Heart speaks unto heart: what next for musicians after Covid-19?

Matthew Schellhorn on the extraordinary benefits of singing and its essential place at the centre of liturgical life.
During the coronavirus pandemic, I was asked by the Catholic Herald to research the impact of lockdown on professional musicians working in the field of Sacred Music. The responses included a range of heart-breaking stories, including singers experiencing poor communication with churches and clergy and entire choirs being put out of work. Fortunately, some choirs and organists have had the opportunity either to record or live-stream liturgical music from which congregations have benefitted greatly: notably, Westminster Cathedral and other churches have streamed Masses online showing at least organists doing their work in situ. Yet one choir director was in touch to share that, in the face of having offered creative solutions, her long-term contract had been terminated. All responses shared an apprehension for the future. As one musician said: “I wonder what we are coming back to.”

What is now clear, for all the uncertainty and the financial exigencies, is that life for musicians – both professional and amateur – has already altered radically, and it might not get back to what we knew before very soon. Sadly, even with changed conditions in July, government guidelines state that activities such as “singing, chanting, shouting and/or playing of instruments that are blown into should be specifically avoided in worship or devotions and in rehearsals”. Fortunately, where “essential to an act of worship” – which we can say it is, for the celebration of Mass with solemn ceremonies – “one individual only should be permitted to sing or chant”.

(I was most puzzled by the requirement that people “should avoid singing… at a volume that makes normal conversation difficult or that may encourage shouting”: perhaps at Mass the onus might be on a congregation to cut the volume of their “normal conversation”?)

The government’s small concession will come as cold comfort for the many musicians who cannot wait after months of lockdown to give of their time and talents. Unfortunately, there is no further clarity on the role of choirs in the Archbishops’ Letter on Resumption of Collective Worship, which mentions (and forbids) only congregational singing.

The fact that the scientific evidence of playing instruments and singing in church is hardly conclusive of course makes it all the harder to bear for musicians. In the same vein is the tantalising yet nonsensical diktat that theatres and music halls may reopen, but they will not be allowed to hold live performances.

One issue that lies at the heart of the conundrum as we move forwards in a socially distanced world is the truth that music speaks to an existential need. As per the heraldic motto of Saint John Henry Newman, ‘heart speaks unto heart’ in a musical performance – or should do, at least. Such metaphysical communication counter-intuitively requires a proximate set of listeners and participants.

Patron of the Latin Mass Society Sir James MacMillan has taken on the task of trying to get choral singing back on its feet, at least in Scotland, after the global pandemic. In an open letter to the Scottish Culture Secretary signed by over twenty leading Scotland-based musicians, Sir James calls choral singing “a force for good”, noting that it promotes “teamwork, social skills and enhances individual well-being”. For many musicians, he writes, “it is their primary source of income”, though the Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on our cultural life.

What is needed in England and Wales, as Sir James has said for Scotland, is a “planned and responsible way” out of this crisis. The “bad press” caused by a vast range of “scientific” papers has not established any “facts” and let us not forget that choral singing “comes in all shapes and sizes” making a blanket ban inappropriate.

I and other musicians thank all those who recognise the extraordinary benefits of singing, not to mention its essential aspects in terms of liturgical life, and who understand the concept of mitigating the worst effects of Covid-19 by other beneficial activities such as music making. I hope all musicians will soon be able to make good on their promises, like those of the psalmist’s, to give praise to God as long as they live, while they have their being.

This article was first published in Mass of Ages, the quarterly magazine of the Latin Mass Society, in Autumn 2020 (Issue 205)
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