CRIT­I­CAL MASS

Mu­sic for the Pope’s visit next month has up­set some Catholics who don’t want to sing in Latin, writes Matthew West­wood

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Arts -

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

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