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Composing Prayer: Renowned Jesuit Composer Marries Music and Prayer
St. Augustine wrote: “For he who sings praise, does not only praise, but also praises joyfully; he who sings praise, not only sings, but also loves Him whom he is singing to.”
For renowned Australian composer, Fr. Christopher Willcock, SJ, music is both the prayer and the praise.
“Making music in God’s praise, for me, there isn’t any disjunction between music and praying,” said Willcock, 66. “The act of making music is my address to the Creator. It’s my part of the conversation between me, as the creation and God, as the Creator. Music is the prayer.”
Fr. Willcock’s musical journey began as a child, at his grandmother’s encouragement. Although she couldn’t play a musical instrument, her love of music set him on his journey. She paid for piano lessons, which he continued to study through grade school and high school.
He also learned cello and harp, but admits he’s not very good at either: “I just wanted to experience making music by means other than fingers striking keys on a piano. “
It was during his studies at the University of Sydney that Willcock delved into the world of liturgical music. He began composing settings of the liturgy in English immediately after Vatican II, and in the years since, earned an impressive resume.
Many of his compositions have been performed all over the world, including at the Jesuit Jubilee Mass in St. Peter’s Square in 2006, as well as by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, to name a few. Willcock is now an adjunct professor of liturgy and theology at the Jesuit Theological College in Australia, where he continues to hone his craft.
Though there are many, some of Willcock’s noteworthy pieces include: Who Did You See?, God Here Among Us, and In the Peace of Christ. One of his favorite compositions is “Akhmatova Requiem,” set to the words of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. Writing about the extreme sufferings during the Stalin regime, Akhmatova named her series of poems “Requiem.” Willcock found inspiration in her poems, many of which felt like a Way of the Cross, he said.
“It’s a journey, not just through the hideous years of the Stalinist era, but about the effects of that era on the population. She was fighting destroyers of the culture she loved so much,” he said. “It’s a work that I not just have affection for, but for what it betokens. The world isn’t such a great place for many people.”
Following a performance of “Akhmatova Requiem,” Willcock met two women who expressed feeling a very personal connection with his composition, despite originally being from Southeast Asia, not Russia.
“I said to them, ‘Ladies, thank you for your comments, but you amaze me. What sort of contact would you have had with the Show Trials of 1930s Russia?’ And they said, ‘Oh no, it wasn’t 1930s Russia we were hearing. We were hearing our history under Pol Pot in Cambodia.’
So these are people who had been through all that, and what they were hearing in the music was their own history and not the history of Russia. That really stopped me in my tracks. What can I say to that? Nothing.”
Willcock notes that by making himself open to God and the world around him, he is able to be as honest a composer as he can.
“I often try to be totally aware of my own place,” he said. “When I’m taking a walk, I try to notice all the sounds I can hear. The sounds of nature, the sounds of a dog barking or horns honking, to be aware of all the sounds that normally we take in but don’t recognize. I think it’s linked to those Ignatian practices of awareness-raising. It can have a powerful impact on one’s prayer patterns and their spirituality.”
Listen to a selection of Fr. Christopher Willcock’s compositions at his Oregon Catholic Press artist page.