Magazine article The Spectator

Music: The Changing Sound of Sacred Music

Magazine article The Spectator

Music: The Changing Sound of Sacred Music

Article excerpt

One of the growth areas of contemporary music is in setting sacred texts. It might be thought that I had a special interest in claiming this, but in fact what I am about to describe represents a sea change in recent practice. Where there was once 'squeaky gate' (or 'dripping tap') music -- as very dissonant writing used to be called -- many leading composers are now writing in a style that is at least tonal and can occasionally seem almost naïve.

There was a time when the first performance of a recent commission struck fear into the most broad-minded listener. We used to brace ourselves for horror and were rarely disappointed. In those days, the struggle to write more atonally than the next man was palpable. No self-respecting composer would pen a concord if he wanted to be taken seriously by his peers: to do so was to be compared to those who made soft-harmony arrangements of famous melodies. Now soft harmony has become dignified, with all manner of clever names -- tintinnabuli, holy minimalism; while popular tunes are quickly identified as being 'chant', and quoted whole.

There are two reasons for the change: the standard of singing in our liturgical and concert choirs has steadily gone up, to the point where many non-Christian composers now feel able to express themselves fully writing for them. And that expression has resulted in a genuinely wide-ranging idiom that has gained the respect of listeners far outside the normal Church-music confraternity. In short, sacred choral music has aligned itself with orchestral and operatic composition as an accepted medium for contemporary thought: concerts given by vocal ensembles are as admired and supported as concerts by instrumental ones. This, in turn, has resulted in such an increase in production that I would say this music has joined the symphony or concerto as a repertory to which every classical composer is keen to contribute.

Grand collections of big pieces have been put together in recent years, every item by a different composer. Forty-four composers had anthems included in the 2012 Choirbookfor The Queen . Among them were names better known for quite other sorts of music: Peter Maxwell Davies, Michael Finnissy, Alexander Goehr, Richard Rodney Bennett and Mark-Anthony Turnage. In the more recent Merton Choirbook (put together to celebrate the 750th anniversary of the foundation of Merton College, Oxford in 2014) there are a similar number of composers, including Harrison Birtwistle, John Tavener, Jonathan Dove, Judith Weir, Gabriel Jackson and James MacMillan. …

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