… If [sacred choral music] is not to be consigned to history, it needs to be maintained, refreshed, renewed. And playing no small part in that endeavour is The London Festival of Contemporary Church Music which has just had its 2023 season with events spread across 40 or so venues around the capital.

LFCCM sets out to encourage composers of worth to write for the Church, especially ones that aren’t known as ecclesiastically minded. In recent years, it’s commissioned more than 80 new works and found platforms for them in the course of parish or cathedral worship. But it also promotes concerts – one of which, this year, ran at Hampstead’s Anglican parish church to celebrate the legacy of father/son composers Lennox and Michael Berkeley.

Lennox, who died in 1989, was a convert to Catholicism; Michael, who has just had his 75th birthday, was once a choirboy at Westminster Cathedral; and through the years, the Berkeley family contribution to liturgical music has been significant. Lennox’s modest but fervent Missa Brevis (written for that cathedral in 1960) counts as a modern classic, as does his gentle 1975 setting of The Lord is My Shepherd. And Michael’s 2015 Te Deum has similar potential: a striking piece that proceeds with the heavy tread of ancient ceremonial.

All this music featured in the Hampstead concert, as did a brand new piece from Michael setting words from WH Auden’s Christmas Oratorio text that Lennox was asked to set back in the 1930s but never did: a neat connection there across the decades. But music aside, the event supplied an interesting glimpse into the context of faith, or otherwise, from which these two composers have approached their work.

Addressing the audience, Michael said of his father’s Catholicism: “If it wasn’t exactly who he was, it was who he thought he should be… He found in religious music a kind of sublimation of the other passions in his life.” And turning to himself, Michael admitted to being “more secular these days, though I’m drawn to ritual”. It left hanging in the air that standard question about whether music for the Church is somehow more effective when it’s written by a true believer. Can you tell? And does it ultimately matter? …

Excerpt from “Enjoying Tango and Church Music” by Michael White
The Catholic Herald
4 July 2023