We’re honored to publish this guest article by FATHER ROBBIE LOW, a Catholic priest serving in Cornwall (England), about two hours from TRURO, where a famous hymn tune was written which will be familiar to many of our readers.
Y EXPERIENCE of liturgical music began during my time at Anglican Seminary in Cambridge in the 1970s. There Plainsong was holding on by its fingertips and, as a new convert to Christianity, I was amazed to find the growing tendency to replace the beautiful and heart lifting with the banal and settings of the ‘Mass’ that were increasingly directionless and incoherent, that seemed to have no grasp of the power or import of the words they were carrying. My first parish, as a new curate, was deep in the poorest part of the capital. There, to my delight and astonishment, there was a brilliant organist, BRIAN HAGGER, a local boy become bank manager, who ran a small but wonderful choir. The breadth of their work was extraordinary. It will give you some clue if I say that I was able to request Messiaen’s Vision of the Eternal Church for the recessional music at my first Anglican ‘Mass’. From this Anglo-Catholic redoubt—where we were doing all the things that the post-conciliar Church was ditching in its enthusiasm for lowest common denominator ‘participation’—I was moved to St Alban’s Cathedral where, under the masterly hand of STEPHEN DARLINGTON, I would be carried on a tide of musical glory, wondering what I had done to deserve this daily foretaste of Heaven. Later, I came to my own parish for fifteen years where my friend and noble organist, Val, conducted a small choir in modest but beautiful works.
Cultural Schizophrenia • When I converted, over twenty years ago, to the Catholic Faith, I was struck immediately by the state of the music in many places. My first PP asked my reaction to the setting he had inherited from a belligerent modernist choir director. I was truthful but understated. He responded simply, ‘It’s demonic.’ When I was subsequently ordained as a Catholic Priest, people were hugely encouraging and supportive. The one area where they were at a loss was in the music. I remember being asked, by a good man and now longstanding friend, why I had chosen such a Protestant hymn at a particular service. I had to point out that the tune was 3rd century and the words were by St Paul. That hymn, like so many great Catholic hymns, was now unknown to even the most faithful of the faithful. Another lifelong regular, highly educated Cambridge graduate, complained about my use of Latin and always wanted to sing sentimental modern stuff. On enquiry it transpired that, outside of Church, she belonged to a choral society that sang all the great classic works of the Faith and she was brushing up her own Latin in order to enhance her understanding of and participation in the secular concerts of Sacred music. She was not alone in this cultural schizophrenia. Many seemed to fear that the patrimony of Catholic Music was a form of rebellion against the totemic power of the Second Vatican Council. Of course it simply meant that they had never read SACROSANCTUM CONCILIUM.
Water In The Desert • For me, therefore, encountering the website of Corpus Christi Watershed has come as Manna in the Wilderness. Jeff Ostrowski’s enthusiasm, devotion, immense productivity and sheer ‘can do’ attitude, has been a regular treat for me. The fact that he can get a group of people, some musically illiterate, to resurrect the great works of the Faith is little short of amazing and inspiring. He has single-handedly proven that there is absolutely no need for a parish to settle for regurgitating emotionally incontinent doggerel set to nursery rhyme tunes. There is still a treasure trove of divinely inspired beauty and gems that glorify the Lord of Glory accessible to the ordinary parish. We owe this, after 60 years of ‘dumb-down’ self expression and ‘camp-fire’ songs, to the future, our children and grandchildren. Anyone entering the Church of God ought to pick up on the fact that something serious and wonderful is going on. Music has an immense part to play in this perception of the divine reality and the heavenward leanings of the soul. If they simply encounter kindergarten cacophony, they will rightly assume the worst and this is not a religion for grown-ups and, tellingly, certainly not for men.
Exciting News • Now Jeff has produced a nine hour lecture series (!) encapsulating his experience of how a committed choirmaster may best go about the missionary task of producing the kind of music that is truly worthy of the Source and Summit of our Faith. I wish it were possible to bottle Jeff’s dynamic apostolate of Music and infuse the parishes with it. This is the next best thing. Visionaries come in all shapes and disciplines. Jeff’s vision for the music ministry of our beloved Catholic Church is inspiring and daunting, encouraging and daily uplifting. For the price of a couple of bits of decent altar linen this resource is now available to all—along with the wonderful website.
I commend ‘Secrets of the Conscientious Choirmaster’ to you, and I commend Jeff Ostrowski and his remarkable ministry to your prayers.
We hope you enjoyed this guest article by Fr Low.