O Sing unto the Lord: A History of English Church Music by Andrew Gant - review by Rupert Christiansen

Rupert Christiansen

The Aisle is Full of Noises

O Sing unto the Lord: A History of English Church Music


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Among the many reasons I am grateful for the unabashedly Anglican prep-school education I received some half a century ago, an introduction to the tradition of English church music is high on the list. My headmaster’s wife, an imaginative pianist and accomplished organist, developed twelve of us short-grey-trousered pipsqueaks into an admirable little choir responsible for leading the liturgical responses, pointed psalms, hymns and anthems at a weekly service in the chapel. I may not be a believer now, but at least I have felt the joy of part-singing Tomkins and Byrd, and I know my Dyson in F from my Sumsion in G. In dark times, this can be a comfort.

Although faith is now generally retreating with what Matthew Arnold called a melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, the sounds of Christianity still saturate our culture, not only in the form of hymns, carols and gospel music but also in the faux spirituality purveyed by the likes of Eric Whitacre and the succession of chart-topping sedative recordings emanating from convents and monasteries. Even Fifty Shades of Grey attempts to elevate itself through Tallis’s great forty-part motet Spem in alium, while football terraces still echo to ‘Abide with me’ and ‘Jerusalem’.

O Sing unto the Lord is an illuminating and entertaining history of this phenomenon, stretching back well over a millennium. Drawing on his own extensive experience as choirmaster at the Chapel Royal, Andrew Gant covers this vast territory in breezy, unbuttoned fashion, without recourse to pedantry or jargon. It seems a pity that oratorio is sidelined on the grounds that it was not composed for church services, and there are times, especially in the later pages, when he seems to be namechecking insignificant figures, with a kindly word for all, rather than shaping a coherent narrative through the major talents. Some may find the lapses into jokiness irritating too, but the upbeat mood is a fault on the right side and the Tiggerish enthusiasm for digging into nooks and crannies is infectious.

The trail was laid by Gregorian chant or plainsong, that great corpus of monodic melodies imported from Rome at Augustine’s arrival in Britain at the end of the sixth century and soon established as a cornerstone of monastic observance. Gant shows how this austere form gradually relaxed and expanded, weaving in flourishes and improvised harmonies with a liberty generally frowned on by the doctrinal authorities as decadently sensual (adding fifths in parallel might have passed muster, but ‘sexing the third’ was a step too far).

The pace quickened early in the second millennium. The 12th century saw the rise of the liturgical drama, which has its feeble descendant in the primary-school nativity play. During the 13th and 14th centuries the rhythmically complex polyphonic motet developed. The 15th century witnessed a liberation from Continental models and increasing confidence in an English way of doing things, exemplified in the genius of John Dunstaple and the distinctive use of the high treble voice.

But church music was very much confined at this stage to an elite of Latin-speaking hierophants, namely the priesthood; it was everyone else’s duty to listen rather than join in. The Reformation brought this exclusivity to an end by embracing the vernacular and drawing the congregation (including women) into vocal worship. However, Gant reveals in fascinating detail (with reference to the scholarship of Nicholas Temperley and Eamon Duffy) that this wasn’t a simple matter: elements of Catholic practice survived in a protracted va-et-vient as progress was followed by reaction and moderation fought with fanaticism. Across half an ideologically restless century, the two greatest composers of the period, Tallis and Byrd, played this game with consummate diplomacy as well as musical genius.

This was also the era of Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer, with its provision of antiphonally sung canticles and responses. The most far-reaching innovation of the time, however, was the congregational chanting of psalms, based on a printed collection of metrical translations with tunes that remained in wide use for two hundred years, known after its editors as ‘Sternhold and Hopkins’.

After the hiatus of the Commonwealth, the Restoration brought a new sophistication and cosmopolitanism to church music, focused on the Chapel Royal and its choir. Purcell introduced French elegance, while Handel brought German vigour and Italian floridity as the anthem decisively replaced the Mass. But the music-making of the Chapel Royal was every bit as elitist as that of the pre-Reformation cathedral chantries. For most of the population, the musical evolution took the form of lusty hymn singing in Nonconformist and Methodist chapels and parish choirs, a practice promoted by Isaac Watts and John and Charles Wesley.

This remains crucial three hundred years on, but it is also a prime cause of the marked decline in the quality of cathedral music that persisted through Mendelssohn’s revivalism and the Victorian cult of the oratorio and the choral society. Only in the first decades of the 20th century, when Vaughan Williams, Holst and Howells rediscovered the Tudors and made imaginative use of folk traditions, did the barometer rise again. A further surge was provided by Britten in astonishingly original works such as A Ceremony of Carols and Missa Brevis in D.

The last fifty years has seen a further, remarkable resurgence in choral singing at the highest level, particularly in Oxbridge college chapels, as well as a contrasting move to incorporate the more demotic and inclusive sounds of pop and rock into ordinary worship. Gant takes a relatively liberal view of this phenomenon, but the most resonant thought that his study leaves us with is provided by Diarmaid MacCulloch, quoted in its final pages:

It is one of the curiosities of Western society since the Enlightenment that much of its greatest sacred music (though by no means all) has been the work of those who have abandoned any structured Christian faith … Perhaps music might be one way past the impasse which has been the experience of some versions of the Protestant Reformation, tangled in the torrent of words which has flowed around the Word which dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.

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