Critique of modern Church music echoed by Scottish composer

Renowned composer James MacMillan. Credit: Mac McLernon
Renowned composer James MacMillan. Credit: Mac McLernon


A renowned Catholic composer says he fully agrees with the critique of modern Church music mounted by Grammy Award winner Joseph Cullen.

Cullen, the choral director of the London Symphony Orchestra, told the English Catholic publication The Tablet that since the 1960s there’s been a “glaring lack of sympathy” for “worthy sacred music.”

Now the composer James MacMillan has told CNA that Cullen is spot on. “The Church should not ignore this timely and expert insight into the crisis in our liturgy. We have ignored our music and our musicians for too long,” he remarked.

MacMillan is currently in Minneapolis, Minn. for the premiere of his third piano concerto, “The Mysteries of Light,” which is inspired by Pope John Paul II’s Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary. In 2004, Queen Elizabeth bestowed MacMillan with the title of Commander of the British Empire for his musical contributions. Last year he also composed much of the liturgical music for the Papal Visit to the U.K.

In MacMillan’s view, many “faithful sons and daughters of the Church who have great musical skills” are being ignored. “It is a shame that they are being peripheralized at the expense of an increasingly mocked, dumbed down and aesthetically inappropriate utilitarianism in liturgical musical thinking.

“There will be those who accuse Joseph Cullen of elitism, but they will be wrong,” he said.

Most controversially, Cullen also accused diocesan musical directors of frequently indulging in practices that “would be regarded as corrupt in any other field” by commissioning and promoting their own work.

It’s an accusation that the Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales seems to reject. Martin Foster of their Liturgy Office told CNA, “To be honest I am unclear what Joseph Cullen might be referring to as I presume he has particular instances in mind. In England and Wales there has not been a separate Church Music Committee since about 2002 – its role has been part of the Liturgy Committee. I am trying to think of any projects that might be open to his accusation but none come to mind.”

Cullen is now calling for a greater adherence to the Church’s documents on sacred music and increased training for parishes by those schooled in the choral traditions of the Church.

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