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Contemporary cathedral music: was Dr Thomas’s picture fair?

12 June 2015


From Dr James Lancelot

Sir, - I wonder which cathedral music-lists the Revd Dr Martin Thomas ("Where is the brave new music?", Comment, 5 May) has been consulting. Certainly not those of Wells, where there is an admirable tradition of visionary new commissions under Matthew Owens's directorship; nor those of the Three Choirs Festival cathedrals, where first performances have been a feature of successive Festivals.

New and adventurous commissions abound elsewhere, too. Here at Durham over the past three years, the choir has given first or early performances of works with texts both ancient and modern by Michael Berkeley, John Casken, Cecilia McDowall, Gabriel Jackson and James MacMillan, several of them commissioned by the cathedral. Peter Maxwell Davies and Olivier Messiaen feature on our lists from time to time; our Organ Scholar has commissioned a new work from David Loxley-Blount for first performance here in July, and our Chorister School will commission a new work for its 600th anniversary next year.

English cathedral choirs are inheritors of a rich treasury of liturgical music, and it would not be right for us to focus on any one era above all others. The weekly discipline of (often) eight sung services each week also places limits on how much unfamiliar repertoire can be undertaken. But every one of my colleagues is well aware that cathedral music is not a fossilised tradition, and that our ministry must include music that speaks cogently to the present generation.

Dr Thomas is correct in his concern that this should be so, and right in highlighting the example of Winchester in the 1970s and 1980s; but it would be a pity if your readers were left with the impression that the present picture is as he paints it.


Master of the Choristers and Organist, Durham Cathedral
6 The College, Durham DH1 3EQ


From Mr Carl Jackson

Sir, - Setting aside whether "brave", in your headline, is being interpreted as "extremely dissonant" or avant garde, the Revd Dr Martin Thomas appears at first to be criticising 20th-century cathedral music and "leading cathedral and church-music bodies"; but the implication that the supposed shortcomings of the last century have affected cathedral music of the 21st century is clear in his final paragraph.

Do the Church Music Society's 2006 centenary commission of an anthem by Judith Bingham, the Cathedral Organists' Association's commission in 2009 of Jonathan Dove's Missa Brevis, and the composers represented at the 13-year-old London Festival of Contemporary Church Music, in Choirbook for The Queen, and (if one includes collegiate foundations in the analysis) The Merton Choirbook all count for nothing?


Chapel Royal
Hampton Court Palace
East Molesey KT8 9AU


From Sarah E. A. MacDonald

Sir, - I will leave it to my more aesthetically minded colleagues to say whether all recent church music is "amateurish", whereas all contemporary religious visual art is by definition "impressive". But the need to provide music for seven or eight choral services every week in most cathedrals may place certain constraints on commissioning budgets. These constraints are likely to be less relevant where visual arts are concerned, since they are probably commissioned only every seven or eight years.

The Revd Dr Martin Thomas appears wilfully to ignore the vast body of works written by composers (avant garde, or otherwise) for use in the liturgy over the past few decades, often entirely without commission fee, let alone royalties. 


Director, Ely Cathedral Girls' Choir
Fellow and Director of Music
Selwyn College
Cambridge CB3 9DQ


From Dr John Kitchen

Sir, - The Revd Dr Martin Thomas is being unfair to church musicians in accusing them of failing to seek out and perform challenging new music within the liturgy. Whatever the truth of his sharp criticism of the RSCM and other bodies in the early 20th century, this is simply not true today.

It is true that, in the earlier 20th century, church music reflected little of the "great movements of change which swept through compositional activity". The music of the Second Viennese School and their followers has, however, never been fully accepted in the wider musical world, many feeling that they led music up a stylistic cul-de-sac. To be blunt, most people don't want to hear it. So it's hardly surprising that liturgical music reflects little of these styles.

When Matthew Owens was Master of Music at St Mary's in Edinburgh, he regularly commissioned new music from composers such as James MacMillan, Patrick Gowers and Gabriel Jackson. (But perhaps Dr Thomas classes their music, as he does John Tavener's, as "neo-religious wallpaper music"?) Kenneth Leighton's music is still widely performed, and, although now not so recent, remains challenging and bracing. More recently, Ben Nicholas at Merton has performed (and recorded) some excellent new repertoire by Judith Weir, Cecilia McDowall, Matthew Martin, and others. And we do hear music by other composers mentioned by Dr Thomas: Judith Bingham, Jonathan Harvey, and others.

In Old St Paul's, Edinburgh, where I am Director of Music, we sang MacMillan's challenging "Westminster" Mass not so long ago; and, indeed, last year my assistant commissioned a new piece from the Glasgow-based composer Claire McCue, for unaccompanied choir and solo clarinet: a setting of R. S. Thomas's poem "Kneeling".

It seems to me that new liturgical music today is thriving in many cathedrals, and also in those parish churches where a good musical tradition is maintained. 


27 Minto Street
Edinburgh EH9 1SB


From the Very Revd Richard Lewis

Sir, - I only partly agree with the Revd Dr Martin Thomas. As in some other areas, Wells Cathedral sets a good example. Under Matthew Owens, a whole season in the year is dedicated to New Music. New settings for eucharist, canticles, and anthems are commissioned.

This month, the work of Mathias, Moore, Archer, Harris, Ridout, Kennedy, Wilby, Noon, Nardone, Woodside, Davison, Leighton, Rose, Bednall, Berkeley, Millington, and Bingham is sung. All these can be called contemporary composers. There was at least one "first performance" - and this is not even the season of New Music.

Where I have some sympathy with Dr Thomas's view is the seeming reluctance to embrace the texts of Common Worship. The time has long since passed when we should hear carping criticisms and comparisons with Cranmer. There are new and fine resonant texts in Psalms, prayers, and Bible translations which are deserving of the best musical treatment.

That said, some weeks ago, a setting at the cathedral eucharist was used during which, I noted afterwards to a retired Professor of Music in the congregation, the "common chord" was notable for its absence. He agreed. Nothing was "resolved", though I thought later that maybe the composer represented the spirit of our age.

When I had any influence in commissioning new work, I would always ask that the piece be capable of being sung by, at the very least, a good parish-church choir. Many new compositions can be sung only by the very best cathedral choirs. Such compositions will only ever have one or two performances.

The faint praise with which Dr Thomas consigns Tavener, Rutter, and Willcocks to some cultural desert is ungenerous, to say the least. Whether they are "worryingly easy to replicate" or not, they have had a wholly beneficial influence.

If Dr Thomas wishes the Church to regain contemporary composers' respect (which I do not believe it has lost), and to fling wide the doors of cathedrals to let good music in, he should be open to the need that, when the doors are open, good music, capable of being sung far and wide, could also get out. 


Dean Emeritus of Wells
1 Monmouth Court, Union Street
Wells BA5 2PX


From the Dean of Portsmouth

Sir, - There may have been a justification for Dr Thomas's book briefly in the 1980s, but his article seems to suggest that there is a continuing lack of new commissions. Not so. At Portsmouth Cathedral we have commissioned works by composers such as Jonathan Dove, Roxanna Panufnik, and Harvey Brough. Will Todd is writing a new Jazz Mass for us this year.


The Cathedral Offices
St Thomas's Street
Old Portsmouth PO1 2HA


From the Revd James Mustard

Sir, - The Revd Dr Martin Thomas's survey of 20th-century cathedral music is undermined by his underestimation of the contribution of Britten, Tippett, and Walton. The sacred works of all three are universally acknowledged to be of great quality, being the synthesis of an unclichéd Anglican tradition with bold, orchestral, operatic, and cinematic techniques drawn from within and beyond these shores. Their works alone suggest that the Church of England was not, in the 20th century, quite as musically unadventurous or inward-looking as Dr Thomas suggests.


The Rectory, 136 Church Hill Road
East Barnet EN4 8XD

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