Standards in Sacred Music

The following letter by Fr Patrick J. Doyle, P.P. was published in The Furrow in April, 1953. Fr Doyle was parish priest of Naas, Co. Kildare, from 1938 until his death in 1962.

Dear Father Editor,

In the March number of The Furrow Sir Shane Leslie (see here – Shane) asks “why does Catholicism attract so few Irish Protestants?” He assures us that in England they are attracted by “the liturgy, music and beauty of Catholic services.” He expresses the opinion that “many Protestants could be drawn by real Church music, but what do they hear? Far less melody than their own hymns.” We cannot deny that the average of our Church music, apart from some outstanding exceptions, falls far short of what is desirable, even of what Church discipline requires. One cause is the lack of competent musicians with sufficient knowledge and training to know what, and how, to teach our choirs, and train them to adequate performances. There seems to be little hope of filling this educational lacuna, until a national School of Church Music subsidised by all our dioceses, similar to those of the Continental countries, has been established. Can Catholic Ireland not do what, for instance, half-Catholic Belgium has done? Even if competent choir directors were available, for many parishes there would still remain the financial problem of providing an adequate salary. Musicians cannot live on audible notes alone; the other species, palpable and expendable, is a grim necessity. This problem could be solved, partly by an appeal to the religious generosity of our people, explaining what the Church expects and deserves in the domain of music, insisting on the clear teaching of successive Popes in this matter; and partly, by having a regular quota of young priests from each diocese trained in the national School of Church Music, who would be thus equipped to take control of the choir, each in his own parish, and give fraternal advice and assistance to his fellow priests in his neighbourhood.

It is possible that Sir Shane, in his commendable zeal for reform, takes too depressing a view of the situation in Ireland (see Church Music in Ireland – Shane), though it is a healthy and honest reaction to face the worst in any plea for reform. He asks — “Do you ever hear Gregorian of Plain Chant in our parish Churches?” May I reply from my experience of the church I know best? I have just returned from the High Mass on St. Patrick’s Day in our parish church in Naas, Co. Kildare. The whole Mass, Proper and Common, was sung in Plain Chant by a choir of men and small boys. At the Offertory was sung a polyphonic motet — Ecce Sacerdos Magnus, by the 16th century Vittoria. At the conclusion of the Mass we had the rousing Maynooth Hymn to St. Patrick (1) — Dochas Linn Naomh Padraic, in a setting by Michael Van Dessel, the first verse being sung a capella, while the last is in unison with a massive organ accompaniment. At an earlier Mass a children’s choir had sung three-part polyphonic music with refreshing aplomb.

In this Church, Plain Chant may be heard practically every Sunday. At all High Masses through the year the Proper is sung in Plain Chant, and the Common of the Mass in a strictly liturgical part-setting by composers dating from the 16th century, to our own times. The latest Mass sung was published in 1943, the Missa Ave Verum by Plum, the versatile Belgian Servite.

The repertory of this choir includes, as well as several four and five-part Masses, motets by Josquin des Prés, Palestrina, Vittoria, Allegri, Di Lasso, Viadana, Gallus, Aichingar, Van Berchem, Hasler, Byrd, Blow, Sweelinck, Scarlatti, Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Rheinberger, Haller, Gruber, Lemacher, Bruchner, Elgar, Verhelst, Van Nuffel. The choir makes frequent use of the fine Latin hymns in the Maynooth Supplement edited by Fr. Beuerunge (see here – Shane).

Sir Shane Leslie would, I think, be grateful to learn that several Protestant friends of the Parish Priest have frequently come from Dublin and elsewhere to hear this choir. They freely concede that the music of the Anglican rite, with slight exception, cannot stand comparison with the wealth of our Plain Chant, our polyphony, the Mass settings from the 16th century down, even to the facile settings of the Cecilian school, not to mention the more austere modern settings with “modal” affinities. One of these musical enthusiasts, a brilliant young organist, on several occasions played the organ accompaniments for our Masses. He never concealed the spiritual edification, and aesthetic pleasure and exhilaration he derived from these Catholic services. At present he is master of choristers in an important High Church in England.

These matters are recorded not I hope, in any spirit of cheap, unworthy glorification, but merely as a factual reply to points raised by your distinguished contributor.

(1) In at least one Hymnal there is an inaccurate version of this hymn. The original was published as a supplement to The Irish Musical Monthly, edited by Fr. Heinrich Beuerunge. According to the Maynooth tradition the melody is a folk-tune collected by Fr. Beuerunge in the Deise district of Co. Waterford, whilst the Irish text was treasure trove of Dr. O’Hickey, Professor of Irish at the College. The hymn was first sung at the St. Patrick’s Festival, London, 1902. It is of interest to note the similarity of its melodic structure with that of the Plain Chant Ave Maris Stella.


Posted on April 11, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Interesting piece. What struck me about JPII’s visit to Ireland was the awfulness of the liturgy especially the music. A good start might be the formation of an Oratory in Dublin inspired (perhaps) by Blessed John Henry and his connections with the city?. I understand a traditional monastic community has just arrived on the island which is encouraging.

    Apologies for the vulgarity of a recent post but it was irrestible given that the sister of the herectic priest was a known acupuncturist.

    • As always, very interesting Shane. From personal experience, as very much a child of the 60s (born in actual 1960 itself) I can attest that in my hometown the liturgy was of a very high standard, especially the music. I sing, every Sunday, in a choir that still contains men (all men and boys in those days) who learned tonic solfa for very complicated Masses composed by the organist and which were regularly sung. Simple stuff like the Missa de Angelis they can still “toss off” with no problem, 50+ years later. Could anyone of a later generation do that, e.g. for our upcoming hug-fest (otherwise known as the Eucharistic Conference)?

    • No worries bmcp4tr01, and I thought your comment was spot on!

      Alas, splendid liturgy was never at the top of the late pope’s priorities.

      • Yup! We get to sing the ‘official hymn’ every Sunday now. Even though we do the proper harmony for the refrain it’s still basically… umm… sewage.

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