English, Music, and the Liturgy

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"So now, with the new translation of the Mass, composers will finally be able to settle down and write the great English liturgical music for our generation."

... or words to that effect are what I heard from someone at a gathering of liturgical musicians recently.

There are a number of unexamined assumptions in this statement that I would like to unpack. The first is that, if you have a good text, you will necessarily have good music to accompany it. While it is very true that a bad text will certainly discourage good composers, a good text does not guarantee good composers. Take an earlier English liturgical text, that of the Book of Common Prayer. It certainly is a profound text. There were, early on, some excellent settings of that text in the services and anthems of Tallis, Byrd and a few others. However, they had acquired their training in the Latin liturgical tradition and simply transferred their skills to the English liturgy.

Then, after a bit of a hiatus, there were composers like Handel, Pelham Humphrey, John Blow. After that, there was a hiatus of 150-200 years before the "Anglican Choral Revival" began in the early twentieth century. Entire generations which had that inspiring text in their hands on a weekly--and sometimes daily--basis did not rise to the challenge of creating great music. There are clearly other factors at play.

Thus the second unexamined--and clearly false--assumption is that every generation will have its own masterpieces. If that were so then, in a sense, there would be no need for "classics." Classics, properly understood, have a mystery and fragility to them. …