On the Pope (and New Music)…

November 10th, 2016

Now a week on from the Pope’s visit it seems like as good a time as any to reflect on how good the visit was for new music – well, new choral music really – with high level exposure for at least three newly composed pieces. To have three new works (James MacMillan’s Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman and Tu es Petrus and Gabriel Jackson’s setting of The Invitatory) broadcast live on mainstream terrestrial television in subsequent days is almost unheard of in twenty-first century Britain, to have them as part of an important (obviously some people will disagree with the word ‘important’) state visit is even more impressive and leaves me with a warm feeling inside.

There can’t be many countries in the world that would respond to a Papal visit with newly commissioned works in all the major services that the Pope would attend – it certainly wouldn’t happen in France or Italy – maybe in America, but somewhat unlikely. I think it reflects well on the state of British choral music, and the position that leading choral composers are held. Too often there are stories of the gradual decay of the choral tradition in this country, or the unsuitability (or un-singablity) of newly composed choral music – a good news story is most welcome.

The Pope’s visit seemed to capture the nation’s attention in a way that few would have expected – I suspect this is probably due to our love of a ‘national spectacle’ rather than some sort of latent declaration of faith. We do the pomp and ceremony of visits such as these incredibly well in the UK: the channels are cleared to make way for live coverage, we make the Queen cut short her holiday and we give the whole affair the due concern and gravitas it probably deserves (again some may disagree).

One thing that did amuse me, was the television schedule for Sunday of last week (19/09/2010) on BBC 1 & 2: there was the Pope’s service from Birmingham on BBC 2 which then dovetailed with a Service of Remembrance for the Battle of Britain on BBC 1 followed by Songs of Praise on the same channel later that day – the religious affairs department of the BBC must have spent its whole budget in one day…


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