I’ve just been in Italy, where as usual I tried to discover if there were any churches where one could hear some live sacred music on a Sunday, and once again was told that there is no longer any real tradition of church music performance in Italy, except for the simple ‘responses’ sung by the congregation.
Once in Venice, I went to St Mark’s and asked one of the clergy whether there would be any live music that Sunday morning. He replied, ‘No music. Only singing.’ I’ve always thought this would make a great topic for a university exam question.
While in Italy this time, I had the chance to attend the inauguration of a bishop, which I did partly in the hope that such an important occasion would be accompanied by glorious sacred music. Sadly, it was not. Everything else was splendid, from the ceremonial robes of the welcoming committee, the beautifully polished and decked cathedral, the glossy ‘order of service’ booklets with their lovely art reproductions, and the pleasing appearance of a large and excited congregation in their Sunday best.
However, there was no music at all – sacred or secular – throughout the first hour of the proceedings, which took place outside in the piazza, and once inside the cathedral there was nothing more than hymn singing – admittedly in several parts when sung by the official choir. But of the wonderful heritage of Italian sacred music there was no sound. By contrast this made me appreciate all the more the English church tradition kept alive in many cathedral churches, ordinary churches, the college choirs of Oxford and Cambridge, and so on. What a remarkable thing, to have five hundred years of sacred music still in daily use and performed with consummate skill by singers and musicians who do it mostly for love.
An Italian friend explained that the church wishes everyone to be able to participate in the singing; therefore the melodies must be simple enough for all to learn. Nobody is to be intimidated or shut out by music beyond their reach. I understand the principle, but can’t help feeling that much is lost through such an approach. Surely it’s a mistake to think that complexity is beyond people’s instinctive understanding. Some of my most striking experiences in churches have come through encountering some stirring or mysterious choral music resonating down the ages. Often it’s music of great intricacy, in a style which has long ago ceased to be ‘daily bread’. But its remoteness has done nothing to dispel its power – quite the reverse. I’m no church-goer, but it seems to me that this music actually makes manifest what the liturgy is talking about.
I’m baffled too as to why music is singled out for simplification. As I listened to the very basic ‘call and response’ chants in the Italian service, I looked around me at gorgeous and sophisticated painting, fresco and sculpture from the Middle Ages onwards. The building itself was lofty and majestic, designed to draw the eye upwards. The colourful brocade robes of the principal participants were antique and elaborate. The structure of the service, and some of its expression, was formal and theatrical. Only the music seemed to be purposely simple, even elementary, and I felt deprived of the complexity which I saw around me in other art-forms.