Here are some personal thoughts on my work and experiences in Sacred Music over the last fifteen years in Europe.
I would like to say from the outset that music is for ever developing and does not stagnate and I am convinced it is important to be open to new movements in the creative process. Gregorian chant was also a new style at one stage that could have appeared threatening to people and the same Im sure could have been said for polyphony.
My plea has been for a balance and a spirit of openness to our living treasure trove of 1500 years of Sacred Music and at the same time encourage modern day composers to be creative in such away that they maintain the links to the masters of the past who have indeed passed the test of time with flying colours.
If we look at the composers of the past their compositions are connected to the heritage of music and can be compared to beautiful golden necklace or string of exquisite cultured pearls. Some definitely were challenging and seemed to break the rules of convention and set new standards such as Bach, Mozart and Verdi. However there is literally a visible link that remains in all of their compositions.
I believe that by studying the history of Christian liturgical music in its entirety we can achieve an understanding to be able to then recognise and integrate what is truly authentic sacred music so as to include the music of African and other cultures which is indeed the cradle of humanity and much of our music. There has to be a consensus in assessing what is appropriate sacred music for the liturgy.
I have often felt the real victims in the liturgical music drama of the last 40 years have been these poor composers who simply dedicated the best years of their creative life to the cause of sacred music. Many composers throughout our musical history were people of deep faith: such as Gounod and Bach and others, not necessarily conventional, such as Giuseppe Verdi and Johannes Brahms. Why should they be punished?
With the retirement of Fr Bartolucci the standard of music performance within the major open air liturgies in Rome sadly deteriorated. The main problem was the out of tune singing by the good sister with the penetrating voice who ran the peoples choir for the big liturgies on the piazza plus the acoustic problems caused by amplification in such a large space. Also the coordination of the two choirs in the singing, for example Credo III, seemed to run into problems of synchronisation and intonation.
With the death of Pope John Paul II whereby Cardinal Ratzinger was the Dean of the College of Cardinals and principal celebrant at all the masses there was in my opinion a dramatic improvement in the quality of music performance and selection of repertoire. Since then things have improved even further.
The comments by Fr Bartolucci are very interesting and I agree that it is time to return to the source of our heritage in Sacred Music.
I realised this yet again, as I stood on the Piazza of St Peters for the large mass after the death of Pope JP II on that Sunday morning. The common was the famous Missa de Angelis which is still well known by the faithful in Rome and it was a moving experience standing amongst people from many nations singing our profession of faith in one language together.
This is why it is so important to rediscover our heritage that we have in the Latin language as it unites us all as Catholics and transcends all national boundaries and languages.
I think it would be wrong to just throw everything out from the last 40 years as was the fate suffered by great Church music after the 2nd Vatican Council and there must be a balance.
Some aspects are now a fact of life such as the guitar and from personal experience I always made sure that they were firstly in tune and played well and then only decent modern repertoire was performed within the mass.
What should be reversed as soon as possible is the revised inclusive English language translation of ancient and much loved hymns that took place some 20 odd years ago. If certain lobbies want hymns that contain inclusive language they should then write and compose their own and not interfere with beautiful and much loved hymns that have stood the test of time simply in the name of being progressive.
There were several references in the interview to the world of Sacred Music in Germany including its outstanding choral tradition both Catholic and Protestant which is something I have been privileged to experience and perform within in the liturgy and in Sacred Music concerts and oratorio for many years.
In Germany I have been able to appreciate the benefits of living in a society where art, music and sports all walk hand in hand. It is not uncommon to meet people who patronise both the weekend soccer game and the opera on the same evening.
The importance of oratorio and related styles in the cultural life of Europe
Choral life flourishes in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Every normal sized village has at least two choirs for men and women and two brass bands. Oratorio is an intrinsic part of culture particularly in Germany and Austria. An Oratorio is an orchestral work for choir and soloists based on a sacred them such as Handels Messiah or Elijah by Mendelssohn.
Over a period of fifteen years of professional engagements I have only sung to packed churches and concert halls irrespective of the season.
In cities such as Munich, Stuttgart, Hamburg and Vienna a large number of professional performances take place, which are basically scheduled according to the Christian calendar. Sacred music, especially in the form of orchestral masses and cantatas, plays an important role in the liturgical and cultural life of many middle to larger cities.
In the northern parts of Germany, the emphasis is strongly directed towards the great Protestant composers such as J. S. Bach, H. Schtz, G. F. Telemann and Brahms to mention only a few. In the southern areas, both the "Sddeutsche Meister The Southern German Masters" are performed i.e., Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven (Der Wiener Klassik The Viennese Classical School) and Schubert, along with the Protestant composers already mentioned. As a result of the huge displacement of people caused by the effects of World War II, the traditional religious borders have changed considerably.
The focal point of a performance in oratorio must be the work itself and the intention of the composer, e.g., a Bach Passion. The performers are then part of an ensemble and one can often feel a sense of equality among the soloists and choir during a performance of one of these great works. Some solo parts are more exposed still no individual part should be greater than the whole. A soloist may have a more beautiful voice and a better aria to sing than the other colleagues still this is not as important as all the soloists working together as a team to present the work as honestly and as beautifully as possible so as to uplift the hearts and minds of the listener. One can learn to appreciate these necessary attributes by studying the life of a person such as J. S. Bach and his Lutheran outlook on sacred music.
The themes in oratorio are mainly concerned with God the creator, the ultimate virtues and the yearning of humanity to grasp the eschatological mysteries of life; i.e., all matters relating to the final things: death, resurrection, immortality, judgement, the second coming of Christ and the eternal reign of God. This does not imply that one has to be a strict believer of a certain religion to give a good and faithful rendition of a particular work. Ideally the artist needs to be sensitive towards the subject of the composition itself enabling one to perform with feeling and sincerity. It is desirable to be able to transcend our worldly wants and daily humdrum and aspire to the positive virtues of life.
Our General Music Director Zubin Metha, who is not of the Christian faith, conducted an outstanding performance of the Quattro Pezzi Sacri-Four Sacred Pieces of Giuseppe Verdi. Zubin Metha is a member of the Parsi religion who follows the teachings of the prophet Zarathustra. Zubin Mehta will sadly leave us on July 31st to become chief of the newly built opera house of Valencia in Spain. He has indeed a great love for Sacred Music which he learned playing at Sunday masses during his student days in Vienna.