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Online Edition: October 2011

Vol. XVII, No. 7

New Liturgical Music Institute Honors Blessed John Henry Newman

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

Institute at Birmingham Oratory will aid parishes in organizing sacred music programs

The first anniversary of the beatification of Blessed John Henry Newman saw the launch of a welcome initiative in England — a new institute for study and instruction in liturgical music.

On Saturday, September 17, the Blessed John Henry Newman Institute for Liturgical Music opened at the Oratory, Birmingham, England. It is the project of the Fathers of the Birmingham Oratory in association with the Maryvale Institute, under the joint patronage of Archbishop Bernard Longley of Birmingham and Catholic composer James MacMillan.

The purpose of the institute is to promote sound doctrinal and liturgical formation in music for the benefit of parishes. It will conduct study mornings and evenings designed to promote the music associated with the new translation of the Mass.

In his inaugural address, Oratorian Father Guy Nicholls, director of the Blessed John Henry Newman Institute of Liturgical Music, began by noting that the founder of the Birmingham Oratory, Cardinal Newman, “is better known in the modern world as an educationalist, writer, theologian and philosopher than as a musician and liturgist”. In fact he was also an active musician and violinist, who taught plainsong to school children, and he also organized and sometimes conducted the choir at the oratory.

Father Nicholls described the objectives of the new institute:

In the first place, we want to help as many people as possible, priests and laity, musicians and congregations, to come to know and use freely, the resources of what the Second Vatican Council Fathers called “the Treasury of Sacred Music”, and described as “a treasure of inestimable price”.

“This needs explaining”, he continued. “In what does such a treasury consist? It is not simply the sum total of everything musical ever composed for, or used in, the Liturgy. The Council makes explicit that it is talking here principally about two kinds of music: first, as ‘proper to the Roman liturgy’, Gregorian Chant, which should therefore have first place in liturgical actions; then secondly other types of sacred music, but especially polyphony”.

Participation in singing the Mass

The Council’s stress on “actuosa participatio”, active — or, better, actual — participation by the congregation, means more than constant activity, he explained. It means “participating at a deep level through being caught up in the entire experience of what is going on, and of which he is not a mere spectator, but a member of a body involved in an action which both unites and transcends all the individual persons present”. And he pointed out that one of the principal ways in which people participate is through singing the words of the Mass. “Singing the words of the liturgy enhances their power to thrill us, to move us, to mould us into a living unity in the Body of Christ”, Father Nicholls observed. He continued:

The sacred texts of the Mass are an expression of a reality that is far deeper than we can know, but we can touch it, we can express it, we can enhance our receptivity to it by the power of the music that belongs intrinsically to it.

It is a wonderful providence that the setting up of this new Institute of Liturgical Music should take place at the same time as the introduction of the new English translation of the Roman Missal. Many comments have been made concerning the character of the translation, and it is still unfamiliar to most of us. But what we need to note here are two central facts which are being presented to us by this new translation.

New texts promote singing the Mass

The first fact, Father Nicholls noted, is that “there is a new kind of expressiveness about the texts. They are richer in vocabulary, and more elaborate in sentence structure than were the old ICEL texts”, he said.

This obviously poses an initial challenge since these characteristics are in marked and deliberate contrast to those of the old ICEL texts.

Yet I am confident that we will find that these qualities lend the new texts a greater power to convey a sense of the awesome difference between what we hear and say at Mass, and what we hear and say in everyday life and conversations.

They come across as more lapidary, almost like inscriptions incised on stone, rather than as words simply used on the spur of the moment. This means that the liturgy will no longer sound, as it often has done, colloquial, even chatty. It is raised to what is technically called a higher “register”, a level of discourse that reflects and draws us into a higher state of communication.

The liturgy, after all, transcends the limits of time and space and unites us with the angels and saints around God’s throne. The language that we use in it must therefore reflect that awesome context in which we place ourselves in the celebration of the Liturgy.

The second fact central to understanding the intended effect of the new translation on our worship, is the direct encouragement given to us to sing these texts.

As Monsignor [Andrew] Wadsworth, the executive director of ICEL, has pointed out, the new Missal is the most musically well-endowed in history. The texts of the Mass: greetings, prayers, acclamations, readings, meditations on the sacred word, all these are intended to be sung. This intention is made clear in the fact that all these musical settings are placed, not in an appendix at the back of the book, as frequently heretofore, but in the body of the book, exactly where it is used day by day.

This may well frighten some people. Music, they may say, is for the experts, for the choir or the music group, but not for the priest, deacon, lector, or even the entire congregation. Some may object that it is simply too difficult or too unfamiliar, but if you look closely at the Missal without prejudice, it is possible to see that the music written there is not designed to be sung by experts, but by anybody. It is designed to be an ordinary and familiar expression of the faith of the Church in action. It may seem unfamiliar at first, because we have long since grown to be unfamiliar with the idea of singing the Mass, as opposed to singing during the Mass. What the Church invites us to do in receiving the new translation is to learn to recognize it as something “beyond the prosaic”. Music, even very simple chants, helps to achieve that end.

Father Nicholls told the audience that the principal aim of the Blessed John Henry Newman Institute is the enhancement of parish liturgy through its music. The sung liturgy is not confined to professional choirs alone, and great musical expertise is not required. “What is needed”, he said, “is the desire to raise the mind and heart to God by celebrating the Liturgy itself in the most dignified and elevated way possible with the resources available”, he said.

“Music must be the servant of the liturgy and of the whole Church gathered together in God’s presence”, Father Nicholls observed, and the institute hopes “to help bring about a deeper understanding of what good liturgical music is, and how to perform it. We hope to offer guidance to all those who are interested in knowing more about the history and forms of liturgical music in the Catholic Roman liturgy”.

More information on the institute’s web site: oratorymusic.org.uk.

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