dream from Swallows and Amazons and my beloved English Lake District. These things are bringing humanity and warmth back to a priestly vocation that seems so useless to others!

That is one lesson I learned in the Roman Catholic Church, which is weaker in the Anglican tradition. Not all priests are parish pastors with the cure of souls. Perhaps in earlier days, I would have liked to be a country priest with not so much to do as I wouldn’t be able to live a contemplative life. I know the reality here in France, and it is no life for a sensitive human being! The medieval Catholic tradition sees the priest as a contemplative as well as a pastor and teacher. A couple of days ago, I wrote about Don Lorenzo Perosi who spent most of his life in poor health, often in great spiritual difficulties, but who rivalled Puccini as one of the greatest Italian composers of his time. He said his Mass each day and spent several hours in prayer. Franz Liszt was not a priest but was in minor orders and presumably lived a spiritual life as a Romantic musician. Dom Odo Casel was a Benedictine monk who spent many years as a chaplain to a community of nuns. He had time to study and write his beautiful books on liturgical theology and the Christliche Kultmysterium. Some have written to me asking why I put so much into a blog rather than being “out there” as a religious salesmen peddling my wares or running a parish. Many of us are useless servants, yet living our priestly vocations in a different way.

I would love to be more involved with the training of priests and education, with liturgical studies and promoting the old Sarum Use and other local rites, and above all for promoting Christian culture and art. That wish may become a reality in England as well as my life with so many people alienated from churches and priests. It is in this way that the fire can be kept alive and fuelled with God’s love.

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Beauty and Religion

Hat tip to Deborah Gyapong as she found another article inspiring. So do I.

The person in question is particularly interested in the cinema. Indeed, it is frustrating to see a great film only to find that a portrayal of a priest or liturgical ceremony is totally wrong – simply because they didn’t have the right advisor. There is no excuse, because some films about churchmen are excellent, for example The Cardinal made back in 1963. I love good films as much as anyone else, but there are also other aspects of art and beauty both inside and outside the Church’s liturgy.

I say it another another time, that we who are sensitive to these things need to take our distance from the “world” as the monks do. I do use modern gadgets and machines – I can’t avoid them, but I keep as much distance as possible. Another thing is to keep out of towns as much as possible and close to nature. At the kind time, we have to be open to people and kind, not scowling or aloof. The balance is difficult to find.

For artists, there is scarcely any outlet for art and human sensitivity. I spent some years in my late teens and early twenties as a church organist, wherever the priest and people in charge of the parish had some aesthetic sensitivity in those brutalist days of the 1970′s (perhaps less brutalist than now). Since then, I have discovered the joy of making music outside church in chamber group singing and composing music for this kind of work. I have just completed another miniature of a setting of a stanza by the poet John Keats to go with In pace in idipsum for our concert next December. I hope also to do a song or two for my wife with piano accompaniment. Keep it small and simple, and it has a chance of getting performed!

As a young layman in the Church of England, most of my churchgoing was in cathedrals unless I was playing the organ, directing a choir or singing in a parish. Most parish churches, face it, are somewhat pedestrian and tedious. I found it that much worse in the Roman Catholic Church and even in some of the traditionalist places doing the old liturgy.

People need to be encouraged to soar high in whatever they have the talent to do. It is something to do with what Jung called individuation – learning to be ourselves and accept our difficulties. Most art involves a degree of acquired technique, but the basis has to be there in the first place, together with a determination to work hard and do our stuff – actually complete and achieve something. We can start small to build up our self-confidence, then we find out what we can do, and build on that. This is something I found with composition. I had no self-confidence and remained “blocked” for so many years. I’m sure the stuff I am producing wouldn’t stand up to the critics, since I “lack originality” in my Renaissance and post-Romantic sensitivities. I don’t care, if I give something beautiful to those able to receive it.

Indeed, any art is hard work, grit and self-discipline – rather like Lent in the Christian life. We need to be scoured out and get rid of the non-essential to find our true selves. That is true humility, not the kind of negativeness one often finds in spiritual writers.

Film making is an art too, but not one I know anything about. It has its acquired techniques and the flair of a born cinema producer. My own talents don’t lie there.

Deborah Gyapong quotes:

I think of the loss of the sense of the beautiful as one of the great heresies in the Church in the modern age. It has been devastating particularly because it undermines all of our efforts at evangelization. What good does it do to tell people that the Holy Spirit is Wisdom and Power in a hymn or movie that is lame and pedestrian?

Indeed, that is so right. If I were not a priest, I don’t know what I would do in the way of going to church (mine is the only ACC place of worship in this country). Perhaps I would go to a monastery, though nothing but Gregorian chant is gruelling, especially in the Dom Gajard / Mlle Denise Lebon tradition! What does someone do when there is more spirituality in secular music than in the churches? Perhaps that is how others feel about my odd way of celebrating Mass, otherwise they would be coming in droves. They don’t. Many of the things “they” like just kill me! That’s life…

There is not only the beauty produced by human art. There is also the natural world beloved of so many generations of Romantics and sensitive souls. We have the sea, the mountains, the forests and deserts, all depending on which parts of the world we live in. I have the soaring chalk cliffs and the English Channel, very similar to England’s south coast, except with the wind coming “the other way” – and a sailing boat to enjoy it all. Philistines are often insensitive to nature and respecting the environment.

We are now out of Lent and in what the Eastern Orthodox call Bright Week. Perhaps some of us could work on our writing skills, buy some tubes of paint, canvas and easel and some paintbrushes – and try it, and persevere. I am sure that many of you readers once played the piano or the violin in far-off days, and the instrument lies idle in your homes. We are each and every one responsible for resisting the culture of i-pads and mobile phones that do everything except make tea! Even with bashing away on a keyboard, just as I’m doing now, we can begin to wonder if we could write by hand any longer or even read a book! It is up to us.

I would love to read some comments from people deciding to take something up, do what they wanted to do as children, having the courage to do something about it.

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La Risurrezione di Cristo

Yesterday, I sang the praises of that great Italian musician and churchman Don Lorenzo Perosi. As we enter the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey, one of the Old Testament figures of the Transitus Domini, I present you one of Perosi’s greatest works, La Risurrezione di Cristo which is sung in Latin to biblical and liturgical texts. This is rather a nice performance by the Cappella Musicale del Duomo di Modena.

It makes a difference to hear an Italian orchestra playing in tune, and for the performance not to be insipid as is often the case! The young conductor really knows what he is doing – hats off!

This is a playlist of several clips, so you need to click on this link to hear it on Youtube.

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O Filii et Filiae

I wish you all a happy and glorious Easter in the joy of the Risen One. This setting of O Filii et Filiae is taken from the monumental oratorio of Franz Liszt, Christus. Like the peace and reverence of the Mass of Christmas, we enter the mystery of the empty tomb still in the darkness of the night, and the euphoria has not yet hit us. We approach with faith and quietness, still stunned and finding things difficult to believe as we lived through the bitter moments of the Passion in our prayer. This is the mystery of the Resurrection.

Tomorrow morning, as is the Sarum custom, I will be taking the Blessed Sacrament (third host consecrated on Maundy Thursday) from the Easter Sepulchre to put it in its exalted place above the altar of the chapel – in the hanging pyx. The cross of Good Friday will also be taken from its burial place.

This is indeed a moving moment of the Church’s year. It took the whole length of Septuagesimatide, Lent and Passiontide to get to this moment. Let us treasure it.

The Lord is truly risen! Alleluia!

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Don Lorenzo Perosi

perosiYou might not know the music of Lorenzo Perosi (1872-1956) (more detailed article in Italian) who was an extremely gifted composer in the great Italian operatic tradition. However, he never composed operas. Giacomo Puccini is quoted as saying that “C’è più musica nella testa di Perosi che in quella mia e di Mascagni messe insieme” – There’s more music in Perosi’s head than in mine and Mascagni’s put together. I see great similarities in style between Perosi and Puccini in their use of chromaticism and the idiom of late nineteenth-century Romanticism.

His output ranges from the monumental oratorio Mosè that runs for more than two hours to little pieces of church music that are well within the capabilities of ordinary church choirs. La Risurrezione di Cristo is a great favourite of mine, and I remember listening to it many times when I was a seminarian in Rome in 1985-86. Youtube is quite generous for pieces by Perosi. Today is Good Friday, and I recommend listening to his Passion of St Mark.

The Wikipedia article observes that Perosi was succeeded as director of the Sistine Choir by Monsignor Domenico Bartolucci. I have seen Bartolucci direct his choir at masses celebrated by John Paul II in the 1980′s, and have wrinkled my nose many times on hearing them, used as I am to English choral music. The Italians are great musicians and singers, but their choirs are rather “ropey” to say the least! It is interesting to learn that Bartolucci blames Perosi for the deterioration of Church music.

Perosi was part of a scheme by Pius X at the beginning of the twentieth century to restore Gregorian chant and polyphonic music in the liturgy. He took a great interest in Gregorian chant and collaborated in the movement around the Abbey of Solesmes. The study of Gregorian chant continues, and the work of the nineteenth-century Benedictine monks did not have the last word. To this day, there is quite a difference between Solesmes and Fontgombault continuing to use the old Solesmes method. I used this method myself when I was briefly in charge of music at the seminary of Gricigliano after giving myself a crash course in Gregorian chant.

Musicians often have a hard time with the clergy. Perosi seems to have glided through the system and was in the right place at the right time, in charge of music in Venice and protected by Cardinal Giuseppe Sarto who became Pope Pius X in 1903. We know that Pius X was someone we cannot conveniently diabolise. On one hand he was anathematising Romantic souls like Tyrrell and Von Hügel as Modernists, but on the other hand, he was a man of great pastoral sensitivity and love of beauty.

English church musicians need to be aware of the various movements in continental Europe, especially in Italy, France and Germany.

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The Future of Music

I have been involved in music for most of my life, mostly organ and choral music. Since then, my tastes in listening have broadened, and I tend to have a great affection for chamber music. My tastes have refined over the years from the grandiose to the intimate. This has happened in many aspects of my life.

Composition? I have succeeded in producing very little because I have felt blocked by the “establishment” and their “orthodoxy”. I studied harmony and counterpoint in musicology at school, and we analysed Mozart symphonies in very much the same way as poetry in our English literature classes. Music has harmony, melody, counterpoint and form. It is a language with its own grammar, vocabulary and literature. At the age of 16, I wrote an organ piece and since lost the only handwritten copy I had. I did a little motet on Videntes stellam for the Epiphany. More recently, I made the effort to overcome my “composer’s block” and wrote a setting of In pace in ipsum. I cannot deny it – I identify with neo-Romanticism from the beginning of the twentieth century, in more ways than only in music.

Are we not flogging dead horses, writing always in the same idiom until nothing original can be produced? Are there no more than twenty-six letters in the Latin alphabet as used for English, and yet we continue to write new things?

With extreme chromaticism in Germany towards the end of the nineteenth century, the break came in 1912 when Arnold Schönberg devised the idea of breaking totally with harmony. Thus we had atonal music, composed outside the rules of melody, harmony and counterpoint. As one person said to me in the 1970′s – “You need new ears for new music”. There was a book called Ear Cleaning designed to convert listeners and music students to atonal music. Atonal music sounds like something chaotic and random. It is noise without any order or law. I personally believe that this is not a matter of taste, but of objective laws. As the twentieth century wound on and the last of the Romantics had died (Rachmaninov in the 1940′s? Vaughan Williams in 1958? Herbert Howells in 1983?), atonality began to be imposed as an “orthodoxy”.

I am one of those who believe that the future of music depends on a return to melody and harmony. Some might see a “movement”, but I see it as something similar to Romanticism. Some of those men knew each other and were friends, but each had the attitude “be everything and join nothing”. Each of us is best on his own in these matters.

Like Romanticism, composers of tonal music situate themselves in a distinctive philosophy of life. It goes from a belief in objective beauty based on natural law, form, laws governing harmony and the use of dissonance and chromaticism. At school, we learn about melody and counterpoint, tension, suspension and resolution. A composer may take many years in finding and developing his personal style.

Tonality is based on the relationship between the notes that make up an octave (a given sound frequency and half or double the sound wave frequency number in Hertz). There are seven notes in an octave and the octave of the given note is the eighth. The relationship between those notes, where the tones and semitones occur, is called a mode. In medieval music and Gregorian chant, there are eight modes. In modern music, there are two: major and minor. From the eighteenth century, as music was written in a greater number of keys, instruments began to be tuned in equal temperament, the Pythagorean comma being divided by the twelve chromatic notes in the scale and made tolerable to the ear. At the same time, pieces of music could change keys as they progressed. This is called modulation, generally between the dominant, the sub-dominant and the relative minor, though special types of modulation came in during the nineteenth century like enharmonic modulation. In this way, there was a true development, as everything became more complex. All the same, a piece kept its main key and would almost always begin and end in the tonic of that key.

This was the tendency of the nineteenth century in everything. Go over the edge or rediscover simplicity and minimalism. As the twentieth century progressed, tonal composers have been marginalised and ostracised. Such composers were condemned to writing for the cinema or television, as was Vaughan Williams.

Atonal “orthodoxy” is being seriously challenged by composers with similar ideas in life to those of the Romantics. The great challengers were minimalists like Avro Pärt, whose music is of great sensitivity and beauty. The idea is not to return to nineteenth-century music, but to reinstate melody and harmony.

The greatest objection by atonalists to “traditional” music is the risk of pastiche, one era imitating another. This has been another cause of my own “composer’s block” and inability to venture into composition. I have called many things into question in my life. My singing teacher had a kind word to say, that we cannot reject our cultural history and tradition. Mine is English church music. Like Romanticism, we are called to live our identity whilst living in our time – not imitating the past but learning from it. The only way to learn composition now is to be self-taught, after a classical musical education in “techniques”.

After that, is is hard slog and occasional “inspiration”, and the reward of performing a piece and finding it enjoyed by others who love music.

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In pace in idipsum

For this Good Friday, I offer you my musical setting of the text In pace in idipsum, which is sung at the Burial of Christ at the end of the Mass of the Presanctified in the Use of Sarum. Our quartet begun to work on it today, and we intend doing more rehearsals to get it right.

Here is a recording I made today just to give an idea. It is, as would be expected, quite ropey and excruciating in places, because the parts are not yet acquired, and we need to do a lot more work on the balance and dynamics of the piece. This is the best I can do for now.

I begin with a short and peaceful homophonic responsory. The verse is sung in a simple fugue-like counterpoint, and is repeated for the Gloria Patri (the Gloria Patri is not sung during the Triduum). I end the piece with an extremely sober coda and a plagal cadence. Here is the score in pdf format. Readers are free to copy and perform it as they want – I just ask them not to plagiarise or claim the composition is theirs.

We will resume work in May, and I’ll do another recording when we get it right.

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