The Church Music Society

Registered Charity No. 290309

Music's Untrodden Paths

Judith Blezzard
Senior Lecturer in Music, University of Liverpool

An Address given to the Church Music Society at Sarum College, Salisbury, on 18 July 1997, Ian Curror Esq in the Chair

Since the technological developments of the present century, music has become more easily available than ever before. Some might say that this has its disadvantages: music of any kind may be present in situations which could be considered inappropriate, and it could be argued that this devalues an art treasured by humankind. If speech is silver and silence golden, then music in some circumstances may rank as a very base metal indeed. Music costs money to produce, whether in print, or as a performance or recording; and to many (understandably) it is a means of making more money. Enjoyment and fulfillment are secondary considerations. This applies very much to secular music, but is church music any different? It is true that in the production of church music there may appropriately be a sense of higher purpose: a spiritual dimension that transcends personal enjoyment or fulfillment. But acts of worship do not come free. Church musicians have to eat, and even the most altruistic and dedicated music publishers will not publish church music unless they see a worthwhile market for it.

These aspects of music production have an overwhelming effect on what music is heard as part of worship, and this collection of brief observations will not even begin to explore music outside the worship environment. For music to appear in print, a process commercially viable since the early sixteenth century, it has to have been considered to be a possible worthwhile venture. One wonders what happened to all the music in the last five hundred years that was never printed and of which only a single copy, or perhaps a few copies in manuscript, remains. Even printed music often has a rarity value. Although the act of printing means that the music has, to put it in biblical terms, gone forth and multiplied, print runs from small publishers even in the present century were often very short, so that few copies were preserved, let alone used. This is just one possible reason for a musical pathway to fall into disuse. Similar reasons result from changing demands, changing fashions, changing events or a combination of all these.

It is appropriate to question the purpose and value of exploring music’s untrodden paths, although these paths may have remained untrodden for commercial or practical rather than musical reasons. The analogy between musical and geographical exploration is worth pursuing. Why go to a great deal of trouble, expense and physical hardship to climb a mountain? Because it’s there. A shallow answer, perhaps, but one that conceals many reasons of which perhaps the principal one is that of natural curiosity: to find out more about the world and to enrich human understanding of it, as well as for personal fulfillment if not for fame. It is the same with music: why spend time, money and effort, if not physical endurance (though that can be a factor on a cold winter day in an unheated dusty archive) looking at music manuscripts or similar artefacts? The answers are the same, although fame, unless one discovers a lost masterpiece, is the least likely outcome. Many musicians (as distinct from those whose involvement with music is limited to its commercial aspects) delight in the challenge and fascination of discovery for its own sake, rather than necessarily as the means to an end. If discoveries lead to further possibilities such as performance or publication, then so much the better. Some paths may well turn out to have been scarcely worth retreading, but even this experience teaches its own lessons.

Sometimes, as part of exploration, one can stray on to a particular path without a special aim or even by mistake, to find that the path leads to unexpected delights. Many musicians can recollect experiences of this kind, each one unique and often highly pleasurable and memorable: more of that in a moment. But sometimes one can set out on a deliberate journey along an untrodden musical path for a special reason. Music students doing postgraduate research set themselves challenges like this. Music undergraduates working in areas such as editorial techniques and palaeography are taught how to treat untrodden paths with respect, including ways of coming to terms with the hazards and problems they may meet while treading a painstaking way towards a musical objective.

The special reasons for such exploration can include commercial ones. My own involvement, as well as in teaching and supervising, is often as a repertory consultant for publishers, performers or recording companies. This entails advising on particular compilations: for example on lesser-known part-songs for a choir to use in recordings of Schubert, Pearsall and Charles Wood; and on nineteenth-century French upper-voice motets, just the most recent one of several anthologies for a publisher of choral music. This kind of work is fascinating. Music’s untrodden paths in the British Library alone are legion. In addition to many hours there looking through scores and listening silently to the music in one’s head; one needs to apply a mixture of detective work, perseverance, hunch and a dash of the low cunning that comes from spending years working in a university with musicians and publishers, for the most part a privilege and a pleasure nevertheless.

Of the dangers that lie in wait along music’s untrodden paths, two in particular raise important issues in church music. One is the matter of anonymity, or the plight of the unknown or little-known composer. Often in our own time it is the name of a well-known author that sells a book, the name of a well-known composer or performer that sells a piece of music or a recording. Names are important because they tell the librarian or shopkeeper where to file or shelve an item, and because they tell the consumer what to expect so that an acquisition can be seen as a safe bet. Even music dictionaries contribute towards this kind of categorisation. Students are apt to use the label ‘Not In The New Grove’ as a mark of opprobrium, an excuse to sideline a composer as not worth bothering about.

This was not always so. Even in Tudor times, the composer ranked alongside the stonemason as the skilled servant craftsman, who did what was required but expected no celebrity status. Certainly in church music, the concept of the artist as inspired genius or unique individual had not arisen. To conduct a survey of English church music by looking only for the names of famous composers would give rise to an incomplete picture. Anonymous works, and those by lesser-known composers, are important to an understanding of many aspects of church music. For example, many if not most of the earliest examples of English-texted church music, which only after some decades gave way to what is now recognised as the glorious era of Talus, his contemporaries and followers, are anonymous. Without knowledge of the sources, which until recently were among music’s untrodden paths because they can be awkward to reconstruct, these examples are not easy to find. It is important that exploration of music’s untrodden paths should not be hampered by a perceived need to attach music to a particular named composer.

The work of lesser-known composers, however good their individual pieces may be, may remain unexplored even if they found their way into print. This struck me forcibly recently on receiving a telephone call that a large municipal library nearby was reorganising its stacks. Could I go at once and retrieve any sets of choral leaflets that might be useful? It was the summer holidays, so my young son (a chorister) and I set off immediately by train with shopping bags. We had to act quickly, for the trolleys loading items for the skip were only one bay behind us. There was no time to lose and we could not save everything, so we decided to save sets of music by composers we had heard of: in the event this was people like Sterndale Bennett, Sullivan, Barnby, the Wesleys, Elgar and Mendelssohn.

We ransacked the shelves but it was a distasteful experience because it seemed like looting. When our shopping bags were full we had to leave the rest, and as we left we saw it go out to the skip. On reflection, perhaps we should have let the works by the better-known composers go to the skip, and saved the rest. In haste we had judged purely by reputation and not by content. This kind of approach, well meaning but possibly misguided, has perhaps made music’s untrodden paths even harder to tread in future. The music that went to the skip, music almost unknown nowadays, is consequently that much less easily available for exploration. So is the music that churches clear out from their cupboards, perhaps when renovation is imminent, or when different musicians or clergy take over.

A second important issue for church music in particular is the use, conscious or otherwise, of music’s untrodden paths as a substitute for, or refuge from, new music. This dilemma confronts all musicians whose concerns include whether or not clergy and congregation will approve of what they choose, and find it conducive to worship. Changing social and economic circumstances have meant that the influence of the church on music has declined, both as the patron of new music and as the catalyst generating its most innovative trends. Perhaps the so-called ‘faith minimalist’ composers such as John Tavener will counter this trend; only time will tell. With few exceptions, the most up-to-date music has not been customarily performed in church for well over a century, not least because much of it is beyond the capacity of amateurs and congregations to perform even if they wanted to.

Naturally, church musicians look elsewhere, and music’s untrodden paths have always provided beguiling alternatives. In the rise of the nineteenth-century Tractarian movement in the English church, one factor was a reaction against the secularisation, mechanisation and materialism brought about by industrialisation. This reaction prompted the romantic concept of a distant past in which works of art and music were perceived as the pure, high-minded outpourings of innocent beings untainted by the stressful pursuit of fashion, social favour or money. With this ideal, combined with new attitudes towards education and self-improvement, came a zeal for collecting, cataloguing and imitating the art, literature and music of the remote past. Music’s untrodden paths were opened up in abundance with the revival of plainsong and early polyphony, sometimes with emphasis more on idealised supposition than historical accuracy.

It could likewise be argued that the efforts by Ralph Vaughan Williams and others to give near-extinct folksongs new life as hymn tunes were a reaction against much church music that originated at the end of the nineteenth century. The musical paths he took in pursuit of his cause were not untrodden, but they were at serious risk of becoming obscured. The English early music revival between the two World Wars can similarly be seen, at least in part, as a foil to the inexorable pursuit of musical innovation and perceived loss of accessibility and appeal. This is not to deny the integrity or value of these movements in exploring music’s untrodden paths, it is merely to offer a partial explanation for them.

As mentioned earlier, exploring music’s untrodden paths can bring unexpected revelations and delights, and this ever-present possibility is the motivation to carry on exploring. This can be illustrated by three examples. In all three, the musical path (so to speak) became untrodden because of changing demands in church music, and this is what provides the link here between some roofing slates, a book of recipes and a set of tubular bells. The roofing slates, now in the museum at Wells, came from the old manor house at Mudgley, near Wedmore; until the mid-sixteenth century home to successive deans of Wells Cathedral. The two slates contain inscriptions including roughly-drawn musical staves and notes: hardly what one would expect to find as part of a demolished house roof. A diligent search enabled most of the music on the slates to be identified as plainsong melodies.

These particular ones were linked, not to the Salisbury (Sarum) Use as might be expected, but to that of Hereford, from which it seems that the liturgies for certain feasts were borrowed into the Use of Sarum in the late fifteenth century. Like other medieval music-notation graffiti, the purpose of the music on these slates may have been to act as an aid to the memory of a liturgical celebrant, precisely because the music was not written down in the normal repertory of the area. Later, when the musical material on them became obsolete, the slates were used to build or mend a manorial roof. This discovery was important in the founding of the Society of Antiquaries’ project for cataloguing medieval music graffiti, and many more such graffiti, with purposes evidently similar to that conjectured for the Wells slates, have since been found.

The book of recipes turned out to be a commonplace book, a notebook of various kinds of jottings compiled by several different people between about 1442 and about 1560. It was bought by the British Library in 1979 and catalogued as Additional Manuscript 60577. It is believed to have originated near Winchester. The contents include sacred and secular prose and verse texts in English, Latin and French, as well as letters, sermons and recipes. The latter, probably dating from the 1550s, are for herbal remedies and preventatives against complaints such as headaches and dimness of the eyes. There is even a diatribe against onions, which are said to cause ‘inflation’.

Near the end of the manuscript occur several pieces of keyboard music, lute music in tablature, and some vocal canons. Four of these have secular texts and one is a setting of the opening of the ‘Ave Maria’ text. This was probably just sung alongside the secular pieces or perhaps it was used in the context of household worship, something almost unkhown nowadays and for which music is therefore no longer in demand. More sophisticated canons, including sacred ones, appear in printed collections such as Thomas Ravenscroft’s Pammelia (1609), but perhaps an ‘Ave Maria’ would have been too overtly Marian to be included. This one, with the other music a delightful and unexpected discovery in the manuscript, is simple enough to be used as music for worship by even the tiniest and least experienced choristers in any church nowadays.

Music example: Facsimile of Ave Maria, BL Add, MS 60577.

The set of tubular bells, which until recently lay forgotten in Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, was a thank-offering from the parents of a bride who was married there in 1928. The Dean at that time, Frederick Dwelly, enlisted the help of distinguished church musicians including Ralph Vaughan Williams, Martin Shaw and Gustav Holst in pioneering new music in the Cathedral. By a combination of searches, conversations with those whose memories stretched back to Dwelly’s deanship, and the usual hunches, low cunning and strokes of good luck, it was discovered that Hoist had written his anthem ‘Eternal Father, who didst all create’ specially for this wedding. Holst’s manuscript draft of the anthem was discovered in an almost undisturbed storeroom, together with a list of choristers’ names which enabled the survivors from among those who took part in the first performance to be contacted.

Putting together various snippets of information revealed why Holst laid out this particular anthem in a special way: with three groups of choristers at a distance from the main choir, and with tubular bells near the organ. He did so because of the layout of Liverpool Anglican Cathedral with its triforia and organ loft, and because the Cathedral had just acquired a set of tubular bells. Like so much other music that has become the casualty of changing demands in liturgy, or perhaps that can no longer be utilised at the kind of occasion for which it was originally written, this piece is now seldom performed in its proper context or with the forces and layout that Hoist originally envisaged. But at least the reason behind Hoist’s decisions is no longer a mystery. A cold winter afternoon spent in a dusty storeroom treading another of music’s untrodden paths had a worthwhile outcome.

Changes in liturgy bring about obsolescence in music at a stroke. Changes in fashion have a slower but just as inevitable a result. It was largely changes in fashion that led to the reorganisation of the library stacks, mentioned earlier, to accommodate new material. The same is true of decisions whether or not to include certain composers in books about music, and in particular in reference works such as The New Grove, omission from which can confer second-class status in the perceptions of today’s music students. But collections of or about music can be valuable byways of exploration as they stand, and reveal a great deal about musical fashions in bygone ages.

An example is the Willmott and Braikenridge manuscripts, a late sixteenth-century part-book anthology of 27 motets by Byrd and his contemporaries. Individually, all these pieces are worthwhile additions to the motet repertory. But taken together they have more to offer, because the sequence of their texts contains a Roman Catholic recusant’s personal message of penitence and plea for salvation, not apparent if each piece is isolated from the rest. Another example is the collection of statues of composers adorning the Victoria Theatre in Halifax. They give a glimpse of the operatic music the discerning citizens of Victorian Halifax collectively considered worthy of such honour. But who, nowadays, could name a single opera by Arne, Bishop or Wallace? Not the citizens of Halifax, nor more than a handful of discerning opera-goers in any town or city, to be sure.

Changing fashions in texts and music, or simply over-supply, will mean inevitably that certain works remain in the repertory while others are marginalised and sink into oblivion. The British Library catalogue of printed music reveals a vast array of hymnals and Psalters, mostly printed in the nineteenth century, of which there is now almost no trace. These collections of hymns and tunes must at one time have had some currency, and their status as collections is interesting because it gives a picture of a particular usage at a definable time. Yet even this should be treated with caution. In our own churches, what proportion of the tunes in each book, whether The New English Hymnal, Hymns Ancient and Modern New Standard, or Mission Praise, are ever actually sung? It is not just ‘The rich man at his castle, the poor man at his gate’ that falls by the wayside.

The same is true of printed collections of other music. The recent rediscovery of a collection of over a hundred choral pieces published by Joseph Wood and Sons of Bradford illustrates this. All trace of this enterprise, which flourished from the 1880s to about 1914, was believed lost when the company’s Huddersfield premises were destroyed by fire in 1964. However, enough was known about a few of the pieces to enable the whole collection to be reassembled by the firm from various compilations in the British Library. Now standing as a complete entity, the Wood’s collection is rather like a time-capsule of what people sang, probably chiefly in the Northern conurbations, in the late nineteenth century. Other provincial firms published similar collections, but few were as enduring or versatile within the choral field as this one. The collection as a whole is fascinating.

Contrary to what might be expected, there is no oratorio and very little tonic sol-fa, and no apparent Tractarian influence of plainsong, the madrigal, early music (except for Handel), nationalism or folksong; all of which were aspects of late nineteenth-century choral music that are emphasised in historical commentaries on the period. This is not the heady stuff of the so-called English musical renaissance. But in the Wood’s collection we can see what people actually sang, not merely what their descendants think they ought to have sung. Individual pieces, of course, are very variable in style, purpose and quality. Only a very small proportion can be considered for republication at present, and this is currently in progress. This particular untrodden path in music has led, not to a desert, but to an exotic jungle, worth investigating as a complete entity as well as for its individual components.

The 1964 fire in Huddersfield was the event, not directly connected with music, that was believed to have led to the loss of the Wood’s collection. Events like this can result in the loss or gain of opportunities to explore music’s untrodden paths. A further such event was the post-war partitioning of Europe into east and west, which meant that musicians were denied access to many important sources. In some cases, as with art treasures, there was simply no trace of what had happened to these sources, nor even of whether or not they remained in existence. In others, their whereabouts was known but access was extremely difficult. Requests to libraries for microfilms or facsimiles, if acknowledged at all, were likely to be reciprocated with entreaties not for western currency but for books, a precious commodity in eastern European countries. The situation has improved enormously since 1989, and many unexamined sources are coming to light: truly music’s untrodden paths.

Among the most interesting are Mendelssohn’s early autograph manuscripts, many of which are held in the Deutsche Staatsbibliothek in the former east Berlin. In a rich array of works, the composer barely into his teens can be seen coming to terms with various musical forms. He had studied Bach’s motets from the age of ten, and tried his hand at similar pieces shortly thereafter. His command of the overall form, text and choral forces is astonishing. When aged 13 he wrote Jube domine, a highly dramatic and colourful double-choir motet, of which the final section is based on I Peter chapter 5, verses 8 and 9, about the the devil prowling round like a raging lion seeking to devour the unfaithful. When aged 15 he wrote a motet on the well-known Easter hymn Jesus, meine Zuversicht, in which a chorale setting for SATB precedes a more extended working, using a second soprano part to carry the melody. Both Jube domine and Jesus, meine Zuversicht, with English translations of the texts, have been added to the growing list of choral publications from Wood’s. These are believed to be the first publications of these pieces, in Great Britain at any rate.

Music example: Wood’s edition of Jesus, meine Zuversicht.

But even here, in the midst of exciting discoveries about a gifted young composer, it is easy to fall prey to the preconceptions that come about with hindsight. Were these pieces worth transcribing and publishing because they were good pieces anyway, or because they were by Mendelssohn? Are they good Mendelssohn? Is Mendelssohn good? In just about any gathering of musicians, this last question in particular is apt to career off music’s untrodden path and straight into a minefield. However, it raises several wider issues, one of which is how musicians are to set about choosing which of music’s many untrodden paths might be worth exploring. There is no answer, because so much depends on circumstances and the individual. Likewise, there is no all-embracing conclusion to this paper because it is largely anecdotal, based purely on a series of observations which show that there is so much still to be investigated. If it teaches anything at all, it is that preconceptions about masterpieces and famous names can probably be left behind. But if the exploration of music’s untrodden paths leads to greater understanding, sympathy and tolerance, and to a more balanced view of the quantity and diversity of music that meant something to our antecedents, then its main purpose will have been fulfilled.

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