The Oude Kerk church in Amsterdam, c.1600. It is now in the middle of the city's red light district. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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What should happen to churches as religion recedes?

As church-going diminishes, church buildings are repurposed, many retaining vital functions.

There is a scene in Denys Arcand’s 2003 film The Barbarian Invasions, in which a young French antiques appraiser visits a Quebec Catholic church to size up some long unused religious artefacts the local priest is trying to offload. The priest shows her around a dusty lock-up and tells her: “Quebec used to be as Catholic as Spain or Ireland. Everyone believed. At a precise moment, during the year 1966 in fact, the churches suddenly emptied in a matter of months. A strange phenomenon that no one has ever been able to explain.” The irony of course is that churches would in time also empty, or at least become emptier, in Ireland and Spain. This scene however sums up eloquently the material legacy a societal decline in religious faith leaves. Stripped of their function in a thriving congregation, surplus ciboria, chalices and tabernacles of modest craftsmanship become items of largely worthless bric-a-brac. (It is interesting though that all three of those items endure as living, breathing examples of Quebec French’s wonderfully colourful profanity.)

In many Western countries (but clearly not all), the decline in church-going has seen the patrimony of churches threatened, particularly ones in smaller towns and villages that cannot harness their appeal as tourist attractions. About 30 Church of England churches are closed for worship every year and more than 1,000, of all faiths, have been made “redundant”, as church jargon calls it, since the 1960s. The decision is pragmatic, with the cost of maintaining the buildings to cater for dwindling congregations becoming prohibitive. The churches, once deconsecrated, find new lives as residential properties, village halls, bookshops, libraries, theatres, concert venues or gastropubs. They also sometimes become places of worship for other faiths – these days most often mosques or Evangelical churches. Not that that is an entirely recent development either – the Brick Lane Mosque started off as a Huguenot chapel in the mid-eighteenth century, and then became a Methodist church and a synagogue before taking on its current incarnation in 1976.

France, a country which has seen a similar decline in church attendance, has a different approach. The 1905 law ordaining the separation of Church and State ruled that all churches built prior to that date would become the property of the state, which would henceforth be responsible for their upkeep. It is an unusual responsibility to take on, especially in the light of the law’s avowed intention, but it works reasonably well, allowing the churches to benefit from the expertise and resources of state conservation agencies. The state is also now prohibited from funding the construction of new churches (except in Alsace and Lorraine, exempt because they were German in 1905) so organised religion is responsible for taking care of anything built since the law was enacted. Not that all churches have been saved from oblivion but only 400 out of some 44,000 are believed to be in material danger, which is not bad in a country where only 4.5 per cent of the population are regular church-goers.

France, which was already the epicentre of the flowering of great Gothic architecture of the Middle Ages, has also continued to build some great churches, with a stab at ecclesiastical architecture being de rigueur for many of the great French or French-based architects, such as Victor Baltard, Gustave Eiffel, Le Corbusier, Auguste Perret and Claude Parent; there were also renowned church-building specialists such as Pierre Paquet and Jacques Droz. Despite its testy relationship with organised religion, France loves its churches and they are indelibly embedded in both the landscape and the country’s cultural history. Churches also rarely end up being used for other purposes. Though the Jacobins and Communards both commandeered churches for profane uses (as did other iconoclasts such as Oliver Cromwell and Enver Hoxha), the Priory of Saint-Martin-des-Champs (now the Musée des arts et métiers) and Jacques-Germain Soufflot’s Panthéon are among the few prominent churches that became permanently secular. Many of the aforementioned jewels of Gothic architecture, such as Notre Dame de Paris, Sainte-Chapelle, the Basilica of Saint-Denis and the cathedrals of Rouen, Chartres and Reims each draw hundreds of thousands of tourists each year (and manage to avoid admission fees such as St Paul’s Cathedral’s gobsmacking £18.50). But humble parish churches are also affectionate landmarks for even non-believers and non-Christians. When I first arrived in Paris, I was amazed to find a church in Beaubourg that showed art-house films on Sunday nights, and Jacques Delors, later European Commission president, in the 1950s ran a film club in the church I can see from my window in the eastern neighbourhood of Ménilmontant.

Even as they might administer to fewer parishioners these days, many churches in Europe still retain vital functions – they have become centres of both worship and socialising for immigrant communities, such as St Peter the Apostle church in Woolwich, and the Igreja de São Domingos in Lisbon, both of which attract African immigrants. Churches across Europe have also been literally refuges for migrants and refugees. And even among the more spiritually feckless, churches remain a favoured choice as wedding venues, though the superficial interest and opportunism often strains the patience of pastors.

Some churches are incongruous in their present locations, such as the 800-year-old Oude Kerk in the midst of Amsterdam’s red-light district, though there is a certain Bunyanesque aptness about a Calvinist church’s close proximity to sin. The “meaning” of a church has changed for many of us who don’t believe, but that doesn’t mean churches cannot be welcoming places – there is nothing I love more than to go into an unknown church and sit for a few minutes in the calm. There is an architectonic ambience imparted by churches, even the less spectacular ones, that few other buildings give off. There are churches in some unlikely places that I hold close to my heart, such as Sigurd Lewerentz’s red-brick Markuskyrkan, suffused with Nordic warmth, in a Stockholm suburb or Jože Plečnik’s concrete Church of the Holy Spirit in Vienna. As well as being architecturally fascinating, they feel faultlessly right. For this reason I am not a big fan of churches being converted for more practical uses when abandoned by the religious. The resultant effect is invariably kitsch or one of petit-bourgeois propriety. It is, of course, sacrilegious (from a conservationist point of view) to say this but I would sooner let them turn into elegant ruins or, as the French, those great connoisseurs of church architecture, have done so many times throughout history, knock them down and build something new in their stead.

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser