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The Sacred Music of Nicholas Wilton

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 15, 2009

If you like the sacred music of the 16th century (and if you don’t like Palestrina, it is time to cultivate your musical sensibilities), but you also value contemporary composers who extend rather than merely repeat our Catholic patrimony, then look no further. Nicholas Wilton, an Englishman very much in his prime as a choral composer, has given us a wonderful CD entitled Sacred Choral Music, sung by the Magnificat choir directed by Philip Cave.

I’m listening to one of Wilton’s two Ave Marias as I write. Most of his work is inspired by the great composers of the 16th century, a definitive period for magnificent Catholic sacred music. But again, Wilton is not a slavish imitator. He moves easily into complex harmonies that are more reminiscent of the 19th century Romantic composers, a perfect example of his ability to build on the tradition, rather than insisting on either imitating or undermining. It very likely helps Wilton’s command of harmony that he began his career by composing for piano.

Sacred Choral Music consists of fourteen short pieces. His motets—that is, sacred texts set to music—range from a little over thirty seconds to a little over three minutes. There are new settings for potential Benediction hymns in “O salutaris”, “Ave verum” and “Tantum ergo”. Several works are inspired directly by the Blessed Virgin Mary, including a rich “Ave Maria” in seven voices. The funeral liturgy is represented in “Requiem aeternam”. Wilton’s stunning “Panis angelicus” is a rare piece for solo voice, operatic in style, sung on the CD by Julian Gavin. I’m particularly fond of the closing piece, “Felix namque es”, a setting for the joyful Offertory text from the Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary between Christmas and Easter.

Wilton tends toward a monophonic style with a keen ear for what ordinary Catholic choirs can sing. He has been influenced by the Cecilian Movement, founded by Franz Xavier Witt in the 19th century, the goal of which was to provide liturgical music in the sixteenth-century style for choirs of all sizes, including smaller parishes. Nicholas Wilton avoids writing music that only professionals can sing; he wants his music to be used widely at Mass.

But if you aren’t particularly knowledgeable about choral music, you wouldn’t know that Wilton is making things easier on the performers. His sacred music is deeply reverent, exquisitely beautiful, and clearly born of the same great tradition that it continues.

[Sacred Music, composed by Nicholas Wilton, sung by Magnificat under the direction of Peter Cave. CD including liner notes and texts. See http://www.catholicmusic.co.uk/ for ordering information for both CDs and sheet music.]

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