How much does music add to Les Misérables?

A continuing theme in Church documents on music is that the liturgy is vastly improved — made more noble, more penetrating, more glorious and affecting — when it is sung. The goal is not just to sing the major parts of the Mass but the entire Mass, propers and readings and dialogues. The congregation, the schola, and the celebrant all have a role.

Liturgy in this way has been likened to a musical drama. The new film Les Misérables, then, has some liturgical relevance. The reviews have been fantastic, and I’m in complete agreement. There were moments in this filmed that moved me like nothing I’ve seen before.

What the commentators have missed, however, is how music itself ads enormous power to the film. Unlike most musicals, that have occasional numbers, most of this film was actually sung. In this way, it is more like opera than an old-fashioned movie musical.

Now, just imagine the same actors and scenes without the music — a spoken Les Misérables, as it were. It would be the same story. It could be great and powerful. The narrative would carry the story. All of that is true. But once you see the musical version, it is rather obvious that the power of the film would just not be the same without it. The music is what lifts the film from great to epically astonishing.

It also sets a new high standard of integration of music and action. The score is unusually text driven, just like liturgy. The singers in the film were chosen not for their singing ability but for their acting — which makes the singing more authentic in some way. Their voices were not ruined by too much training and affectation. They seemed authentic because of this — again, a point that is replicated in a liturgical context.

I highly recommend that every priest and singer needs to see the film to understand the drama that is possible in the musical context. The application to liturgical worship makes the point that we are denying ourselves deeper spiritual experiences by settling for spoken Masses over sung ones.

New Music Competition at Colloquium XXIII

For composers attending the Sacred Music Colloquium in Salt Lake City, June 17-23, 2013:

You should plan on attending the Composer’s forum sessions during the week, where your new compositions will be critiqued and workshopped. Plan on bringing along enough copies for everyone in the seminar (about 20 copies). A winning composition from among those presented during the week will be announced on Saturday, June 22. The winning composition will be sung by the entire Colloquium at the closing Mass at the Cathedral of the Madeleine on Sunday, June 23. This year’s text is Psalm 116: Laudate Dominum omnes gentes, laudate eum omnes populi. Quoniam confirmata est super nos misericordia ejus, et veritas Domini manet in aeternum. [Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto: sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.] . Compositions should be SATB and no longer than three minutes in length. For more information, contact David Hughes, forum leader, at

A Hymn for the Day

I wrote this a few years ago for the Conversion of St Paul. It is about the relationship of Sts Stephen and Paul, inspired by today’s patristic reading in the Liturgy of the Hours by St Fulgentius of Ruspe.

The martyr Stephen met his death
Forgiveness in his final breath.
He interceded for them all
Whose cloaks lay at the feet of Saul.

The Father, hearing Stephen’s prayer,
Gave gifts for all the Church to share
When grace and mercy overflowed
In light upon Damascus Road.

Then bless the Lord of heart and mind
Who gives new vision to the blind,
Whose reign throughout the world extends,
Whose loving-kindness never ends.

Parish Finances and Music

From the MusicaSacra Forum comes a complaint about the low financial priority given to parish music, dated December 1, 1849.

Not only the interests of music generally, but of religion itself suffer, and to a greater extent than a superficial thinker may suppose, by this short-sighted policy of robbing it of the PERFECTIONS of an art, which the Creator evidently designed should minister to its extension.

Undoubtedly many Pastors were told by people greeting them after Mass that the music at their Christmas Masses was beautiful, or even angelic and heavenly. Beautiful music is of utmost importance to a parish. Musicians are co-workers in the truth; troubled or doubting hearts that even the most skilled preaching cannot reach, might be moved by a glorious descant or a quiet, perfectly conceived cadence. Beautiful music does not and cannot happen by itself, without the skilled leadership of a dedicated expert. It is my hope that the efforts of musicians everywhere will be fairly compensated, to encourage excellence in our profession.

The time musicians spend at Mass itself is the tip of the iceberg, and is the result of many years of education and the acquisition of artistic culture, followed by many hours of direct planning and rehearsal for the high liturgies of the year. Imagine Christmas Mass without music! (Imagine the collection from a Christmas Mass without music.) Think of the many people who must respond positively to the Music Director’s leadership in order for this music to come together.

I think we will all agree that a just and living wage, which is all that Music Directors customarily ask, is a small price for a parish to pay for what the Second Vatican Council calls “the highest of all the sacred arts.”

Midnight Mass, Leeds Cathedral

UK readers would be interested in this link, which I am almost entirely certain leads to the Midnight Mass at St. Anne’s Cathedral in Leeds. (The Mass was broadcast by the BBC, but for reasons having to do with licensing it is apparently unavailable for internet viewing outside the UK.)