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
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.
JAMES LANCELOT (Lay Canon)
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?
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
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
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