Books and Music

Books and Music

Here you will find some thoughts and reviews of books and music of Catholic interest..
Books of Catholic interest III - July 2017
It’s not altogether clear what qualifies Roy Hattersley, former deputy leader of the Labour Party, to write a book about Britain’s Catholics. His father had been a priest, but ran off with Enid Brackenbury, a future mayor of Sheffield, just two weeks after giving her instruction before her marriage to another man. For much of his life, Hattersley knew only a sanitised version of the story and believed that his father – who also served as a policeman – worked in some minor capacity in local government. It was only when his father died that he learned the truth, after receiving a letter of condolence from the local bishop. He had been contemplating writing a novel based on his father’s life as he understood it to have unfolded, only to learn from the Bishop of Nottingham that Frederick Hattersley had been parish priest of St Joseph’s Church, Shirebrook, Nottingham, and that he had been excommunicated after his marriage to Enid – they at least waited until her first husband John O’Hara was dead – because the Church considered him still to be a priest.    
How this background feeds into Hattersley’s long, sometimes wearying history of Britain’s Catholics since the Reformation isn’t clear. From his own point of view, the heroic figure is Cardinal Manning, Archbishop of Westminster, who settled the 1889 London dock strike and was instrumental in this and other ways in shifting the centre of gravity of English Catholicism away from the aristocracy and towards the working class. He stands, therefore, as an ideal model for Hattersley’s brand of right-wing socialism, albeit a slightly paradoxical model: images of Manning’s face were placed alongside Karl Marx’s on trade union banners.    
Manning further developed his ideas of social justic from Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, which marks the beginning of a modern Catholic view of social relations and equity. Hattersley was clearly influenced by these ideas. Though he had no idea why his father was so well versed in Vatican procedure and thinking, he benefited from Frederick Hattersley’s conversation. But just as his awareness of family history was full of carefully edited gaps, so is his view of British Catholicism rather patchy in his new book The Catholics (Chatto & Windus, £25).    
It’s a book that seems to take its cue from the behaviour of English Catholics during the Reformation persecution: a mixture of alertness and certainty in the faith. Hattersley’s conclusion, which he trips over many times in his 300 year narrative, is that what Catholicism requires is unflinching heroism. He seems oddly blind to the possibility that what defines key aspects of modern Catholicism is a more questioning approach and a somewhat eclectic and partial adoption of Catholic social teaching, particularly on matters like contraception and marriage.    
He raises again the possibility (probability? near certainty?) that Shakespeare was Catholic, but does a less convincing job than, say, literary critic Michael Alexander, who finds an essential core of Catholicism in the playwright’s late romances as well as in some of the great poems. And he looks, in a more cursory way, at some of the great modern Catholic writers in English, Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, but doesn’t have anything substantive to say about Anthony Burgess, one of the most interesting to come out of a (Lancastrian) Catholic background, like the Beatles, who could have done with some extended coverage.    
Oddly, for someone who was a Privy Councillor and who enjoyed high office, albeit largely in opposition, Hattersley doesn’t seem to know much about Vatican diplomacy, which comes right up to date with the appointment of Leo Cushley, now Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, but formerly head of the English-language section of the Vatican Secretariat of State. Nor does he even mention the visits of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI to Britain, the latter visit brokered by Cushley. In fact, Hatterlsey seems more comfortable in the 16th century past, and in the years leading up to the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in 1878. He embarked on the project intending a novel about his father, but then quickly discovered that reality was far more exotic than fiction. There’s a feeling throughout The Catholics that Hattersley wants to be Hilary Mantel rather than an academic historian but his characters rarely come alive, and when they do, as in the case of Manning, all sense of context or of other participants is largely lost. A disappointing book, then, that will seem even more remote and irrelevant to a Scots or a Northern Irish Catholic. Professor Sir Tom Devine has told their story much more vividly.
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Music of Catholic interest – III
Sometimes a record title tells you all you want to know about the music inside, and sometimes (ELO’s Greatest Hits anyone?) it doesn’t. Ablaze With Light, The Rose Singers, Peter Foggitt, conductor, Novum is a posthumous gathering of choral music by William Petter, who died of clear cell sarcoma on October 10 2016, just a fortnight before the planned recording went ahead. It begins with a beautiful setting of the Lord’s Prayer which has the signal gift of making us think freshly about the words, about where the emphases should fall and where the significant cadences lie. There is then a beautiful Vigil Mass, written for the Church of St Magnus the Martyr in London, where William was director of music. Likewise a notably stark and unvarnished St Magnus Mass, which flirts with coarseness in places, but pulls it off successfully. Petter’s death in his thirties robbed British sacred music of one of its most powerful new voices. This new recording is both a memorial to a man and an affirmation of confidence in the liveliness of liturgical music in Britain.
British music fans probably don’t know much about the life or work of Pellegrino Santucci, who died in 2010 at the age of 89. Having joined the order of the Servi di Maria in 1933, he was ordained priest a decade later, in the final stages of Mussolini’s wartime rule. He studied music after the war and devoted himself to reviving the flagging spirit of Italian liturgical writing, dedicating a 1970 album of Gregorian arrangements “To the gravediggers of Sacred Music”. Santucci’s Opere Sacre/Sacred Works, Tactus 3CD) are brought to life by a variety of choirs and instrumentalists, combining modern elements with ancient forms in a confident, almost Romantic manner. It’s very beautiful music and a good introduction to a relatively unfamiliar name.
There has been a flurry of recent recordings that pair works of the past with new arrangements or settings of the same material. ORA is a choir run by the indefatigable Suzi Rigby, very much committed to this kind of project. For its new recording, actually the second part of an ongoing series, they have taken a number of settings by Thomas Tallis, one of the greatest of all English sacred composers, and paired them with recent works by the likes of Steven Stucky Bob Chilcott, Harry Escott and Kerry Andrew. The result is Many Are The Wonders, harmonia mundi). At almost an hour and a quarter, it’s a heavy listen, particularly with so much repetition of themes, but taken a few tracks at a time, it’s a moving and very thoughtful collection and a first rate recording, even if you only have a small machine to play it on.
(All are available to borrow: ask Fr Tony.)
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Recent books of Catholic interest – II – April 24 2017; by Brian Morton

Film-maker Oliver Stone rarely spares his audience but his representation of the murder of Sr Maura Clarke is mercifully underplayed; indeed, only hinted at in his 1986 film Salvador, which includes a more explicit rendering of the assassination of Archbishop Óscar Romero. On December 2 1980, Sr Maura, along with her fellow Maryknoll Sister Ita Ford, Ursuline Dorothy Kazel and a lay missionary called Jean Donovan were raped and murdered by members of the Salvador National Guard.
     Sr Maura had worked in Central America since 1959. She had joined the Maryknollers specifically to work with the poor and oppressed in Latin America, arriving in Nicaragua at the height of the Somoza regime, a throwback to the dictatorships of the 1930s. She began her mission at a time when “liberation theology”, partly underpinned by Pope John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris encyclical, which opened a door to contact between Catholic and Marxist interests, was influential. Sr Maura, however, remained at some distance from such debates, preferring to work directly and simply with the poor. And yet she was strongly sympathetic to the aims – if not the methods – of the Sandinista resistance movement which eventually overthrew Anastasio Somoza Debayle, who had sat as president of Nicaragua from 1967 to 1979; he was later assassinated in Paraguay.
     Maura Clarke was born in 1931 in Queens, New York. Her Catholic family had Latin American connections. A new biography by Ellen Markey A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura (Nation Books, £22) traces her upbringing, politicisation during the JFK years and her decision to devote her life to the poor of Central America. “Sister Comunista”, as the authorities misleadingly described her, was distinguished by her ordinariness and simplicity of manner. It is clear that she was marked down early by the Nicaraguan state as a potential subversive. However, her fate lay elsewhere. She answered a call to the Maryknoll Sisters to come over to El Salvador, where the rural population had been cleared off its traditional lands and was effectively enslaved by the regime. Sr Maura had doubts about leaving Nicaragua, where her work was far from complete, but she answered the call. Archbishop Romero’s assassination by a death squad while he celebrated Mass should have been a warning that her own life and that of her sisters was in grave danger, but she continued with her work organising rural co-ops and agitating for the democratisation of rural land, right up until the night the group was stopped on a remote road and the women were beaten, violated and murdered.
    At this point, unlike Stone, Markey doesn’t quite pan away. However, despite the emphasis suggested by her subtitle, her book isn’t so much about the killings, grim as they were, but about Sr Maura’s mission. The book sometimes lacks proper context about the nature of Central American politics or the deeper background of Catholic efforts to promote social justice, but it is a mostly unsensational – if at times a little sentimental – account of a modern heroine and martyr, whose personality comes out in deeds rather than words and ideology.

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Recent music of Catholic interest – II – Pete Malinverni; by Brian Morton

The notion that jazz is the “Devil’s music” is as hard to shift as it is misleading. A substantial number of jazz musicians and singers had their first musical experiences in church and there is a deep vein of spirituality – not always limited to any particular faith – running through jazz history. Late in his career, Duke Ellington presented a series of “Sacred Concerts”, in which jazz, gospel and blues shared a common space. There have been a number of avowedly Catholic jazz composers, perhaps most notably Mary Lou Williams, who wrote a number of Masses in a jazz/classical style, and fellow-pianist Dave Brubeck, another convert who believed that jazz harmony could evoke prayer and meditation as well as sensuous excitement.
     Yet another pianist, Pete Malinverni comes from outside the Catholic tradition, but serves as a musical minister at a Methodist church in New York City and has frequently evoked sacred themes in his work. Malinverni’s latest CD is Heaven (Saranac Records). It includes beautiful versions of Ellington’s “Come Sunday”, one of his loveliest themes, and the title track “Heaven”, along with versions of “Psalm 23” by Malinverni himself, traditional tunes such as “Shenandoah”, “Wade In The Water”, “A City Called Heaven” and “Down in the River to Pray”, Hannah Senesh’s “Eili, Eili” and Curtis Mayfield’s “People, Get Ready”. Played by Malinverni’s current trio of bassist Ben Allison and drummer Akira Tana, the album has guest spots on three tracks. Even if you don’t like jazz, or don’t like it because you’ve never tried it, the familiarity of some of the material makes for a pleasant and quietly inspiring introduction.

(Available to borrow: leave a note at church if you’d like to hear it!)

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Recent books of Catholic interest – I – March 20 2017

David Jones was one of the most important poets and artists of the 20th century, and yet he rarely appears as more than a footnote in histories of Modernism. There are complex reasons for this. Jones wrote very little short poetry of a sort that might appear in anthologies, which is how most poetry is popularised. He was also as much visual artist as writer, working as an engraver (in opposition to his teacher Eric Gill’s artisan approach) and as a painter, which has meant that he falls between two schools, rather than stools; literary scholars tend to leave him to the art critics and art critics to the literary scholars. More casual readers find his two great poems In Parenthesis and The Anathemata dauntingly difficult to read. Neither is in conventional poetic form. Both draw heavily on Welsh myth, European romance, Shakespeare’s plays and scripture. 
     The earlier poem, published in 1937, is largely based on Jones’s experience on the Western Front in the First World War, where he served longer than any other of the “war poets”. His central character Dai Greatcoat, who utters a grand monologue at the poem’s heart, is one of the forgotten heroes of 20th century literature, carved out of Jones’s obsession with his own Welsh heritage. The Anathemata published in 1952, was inspired by a visit to Palestine and by what Jones thought of as strong parallels between the then British occupation and the earlier Roman occupation. It was always intended to be part of a much longer poem, further excerpts of which were eventually published as “The Sleeping Lord”.
     A final reason for Jones’s neglect is his Catholicism, which put him against the current of most modernist writing. He grew up as the youngest child of an Anglican (but not passionately so) mother and a fiery Evangelical father. Even before the war, Jones was drawn to Catholic ritual, which was deplored by his parents. He was once punished for carrying a home-made cross round the family garden on Easter Sunday. While serving at the front, he was deeply moved to observe Mass being celebrated in a ruined building behind Ypres. After being wounded and sent home, and subsequently discharged, Jones studied under the very culture Fr John O’Connor, who is said to be the prototype of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown.
    He declared himself to be a Thomist (though evidence for this is inconsistent) and was drawn to the then much-discussed ideas of Jacques Maritain, who thought of art as an objective “sign” for something in the real world. Jones considered taking holy orders but was dissuaded by his advisers who believed that his attraction to Catholicism was largely aesthetic. Jones considered the Mass to be the ultimate work of art and borrowed from an unconventional French priest the idea of a unity between Last Supper, Crucifixion and Mass of unbloody oblation, bloody immolation and unbloody re-enactment, deemed heretical by his advisers. When he contemplated becoming a monk after a visit to St Hugh’s Charterhouse in Parkminster, the prior Peter Pepin advised him to “find a good Catholic girl” and start a family. 
     Jones nearly married the daughter of Eric Gill, with whom he had worked and studied (unsuccessfully) at Ditchling, but he seemed unable to form a mature relationship and Petra eventually married another friend. Jones lived his life in a curious mixture of vulnerability and exaltation. When, as an 18 year old, I briefly met him in 1972, he seemed impossibly frail but also impossibly joyous; he visibly flinched when a door banged, a memory, no doubt of the fearsome bombardments he suffered hourly in 1916.
      Jones has been the particular study of Thomas Dilworth for many years. A new biography is already the fourth book on the subject Dilworth has published. And yet David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (Jonathan Cape, £25) can’t be considered his final word on the subject, since an even fuller version will be made available to scholars online. Often when an author knows too much about a subject, a biographical account can be knotted with detail and hard to read. Dilworth’s biography is a model, though, and brings to life an extraordinary personality and a body of creative work that has no parallel in recent times. The only question remaining is why Dilworth’s subtitle does not include the word Catholic. At a guess, the publishers might have advised against it as unlikely to market the book beyond what they would consider a niche market.
     Jones didn’t die in the trenches, and so was denied the spurious charisma of a fallen “war poet”. And yet he carried that experience, and the faith it brought him, through the next troubled half century, trying to understand how the First World War, which was widely regarded as unprecedented, sat alongside earlier European struggles and against the struggle between faith and unbelief. It might be argued that one can understand more about Jones by looking at one of his paintings than by reading In Parenthesis, but it is a work that is long overdue for reassessment and fresh reading. His fellow poets thought it was the finest work in English of its time. Even T. S. Eliot, who was only British by adoption, thought it represented British poetry at its height. Reading it again, right after reading Dilworth, it’s hard to argue with that.


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Music of Catholic interest – I – March 21 2017; Brian Morton

The French composer Francis Poulenc lost his Catholic faith during the First World War, convincing himself that the scale of violence that swept over Europe proved that there was either no God or else a powerless one. Poulenc enjoyed twenty years of hedonism, taking pleasure in mocking the conventions of the time, particularly the musical conventions. Though his music was widely decried by establishment critics and promoters, it became wildly popular.
Then, in 1936, catastrophe struck. Poulenc’s friend and companion Pierre-Octave Ferroud was killed in a terrible car crash, which left the young man decapitated. Poulenc was devastated. Shortly afterwards, while taking a holiday to recuperate, Poulenc visited the shrine at Rocamadour, a sanctuary associated with St Amator or Amadour, who is believed by some to be the Biblical Zachaeus and the husband of St Veronica. He is said to have built a shrine dedicated to the Blessed Virgin on her death, though other authorities identify Amadour with a Bishop of Auxerre, or another individual entirely.
For Poulenc, the experience was tremendous and he immediately afterwards wrote Trois litanies à la Vierge Noire de Rocamadour, dedicated to the “Black Virgin” there. It signalled the start of a new phase in his career, in which he tried to convey something of the “peasant devotion” he had experienced at the shrine and a sense of the frailty of the human frame and contrasting resilience of the spirit.
A new recording by leading choral ensemble The Sixteen, under its conductor Harry Christophers brings together the Litanies to the Black Virgin and a number of sacred works written in subsequent years, most notably the beautiful Mass in G from 1937. The collection, which is released on the Coro label (COR 16149) emphasises struggle and atonement, with prominent space given to Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence, leavened with a small number of Christmas/winter works. The Sixteen sing with great precision and control. Poulenc’s music works best when devotion is expressed most simply. It is a lovely recording, made in the Church of St Alban the Martyr on Holborn, London. The choir’s French pronunciation is accurate but not stiff or coached.

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Edie Hill is an American composer, based in Minneapolis. Her work covers many forms, but often seems to dwell on mystery. Her most recent recording is Clay Jug, a sequence of choral settings performed by leading ensemble The Crossing under its director Donald Nally and released on the Navona label (NV 6071). The title piece is based on the notion that we are both strong and vulnerable, capable of being filled with joy or suddenly emptied of it. Similar ideas occur in other pieces included in the set: We Bloomed In Spring is based on the words of St Teresa of Avila, and Cancion de el alma; En una noche escura on a text by San Juan de la Crux (St John of the Cross).
The singing is superlative and despite the very varied texts used, the set has a real shape and coherence that means the sum is bigger than the parts. The other highlight is a piece called From The Wingbone of a Swan, to a text by Hill and the writer Timothy O’Brien.

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Also by The Crossing and Nally is a recent release on the prestigious ECM label is a setting by English composer Gavin Bryars of a number of texts by the mystic Thomas Traherne. The Fifth Century (ECM 2065) is for the unusual setting of choir and saxophone quartet, an instrumental combination that Bryars has used previously. Traherne’s work was very nearly lost to history. Much of his writing was previously attributed to the poet Henry Vaughan, and little of his work was remembered until 1896, more than 200 years after his death, when some materials were discovered on a street bookstall. Further discoveries were made as recently as 1996, but little further is known about Traherne himself, save that he was born in Hereford, died in Teddington and in between, served as a clergyman and writer of mystical texts. His language is complex and often strange, particularly in the Centuries of Meditations, from which Bryars takes his material. Accompanying the recording, and unusually for ECM, who usually put out records with supporting text, there is a background essay on Bryars and Traherne by Brian Morton of Campbeltown. The Crossing are in excellent form, given the demands of the piece and it makes a fascinating and unusual contribution to British choral repertoire.

[If you would like to borrow any of these recordings, please leave a message at St Kieran’s, and the CDs will be left out for you.]

‘Corvo’
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