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The role of music in worship

30 November, 1999

An interview with Liam Lawton, composer and performer of sacred and liturgical music, about music as a part of the symbolic language of worship.

Liam Lawton is a composer and performer of sacred and liturgical music. Well established in Ireland and abroad, his music is used extensively throughout the country. An avid performer he has edited and written a number of books and has recorded nine albums to date. His website is www.liamlawton.com. He is a priest in the diocese of Kildare & Leighlin and currently resides in Carlow.


How and when did you become interested in liturgical music?

My interest in liturgical music began when I was a young boy listening to the choir in my home town. They were a four-part choir and I was always fascinated by harmony. As I grew up and became more interested in the contemporary music of the time I had a great desire to develop liturgical music in a more contemporary fashion. This was also influenced by my love for Irish music. I felt this has been neglected in liturgical circles and so my first compositions tried to address this. My very first collection was as Gaeilge and because of the huge interest in what I was doing I began to explore more possibilities.


Why is liturgical music important?

I could answer this question in a cynical mode by suggesting that, to some people, music in liturgy is not important at all, judging from some of the experiences I have had. But for me personally, music is part of the symbolic language of worship. I also believe it to be a vehicle of God’s revelation. It is a symbol of unity in a worshipping community between the people and their God and also among people themselves. I also believe that music can evoke a personal response from us as individuals and can enhance our own relationship with God. For me, to be present at a liturgy that is void of music and singing can be an empty experience, as I feel I am not fully communicating with my Creator who has endowed us with the gifts of sound and silence. I remember the phrase of the great French liturgist Joseph Gellineau who said: ‘If one person in the assembly is not singing then the praise of God is incomplete’. It seems we have a long way to go!


How do you think that liturgical music enhances the liturgy?

One of the great needs today in the world is hunger for beauty . We seek it in all kinds of ways in a world that is so full of mediocrity, banal images presented to us everyday and art forms that are void of a sense of life that can nurture the soul. I believe that in our liturgy we are called to express beauty, joy and life. These are essential elements in presenting a loving and caring God. Liturgies that do not express beauty and life are an injustice against the creative God. The ancient Gregorian Chant was a real expression of beauty, as was the music of the great composers, but today we have to find other means of expressing this beauty using the resources and the means that are at our disposal. I believe that we are not short of resources, but what we do need is a Church that will empower the artist to bring his creativity to life. Music in liturgy serves many purposes. It works at many levels, some known and some unknown, but we should never underestimate its power as a vehicle of God to touch and heal lives. I know this from personal experience.


What do you think of the current state of liturgical music

This is a difficult question to answer as it can be such and emotive and subjective issue. From my experience of travelling throughout the country constantly I believe that there is a huge diversity when it comes to good and bad experiences of liturgical music and liturgical practise. One of my greatest passions is to have the whole assemjJly sing for the liturgy. This will only happen when

  1. people have resources, i.e. words and music, or at least words, in front of them;
  2. people need to have music that is melodic and accessible. They listen to music all the time in their homes and cars, and so on, so we need to offer them music that is participative and memorable;
  3. people need to be animated and encouraged to take part and be involved. 

Very often in the past if you wanted to sing you went to the choir, remaining up in the gallery and with little or no connection with the assembly gathered below. They, in turn became passive participants and many continue to remain so. We need to develop the role of Cantor so that people can feel comfortable in taking part. All of this means that we need to resource our people, encourage and mentor people of talent and at times dig in to our pockets to provide the necessary resources.


When I edited the In Caelo hymnal for Veritas I gave a number of workshops around the country. I was shocked by the number of choirs who received little or no financial help to resource themselves and secondly by the refusal by many to make such a hymnal (or any hymnal) available to the wider congregation. I am sure there are many people in our assemblies who would buy their own hymnals if they were only encouraged to do so. We also need to nurture our artists and composers so that they can develop their skills and bring their work to a larger audience. We need proper publishing facilities so that we don’t lose our composers to foreign places or worse still cause them to give up because of lack or care and proper mentoring. I could fill a complete magazine on the latter subject so I think I should stop!


What are you working on at the moment?

I have just released a new album called Beyond Words. This is the first instrumental collection that I have recorded and it was an opportunity to give new life to some of the more popular pieces that I have written. This is the most contemporary sounding album that I have done and it is also aimed at the more mainstream market. A more reflective album, it is done in a more contemporary way. It is what I term as a ‘Christian Chill-out album’ to use modern music terms! Recorded in Rhode Island, Nashville, and Carlow I have still used traditional Irish instruments in the arrangements. I have also just produced a CD A Time to Pray for the enclosed Poor Clare Sisters here in Carlow where I live. It is a collection of reflections, readings and sacred music and has had a huge response.


This month I am publishing a collection and CD of wedding music – A Day of Our Own – based on my own compositions. Apart from this I am in the middle of a concert tour which is taking me all over Ireland, to the US and to Britain, with some workshops included. My music has just been translated into the Nordic languages and into German and also by a number of ecumenical publishers and I am really happy about this!


 This article first appeared in Intercom (Feb 2004), a pastoral and liturgical resource magazine published by Veritas.

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