On Choral Music in Worship

I was brought up as a Roman Catholic. My parents endeavoured to give me every opportunity to be exposed to a vast range of music, strongly encouraging our explorations, be they rock or classical music. In school the main exposure to singing was musical drama in the form of Gilbert and Sullivan with a few hymns in unison at every church service. It is understandable, therefore, that when my first exposure to sacred choral music at last arrived at age nineteen in University College Dublin Chamber Choir, it was like being hit with a mallet on the head.

I clearly remember my first rehearsal. We sang two songs, “Christus Factus Est” by Anerio and “O Sacrum Convivium” by Messiaen. Suddenly much was made clear to me. Maybe this was why people still spoke fondly of the extinct Latin Mass, with its remote and mysterious ceremony? It also helped explain to me why services were structured as they are. Music wasn’t simply a chance for the congregation to sing together, rather it was a series of sonic sign-posts angled towards illumination of the underlying spiritual truth of the service.

The Latin language, with its soft and non-percussive sound, had a natural affinity to the music that it was carried by. Later I discovered the music of Tallis, Gibbons and Byrd, being struck by the beauty of the harmonic language and the mellifluous use of the less-musical English language. Simple, direct statements of belief were woven into a powerful lattice of spiritual affirmation. Exposure to more recent music written for the Church today plainly showed that composers were acutely aware of their musical ancestry and quite capable of working within the practical constraints of service structures and the capabilities of the performing groups that they composed for. Indeed, the love of singing contemporary music among the better choral groups was a great pleasure to behold, even if much of the music demanded skills that were just on the edge of what the singers were capable of.

With respect to my Roman Catholic upbringing, I had rarely understood how the odd hymn here or there and the simplistic one-line responses and calls in the vernacular could compare to the carefully constructed musical structures that I participated in while singing in my first Church of Ireland services.  It irritated me that much of what was musically beautiful in the pre-Vatican II church had simply been consigned to performance repertoire, rarely heard within its originally conceived context.

Sometimes I felt like a starved man who eats as much as possible very quickly, deputising and singing at the two major Church of Ireland Cathedrals in Dublin, St. Patrick’s and Christ Church Cathedrals as often as I could. I sang for free at weddings, funerals, services – anything I was asked to do simply to experience this music in the context of its original conception.

By this time I was beginning to compose on a regular basis. Although the main thrust of my composition was towards the development of a new form of Irish choral music, I was consistently drawn to spiritual texts. Two early efforts I wrote for competitions organised for use in the Church of Ireland service were “Codhlaim go Súan I’d Chroí” (I Sleep Softly in Your Heart) and the anthem “Come Let us Sing” the former for a competition to find an anthem in the Irish language and the latter a setting of a more traditional Church text. This work eventually gave rise to my “Celtic Mass”, a combination of texts in Latin and Irish on diverse texts. Latterly my spiritual output has included the four “Tenebrae Responsories”, a “Missa Brevis” for St David’s Cathedral in Wales and a diverse collection of individual sacred works that include my “Agnus Dei” which was commissioned by the American choir Chanticleer in 2006 for their five-composer project “And on Earth, Peace: a Chanticleer Mass”.

Despite it being nearly thirty years since I was so profoundly influenced by this music, it continues to be a part of my life. I attend regularly at Saint Bartholomew’s Church in Dublin which has a fine and ambitious musical programme. I believe that the power generated by community singing of good quality has a ripple effect on the entirety of society. This music and literature has survived because it is simultaneously functional and art. It is important to bear in mind that composers who have written this music for over a millennium have done so with a desire to articulate their own spiritual ideas while transmitting genuine and heart-felt insight to a congregation. I now realise why this music has influenced and affected me the way it has. Choral music in worship can bring congregation, singer and composer together in a unique and wonderful way. The power of this should never be underestimated.

This article appears in the magazine Soundboard, Winter 2011

8 thoughts on “On Choral Music in Worship

  1. Beautifully put Michael–a great summary of why choral worship is so important in a church service, no matter the era. It is beautifully illuminating and deeply spiritual at the same time.

  2. Really love this, Michael. Growing up in the evangelical tradition in America, I’ve seen the idea of music as an artistic expression of the soul’s greater connection to the almighty God abandoned in favor of a style that, for lack of a better word, is largely commercial.

    I will take issue not with your statement, but with your choice of the words “less musical” to describe the English language. Having just completed a two year project in writing on the songs of Gerald Finzi, I would suggest that the English language be one that is less lyrical, but no less musical than any other. I thoroughly enjoy your work!

    God bless!

  3. Beautifully put, Michael. We in America have lost much as church services have become more about performance and entertainment. It’s a shame that we generally don’t appreciate the power and connection of the older hymns and songs, especially the great wealth of music that has come out of the Catholic Church.

  4. Mr. McGlynn, this is such a lovely reflection. I’m the senior editor for “On Being” a nationally broadcast public radio program in the United States. We’d love to republish and share your commentary with our audiences online. If you’re willing, please feel free to contact me at tgilliss@onbeing.org.

    All the best in the new year!

  5. This was my experience on stumbling into an Anglo-Catholic Episcopal church, in 1983, and why I have become and remain a committed Episcopalian. I have found what is for me the most resonant combination of glorious classical music, and thoughtful, progressive yet orthodox theology and social outreach.

  6. “Choral music in worship can bring congregation, singer and composer together in a unique and wonderful way. The power of this should never be underestimated.” So true!!
    BTW, I’m not sure what the situation is in Europe, but in the United States there has been an amazing resurgence of people attending the Tridentine (pre-Vatican II Latin) Masses, particularly in urban areas and among young adults. In fact, in my parish youth choir, we sang several Renaissance Masses (yes, actually at Mass!) and other works by Palestrina, de Pres, Tallis, etc.
    Another Mass form, called the Novus Ordo, is also growing in popularity in the US. It has the Liturgy of the Word in the vernacular (so people can understand the Bible readings) and the Liturgy of the Eucharist in Latin. Anyway, don’t worry about the Latin Mass being extinct – it’s being celebrated more and more over here, and who knows – maybe it’ll make a comeback in Ireland too! 🙂

  7. Just read your wonderful article. Couldn’t agree more. I grew up in the Church of Ireland tradition and have sung as a choral soprano since I was 12 years old. I know how blessed I am. Singing, and especially singing sacred choral music, is my absolute passion. It feeds me, mind, body and spirit. From Tallis through to more modern composers like Flor Peters [whom no one else has heard of and I adore] I love it all. I’m drawn particularly to minor harmonies. Anuna is my favourite choir and I was very blessed to have Eimear Quinn who sang with you as a vocal coach for a while. The last Choral Festival for Church of Ireland choirs took place in St Bartholomew’s with a workshop and then performance of Faure’s Requiem. Joy! So looking forward to hearing you all sing at the NCH this Thursday night.

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