Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Prayer Vigil for the Pope

Damian Thompson reports on the sabotage of the September 18 prayer Vigil for the Pope on his visit to the UK will consist mostly of pseudo-folk music from the 1970s and 80s. The detailed program is listed here, but what I really do not understand is why it is necessary to trot out huge forces of instruments and singers for such a thing.

This is mostly unison music that most Catholics could rattle off in their sleep. It isn't really choral music at all. It's just a series of small tunes, best performed with a guitar, sitting on a stone by the fireside at a youth encounter thirty years ago.

Talk about over-egging the pudding: "The choir will consist of 160 singers from nearly all the dioceses in England and Wales. Together with 50 singers and 50 musicians from the New English Orchestra, you will provide the majority of the accompaniment to the Vigil. You will also be on stage (under cover should it rain) and in close proximity to the Holy Father. It should be an experience to cherish for many years."

Oh, there is one grand piece: Hallelujah Chorus by Handel. This is also something that I do not understand. There are many good things to say about this piece and they would all be easier to say if this piece hadn't become the world's most notorious musical cliche, second only to the opening notes of Beethoven's 5th.

But even if we consider the intended purpose of the piece, it is a composition for religious theater, by a Protestant for Protestants. This doesn't mean that it is bad, or something that should be banned from Catholic circles, but there is a downside for any community that cannot define itself with its own magnificent forms of cultural expression but instead relies on rehashing other people's traditions. It is not necessary to make Handel central when you have a Catholic musical tradition inclusive of Tallis and Byrd.

I have detected a trend for Catholic gatherings of this sort to use the Hallelujah Chorus as a signaling device, as if you suggest "Lest you think that we only sing small ditties about journeys of love, here's a big classical piece just to show you what we could do if we wanted to."