Church music dominates classical charts

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?

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4 thoughts on “Church music dominates classical charts

  1. “The question is, would spiritual seekers, their heads full of Byrd and Palestrina, find contemporary Catholic worship something of a let-down?”

    Rhetorical question? Of course they would. And it’s important to remember that these Top 10 rankings are based upon extremely small numbers of sales. I doubt the situation is rosier in the UK, but classical music sales account for less than 2% of the market in America and #1 albums often sell less than 500 copies.

    I’m afraid Wystan’s ‘catholic moment’ will have to wait, unless one is talking about the ‘other’ catholic church from the East, which still has beautiful choral singing, and beautiful liturgies, sacraments, and ritual firmly rooted in ancient Christian practice. I’m not here to adjudicate between the ‘two lungs’ of Christendom, but if one is looking for older forms of Christian piety that run contrary to the tech-addled 21st Century, then there’s really no contest.

  2. Cyril, I take your point about the relatively low sales of classical music, but there are other indicators too, at least here in Britain. The music of Catholic composer James Macmillan and erstwhile Orthodox composer John Taverner have proved their popularity in other ways – in audience responses to concerts (e.g. ‘The Proms’) on TV, etc. There does seem to be a genuine revival of interest in ‘sacred’ music going on – and there’s the popularity of the films and TV shows about monastic life that I mentioned. As to whether it’s more likely to be satisfied by Orthodox than Catholic worship and spirituality, I wouldn’t like to say. I suppose my point was really that the current fashion seems to be for music, ritual and spirituality of a broadly traditional, sacramental and non-protestant kind.

  3. I’m going to guess that the fact that these are all in Latin is important. Anglican church music would run up against the problem that, understanding the words, listeners would have difficulty surrounding themselves in a cloud of vague musical spirituality.

  4. I think you’re being ungenerous and unduly negative about people’s attraction to this kind of music, Mr/Ms Wingate. Yes, admittedly, it’s probably the aesthetics rather than the theology that draws people in the first place, but it’s a first step, and often a sign of genuine spiritual seeking and desire, surely. I agree that much current popular spirituality is feeling-led – ‘Any dream will do’, as long as it makes you feel ‘spiritual’ – but Catholic theology, certainly, has always taught that sounds, images, even smells, have a legitimate part to play in drawing people to the divine (listen to me talking: I’m not even a practising christian).

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