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