I was astonished to see that no fewer than six of the CDs in the current UK classical ‘top ten’ feature Catholic liturgical music. At No. 1 is the much-talked-about recording of Striggio’s ‘Mass in 40 parts’, while Pergolesi’s ‘Stabat Mater’ is at 3, the Benedictine Nuns of Abbaye Notre Dame de l’Annonciation at 7, Trio Medieval’s ‘A Worcestershire Ladymass’ at 8, and The Sixteen’s latest instalment of the works of Victoria, titled ‘Hail, Mother of the Redeemer’ at 9. If you dip down below tenth place, you’ll find the ever-popular ‘Miserere’ of Allegri at 12 and Rossini’s version of ‘Stabat Mater’ at 17. And we haven’t even mentioned the massive modern success of Tallis’ ‘Spem et Alium’.
How to explain this? Is it just one of those cyclical turns in musical taste, as listeners grow weary of the heaviness of 19th century symphonies and the atonal experimentation of the 20th century, and rediscover the freshness and melodiousness of medieval chant or Renaissance polyphony?
Or is there something else, something more ‘spiritual’, going on here? The poet W.H.Auden believed that we were living in a ‘Catholic’ era, and that if there were to be a modern religious revival, it would take a broadly sacramental and ritualistic form. That certainly hasn’t been true until now, as postmodern spirituality has preferred to flirt with the individualism and unworldliness of Buddhism and other eastern-influenced ‘New Age’ philosophies.
However, perhaps this new fashion for liturgical music, like the surprising popularity of films about monastic spirituality such as the recent Of Gods and Men, and the documentary Into Great Silence, not to mention the BBC ‘reality TV’ series The Monastery, signifies a thirst for reconnection with long-forgotten western spiritual traditions. If so, it could represent a huge opportunity for evangelisation by the Church. There ought to be poster campaigns along the lines of ‘You’ve heard the soundtrack, now experience the live performance: come to Mass this Sunday’ or ‘This music is beautiful, but it was meant to be lived, not just heard’.
The question is, would spiritual seekers, their heads full of Byrd and Palestrina, find contemporary Catholic worship something of a let-down?