Sacred music plays a strong role in our programmes this year. Inevitably, given the way choral music has always been so strongly rooted in religious ritual, it is no surprise to find ourselves presenting such magnificent works as Poulenc’s Mass, Howells’s Requiem and Sir James Macmillan’s Stabat Mater (and next season the complete Bach motets) without consciously intending to make any religious gesture as such: it is in the nature of our repertoire. Or at least, that is the way it can seem.
The old division between sacred and secular music is no longer sufficient to fit the needs of a multicultural world in which perhaps most people no longer go regularly to church or even consider themselves believers, and therefore have no direct connection to the liturgical significances that underwrite such a large amount of great choral music. I see it as one of the important challenges for contemporary music to seek out texts and indeed purposes for new vocal works so that they will more substantially and meaningfully reflect the condition of modern society. We need texts that explore, criticise, celebrate and mourn the human condition—and not just the triumphs and tribulations of romantic love. These ideals have already guided some of the works we have commissioned in recent years from various Irish composers, and several of these can be heard in the programme Choirland Revisited, which offers a fine mixture of sardonic wit and humanist compassion in its texts and music. Meanwhile, of course, we shall continue to sing good old-fashioned sacred music as well. For many of us this is simply what we do. Others may be thinking along the lines expressed by the late Sir Geoffrey Hill: “I say it is not faithless / to stand without faith, keeping open / vigil at the site.”
In January our work for this year began with a recording of Tarik O’Regan’s cantata, A Letter of Rights, for which CCI was joined by the Irish Chamber Orchestra. Written to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, that was drawn up in England in 1216 and arrived in Ireland the following year, it features a specially commissioned libretto by Sir Geoffrey’s widow, Alice Goodman. Her beautiful text is a delight to sing, and such a collaboration is an example of the kind of gesture that a modern vocal work can construct while remaining outside the realm of sacred music.