Music for the Pope’s visit next month has upset some Catholics who don’t want to sing in Latin, writes Matthew Westwood
AFTER a brief introduction of excited triplet notes on the organ, the choir enters with joyful sounds: ‘‘ Gloria in excelsis! Gloria in excelsis Deo!’’ These are the opening phrases of the Gloria section of a new setting of the mass, written for the Pope’s visit to Sydney next month. When Benedict XVI celebrates mass for up to 500,000 people for World Youth Day at Randwick racecourse, it will be sung to music written by a remarkable late- blooming Australian composer.
George Palmer has been writing music since he was a teenager, but a career in law and the demands of rearing a family meant that his music often went silent.
Today, he is a judge in the equity division of the NSW Supreme Court and in his free time he has found renewed energy for composition. ‘‘ Both the law and music are equal partners in my life,’’ he says over sandwiches in his chambers at the high- rise courts building in Sydney.
His efforts to have his music performed and recorded about five years ago were partly spurred on by the knowledge he was losing his hearing.
Palmer’s setting of the mass is called Benedictus Qui Venit , the Latin title referring to the liturgical text, ‘‘ Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’’. Benedictus, of course, is also a pun on the Pope’s name. The music was given a hearing at the Red Mass for the legal fraternity in January, performed by choirs drawn from Catholic schools. It has been recorded, too, and posted on the World Youth Day website, so that congregants have the opportunity to learn it before the Pope’s visit.
Palmer says he has made it easy for people. He is not a modernist composer, deliberately seeking new and unfamiliar means of musical expression. He wants his music to be tuneful and able to be memorised. ‘‘ I make no apology for writing music that is melodic,’’ he says. ‘‘ It can be a very simple melody or it can be a quite long and winding vocal line, but it’s a melody. Melody drives all my composition.’’
At the showground, Palmer’s mass will be performed by an orchestra of 80 and a choir of 300, the singing led by soprano Amelia Farrugia and tenor Andrew Goodwin.
It will mark the climax of the papal jamboree: a six- day program of worship and faith- inspired cultural events.
The music program is diverse: from Guy Sebastian and Damien Leith to a performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis by the Sydney Symphony at the Opera House.
Also singing the Lord’s praises will be German- based singer Judy Bailey, ‘‘ Catholic metal band’’ Metatrone and Stan Fortuna, a hip- hop priest from New York’s South Bronx. Fortuna, who visited Australia last year to ‘‘ light a fire’’ for World Youth Day, wears a modernday Franciscan habit and raps like Eminem or Kanye West. ‘‘ For me,’’ he says, ‘‘( rap) is a thing of rhythm and rhyme, and it affords an opportunity for me to take a message of the gospel to people.’’
What the Pope will make of these musical offerings may be a matter between him and his maker. Benedict, the German Pope and the Vatican’s former head of doctrine, has signalled a desire for greater emphasis on the church’s liturgical and musical heritage.
He has approved the use of the Latin mass where parishes desire it, after the Second Vatican Council gradually eased out Latin in favour of local languages. And while the 1960s reforms ushered in a spirit of participation, with folk and popular music being sung in church pews, Benedict has indicated his preference for what may be loosely called classical music.
As music expert Peter Phillips writes in Britain’s The Spectator , the Pope has spoken of the need to maintain ‘‘ continuity with tradition’’, meaning a return to Gregorian chant, choral polyphony and baroque masterpieces.
Phillips is the founder and director of British ensemble the Tallis Scholars, which specialises in unaccompanied sacred music and has often
toured these shores. Earlier this year he provoked the Anglican Dean of Sydney, Phillip Jensen, for criticising the style of worship at St Andrew’s Cathedral, which he says has sidelined traditional choral music.
Phillips says that moves to restore classical music to Sunday worship — in the Catholic Church and in other denominations — are likely to be met with resistance.
‘ The Pope is a trained classical musician; he is a very good concert pianist,’’ he says on the phone from London. ‘‘ Unlike most normal priests, music actually means something to him, and he doesn’t like to hear it badly produced. And he thinks Vatican II ultimately caused a lowering of standards. But putting ( classical music) back into the system is to court a charge of elitism.’’
Church politics and changes in ecclesiastical culture form the background to Palmer’s new setting of the mass. In his day job, Palmer hears cases of commercial law between disputatious corporations. In his second career as a composer — and especially one with such a high- profile commission as a papal mass — he has been exposed to heated disagreement over how God should be praised with music.
Palmer won the commission for the mass after he and several other composers were invited to submit sketches to a church panel. The brief was explicit. The music should be attractive and easy to learn, and suitable for singing not only at World Youth Day but in parish churches on Sundays. The text would be the new English translation of the Latin mass but it should include Latin phrases, to be sung in performance.
Anyone vaguely familiar with Latin and sacred music would recognise the phrases Palmer has used: Gloria in excelsis Deo ( Glory to God in the highest); Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus ( Holy, holy, holy). In the first section, Kyrie eleison ( Greek, for Lord have mercy), Palmer has written a melody reminiscent of Gregorian chant. He has attempted, in a modern musical setting, to connect the 21st- century congregation with its centuries- old heritage.
But Palmer’s mass has upset some sectors of the church and one parish priest, he says, has refused to perform it as long as it includes Latin. The title, Benedictus Qui Venit , ‘‘ apparently pleased Rome but caused gnashing of teeth composers such as Palestrina and Tallis, that single line multiplied into choral polyphony. The effect, compared with the minimalist rigour of chant, is multidimensional, coloured like rays of sunlight through stained glass.
Bach, in his great choral works such as the Mass in B Minor, allied his profound faith with dancing rhythms and complex fugal patterns. Composers during the 19th century turned liturgical texts into human dramas: Beethoven with his Missa Solemnis , almost a choral symphony; and Verdi with his Requiem , virtually an opera. In all these cases, the sung texts are predominantly in Latin. than current theology sees God. The way you express yourself in music is all to do with your view of life. Most music that has any lasting appeal is life- affirming, even if it is dealing with matters of tragedy.’’
Palmer’s mass, too, is a reflection of his beliefs. By way of example, he mentions his setting of the Credo. Although it will not be performed on World Youth Day — the Creed is not included in services that include confirmations — it will be included at regular Sunday services.
Some settings of the Credo — such as that by 19th- century Frenchman Charles Gounod, with its sound of angels marching like centurions — among those who would banish forever all reference to the historical culture of the church and its liturgy’’.
‘‘ When I went to speak to people, particularly young people, it was very noticeable that they had absolutely no affinity or understanding of the cultural history of the church and the musical history of the church to which this ( mass) is referring,’’ Palmer says.
‘‘ These are young people who have been brought up post- Vatican II being used to music in church ( that) is the heritage of the 1970s folk movement. A lot of that music is very fine music and very suitable music. But this is the only music they’ve ever experienced and they associate anything other than that with an authoritarian attempt to return to the past, to move it all back to the 1950s.’’ SACRED music is more than a mere accompaniment to the liturgy: it is also a reflection of the beliefs and religious practices of its time. It can be the most personal expression of a composer’s relationship with God.
Plainsong — of which Gregorian chant is the best known variety — derives its austere beauty from seemingly limited means, lacking as it does harmony and repetitive rhythmic pulse. Ancient texts are recited along a single melodic line: it is song as prayer. In the Renaissance, with
Sitting in his book- lined chambers, with a large painting by Garry Shead depicting the Last Supper, Palmer reflects on the long relationship between music and the church. Among his other compositions is a Christmas mass, A Child is Born , recorded for ABC Classics.
‘‘ A composer’s view is very much coloured by the philosophy, or theology, of his or her time,’’ he says.
‘‘ In earlier ages, God may be seen as a far more forbidding, authoritarian, repressive figure can be almost dogmatic. Palmer has used the new English translation, which renders the word credo not as ‘‘ we believe’’ but ‘‘ I believe’’. His music for it is intended to express a ‘‘ quiet, reassuring, comforting’’ trust in God.
‘‘ I did not want triumphalism,’’ he says. ‘‘ As you may have gathered, I really don’t like triumphalism at all, that dogmatic assertion: ‘ I am right and everybody else is wrong.’ I find that difficult to accommodate with God’s love and mercy, and I find it very difficult to accommodate with the personality of Christ as it emerges through the Gospels.’’
Of the opposition to Benedictus Qui Venit , Palmer shrugs his shoulders.
‘‘ You can’t please everybody,’’ he says. ‘‘ In fact it’s very difficult to please anybody. You do your best and hope that enough people will approach it with goodwill and openness, and give it a go. Certain people seem to have received it very enthusiastically, certain parishes.’’
Palmer’s wish is that his mass will be seen as a way of reacquainting the church with its cultural heritage. He says he did not set out to be obscure and used Latin phrases that many people would know already.
‘‘ It’s very difficult for people to learn something new or to see why they should learn something new,’’ he says. ‘‘ There are a number of parishes which have already introduced it or introduced parts of it. It has to be taken slowly.’’
Song of praise: George Palmer at the Red Mass with the choirs of Loreto Kirribilli and Riverview. One priest has refused to allow his music, he says, because it contains Latin phrases
Diverse program: New York hip- hop priest Stan Fortuna, who raps like Eminem, will be performing
Music for the maker: The Pope is a classical pianist