People make assumptions about how other people think, and then influence the zeitgeist by broadcasting their findings. There is a circularity to this rule of thumb which is ultimately sterile, but which takes some deconstructing. One of the current such verities is that sacred music in worship is of no wide cultural relevance, either because it’s too clever and boring (polyphony), or too stupid and boring (folk masses): anyway it can be of no interest to anyone except fanatics.
This is not a thought about the secular achievements of groups like the Tallis Scholars, but of the gradual revival of good singing in the Catholic church in recent years. Two events have shown the way: the music which accompanied Pope Benedict’s recent visit to Australia; and the remarkable, if largely unnoticed, push in France to found choir-schools (or maîtrises).
The music list for the pope’s visit to Sydney was an eye-opener. Apparently the local clergy had proposed the usual dog’s dinner of ecumenically safe big-hearted tunes, sung by one community choir after another, until the Vatican intervened. When the pope’s choice was known, one commentator (Noel Debien of St Francis, Paddington) wrote: ‘there were gasps of horrified surprise from 1970’s catholic liturgy-lovers (who prefer “Kumbayah, my Lord” and “Leaving on a jet plane”)’ as Victoria’s Missa Vidi speciosam and Palestrina’s motet Tu es Petrus (‘a look of bliss’ escaped the pontiff as it began) were sung liturgically. Also performed by papal command were the Gregorian Propers for the day, including ‘Introibo ad altar Dei’ as the procession reached the sanctuary. The motet at the procession of gifts (sung by a massed youth choir) was Mendelssohn’s ‘Sehet, welch eine Liebe’, sung in German, a fact which further inconvenienced the 70’s radicals. There are those who pray that Obama will not be shot; and there are those who pray that the pope will not die of old age any time soon.
The improving choral scene in France is little trumpeted in Britain, possibly because it has taken a leaf out of our own book. The first of the modern foundations was masterminded by a Briton, Robert Weddle, in Caen in 1987. Edward Higginbottom helped with the establishment of a similar enterprise in Versailles a few years later. These set the scene for a series of initiatives which spread about the country like Vatican II couldn’t be undone fast enough. Not all of these resulted in new schools – some went no further than to channel existing resources towards the ideal of better choral singing in the liturgy; but in some cities serious sums of money, sometimes donated by France Télécom, have been found to kick-start a new tradition. In Nantes, for example, the cathedral maîtrise was opened in October 2007. Others, like the ones in Paris, Strasbourg, Dijon, Rennes and a host of other cities speak in their blurbs of a life which pre-dates Napoleon, but in fact have recently overhauled themselves in the face of changing priorities.
The current French scene, which is evolving fast at the moment, originally had nothing to do with the pope’s enthusiasms but resulted from an instinctive and widespread sense that enough had been enough. Not for the first time in the history of sacred music has a period of populism in worship been replaced by a renewed desire for sheer beauty, which in the catholic church has tended to mean a return to singing chant and Palestrina. However, unlike the last time this happened – in the early 19th century – the vastly superior standards of modern concert hall performances of this repertoire now set a bench-mark which the cathedral choirs cannot ignore. The hope is that in time the French cathedral choirs, like our own, will not only be singing to fanatics.
This article also appears in the Spectator in the issue dated 14th February 2009.