Plain vs mysterious music

18th April 2014 | Daily Life, Musings, Travel | 3 comments

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.


  1. Mary

    It deeply concerns me that this is the tip of the iceberg for the loss of classical music in every day life. As classical music ceases to be encountered in its real form,and for the main part is only accidentally heard in snatches in adverts and as pastiche in film/TV music, cathedrals are the only places where the rich musical heritage is recognised as a living entity, free to be encountered by congregations on a daily/weekly basis. Having ‘rescued’ a church choir from almost extinction a couple of years ago, I passed it on to another choir director in the state where singing 4 part Byrd and Tallis in services was occasionally possible if we worked for weeks in advance. Now I can visit that church on any Sunday and hear them singing new repertoire they have been acquiring on a weekly basis. This is a group who have learned to read music by attending choir practice. My (only slightly tongue in cheek) observation would be, “Want to keep Church Music alive in Britain? Join a church choir!”

  2. James B

    Your point is definitely a valid one, Mary, and I think that Susan has written before about this fear. Yet I’ve just been on iTunes and have found so many new classical recordings of works that have been recorded hundreds of times before that I think that there must be people who still love Classical music. I have no fears that the music that we love will “die out,” but I do feel sorry for people who don’t know some of the glorious music of the past; the spiritual ecstasies, the utter desolations inherent in much good music… are a reminder that people have felt this way before, that beauty surrounds us, that we’re never alone. It’s so much more human than a 3 minute pop song with a heavy beat, 4 or 5 chords and a catchy two-bar riff booming out to drunk people on amplified speakers.

  3. Ulrich Nehls

    In 1993 I was in Italy to play the organ in a wedding ceremony (one of my brothers married his Italian girl friend.) I had some time to practice on that quite peculiar instrument (which has built-in timpani, kettle drums on three notes, that can be played with the left foot where other organs have couplers and the like ..)

    After I stopped playing a prelude by J.S. Bach I heard somebody yelling something in Italian from inside the church. He turned out to be a curate or so, who tried to tell me, that he wanted me to play the piece entirely once again. After I did it and went down to talk to him I could ask why. He replied that he had recorded the piece with the altar microphone(!), which they use to record sermons on tape cassettes, and he would use that recording for times when there was no organist available. The tape would then be played back into the loudspeakers in the church. Shiver! – it seems indeed that their church music is not in the best condition.

    BTW Susan I heard your first CD with Mayerls “Loose elbows” last year and I like it a lot! Your playing is brilliant and very distinguished. I looked at some of the pieces (which are available on and must say, I am impressed how effortlessly it sounds – and Mayerls music is really, really … tricky. Large left-hand chords, often over a tenth, wide ranges up and down, and it doesn’t sound difficult at all.


    Ulrich Nehls from Erlangen/Bavaria/Germany.


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