Mass for the fallen - Madonna Magazine

Mass for the fallen

Rosie Hoban 10 March 2017

Most of us know composer Christopher Willcock. We may not be on speaking terms, but if you have been to Mass in the past three decades you are probably on singing terms with him.

Jesuit priest Christopher Willcock is one of Australia’s most prolific liturgical composers. He has written scores of hymns and Mass parts in a long career that has taken him around the world, into concert halls, homes and cathedrals. His latest musical work was created for the ‘top end’ cathedrals as well as the humble local parish church. Christopher was commissioned to write parts for a Mass to commemorate the ANZAC Centenary this year.

Mass for the Fallen was commissioned by well-known Melbourne philanthropists Allan and Maria Myers to mark the 100 years since the Anzacs landed on Gallipoli in 1915. The work comprises a setting of the Kyrie Eleison and Sanctus, the Acclamation and Amen during the Eucharistic Prayer, and the Agnus Dei. It is written for cantor, optional choir, keyboard (organ or piano) and congregation. In addition, there is a setting for soprano solo, choir and piano of the well-known verse from Laurence Binyon’s poem For the Fallen, entitled We Will Remember Them. The verse from Binyon’s 1914 poem that Christopher has put to music is very familiar to most Australians:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

While the work was commissioned to coincide with the program of the 2015 centenary celebrations, Christopher hopes the various parts will be used time and again. Only the piece We Will Remember Them is war related and so more suited to particular times of the year.

‘Allan and Maria wanted to ensure that this music was accessible to be played and sung in cathedrals as well as small and sometimes less well-resourced local parishes. So that is how I have composed the music. It will also have a life way beyond this ANZAC centenary year. Allan and Maria also wanted it to be available to everyone free, with no copyright costs involved’, Christopher says.

‘It was difficult to make the music simple, but not so simple that people would be bored by it. For small parishes the parts can be used as long as they have a cantor, a keyboard or piano and a congregation.’

Christopher started learning the piano at his grandmother’s behest when he was eight, and joined choirs and various singing groups through his teens. Throughout his schooling, music was part of his academic and recreational life and he loved it. Woven through all his musical adventures as a young man, both secular and religious, was the yearning to be a priest. The Jesuits had never taught him, but after much consideration he thought they were the ones who might best accommodate his love of God and music. It seems Christopher was right.

He studied composition at the University of Sydney and began composing music in the 1960s; more formally after joining the Society of Jesus in 1969. Christopher considers himself blessed to have studied composition at university under the great Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe who died in Sydney last August. After his ordination in 1977 Christopher did doctoral studies in sacramental and liturgical theology jointly at the Institut Catholique and the Sorbonne in Paris.

Christopher lectured at the Jesuit Theological College in Melbourne for 35 years before retiring from teaching last year. He also held the Gasson Chair in Jesuit Studies at Boston College for a year from 2011. However, Christopher has certainly not retired from music. If anything, his time away from the lecture theatre may afford him more time for music. He rarely composes anything now of his own accord, preferring commissioned work, such as the Mass For The Fallen. There are past exceptions, including the 22 Common Responsorial Psalms which he composed as a challenge to himself.

‘I thought that setting those psalms would be a service for the church so I wrote the music as a challenge and they are still going 30 years later.’

Christopher is quick to acknowledge what a great gift it is to be able to compose beautiful music that so many can share and for generations to come. He admits to not fully understanding how music does what it does.

‘We composers are the worst ones to ask about music. We are very unreliable. But really I am just a “tradie” doing the dots and dashes. I do it and then see what the punters say.
‘It’s a great gift, but a whacky gift in a way. People enjoy music, but very few of us have the words to describe what it is to us. It is sometimes impossible to describe the impact music has on us as we listen. It’s like the feeling of sitting in silence and then you hear a piece of music and it can transform you, but it’s hard to describe the process of being transformed by the sound of music.’

All the music for Mass for the Fallen is available for free download from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference website, or go to:


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