The Church Music Society

Registered Charity No. 1200306

President: The Most Reverend Bernard Longley, Archbishop of Birmingham

Unity by Inclusion?

Preservation and renewal in the Anglican choral tradition

Simon Lindley FRCO (CHM)
Master of the Music, Leeds Parish Church

An Address given  to the Church Music Society at St Paul’s Cathedral, London, on Saturday 18th July, 1998

The great ecclesiastical architect Sir Ninian Comper achieved special and highly individual distinction in his church designs by the adoption of a diversity of visual styles. Thus, arcading might be drawn from one tradition, furnishings and screens from another and tracery from a third; very often present too the semi-obligatory baldachino with a vivid stained glass window behind. The portrayal of Christ as a young white male is also a significant presence in many of his most famous buildings. There is general agreement that Comper’s churches have a special worth and quality all of their own. Designing for a liturgy that instilled a sense of devotion from spending long periods on one’s knees, Comper’s whole philosophy was concerned with the beauty of holiness.

Despite a long and distinguished tradition of plundering music from a similarly kaleidoscopic range of styles, the Anglican musical heritage may be said to have reached saturation point.

In a memorable and visionary sermon for the service of thanksgiving for the centenary of the Royal College of Music, Archbishop Runcie quoted his predecessor A C Tait in asserting that

sermons divide, whereas music unites

The dramatist John Stuart Anderson recalls tellingly the divisions of ancient Israel in a powerful verse shot through with a sense of hope. Those who know Dr Francis Jackson’s visionary score to Anderson’s Daniel in Babylon will be aware of the powerful impact of these words:

In the days of division, kingdoms shall break, nations shall vanish, But the Kingdom of God, the nation of mercy, shall stand like the mountain without strength of hand. Out of the darkness this place has grown - a beacon whose light embraces the world, a signal of faith in the days of division.

Although in large measure still true, Tait’s generalisation has been shown in recent years to be in some danger of becoming sadly reversed - yet Anderson’s metaphorical beacon in the form of the English liturgical choral tradition shines brighter than ever at is apex. However, the increasing polarisation of traditional musical expression on the one hand and a confusing plenty of what is termed contemporary music on the other is as dangerous for the mission of the church as it is fur the artistic, aesthetic, cultural and spiritual health of the nation. Particularly pernicious is the assumption, now nearly always stated outright but present in previous generations by hint or innuendo, that young people are capable only of relating to what is seen as modern music.

The response of the young to music is multi-faceted and paradoxical. The church through its choral liturgy has a tremendous amount to offer the young soul, questing for meaning in life and coming haltingly to faith. The remarkable influences of music produced from the communities of boa and Taizé - a contribution similar to that flowing a decade or two ago from the pens of Father Gélineau and Dom Gregory Murray - has shown again in our own age the considerable power achievable from a simplicity of musical utterance. This had, of course, been understood so well earlier in the century by that world-beating duo who provided so much of the mercury in the barometer of twentieth century church music - Ralph Vaughan Williams and Martin Shaw. The extraordinary preface to the music of the 1906 English Hymnal, by RVW himself, refers to the morality of good taste and remains salutary reading today.

We are told by the pundits that the commercial bottom is in danger of dropping out of the so-called "Early Music" market. Shrewd conductors and recording producers are said to have diversified and carried forward the cause through Berlioz and beyond. Those who have remained true to the movement’s origins and stayed Renaissance-based are finding less and less to do.

Recent discussions of the phenomenon in the media have all ignored the opportunity to experience such music within the context of the liturgy for which much of it was designed - we seem an age away from Stanford’s famous injunction to his students "polyphony for tuppence, m’bhouy" when encouraging attendance at Westminster Cathedral in the early days of its choral foundation. (The cost was that of the ‘bus fare from South Kensington to Victoria, by the way). To have the volatile Sir Richard (then plain Dr) Terry coming into rehearsal with the ink scarcely dry on masterpieces by Tallis and Tye must have made those extraordinary times. Importantly, Terry and his choir were the catalysts which inspired numerous composers of their own day - Charles Wood and Gustav Holst from the more senior men with, (from the younger generation) George Oldroyd - and a contribution of particular note from Herbert Howells.

To offer a window on the numinous is a profound responsibility for our greater churches, collegiate chapels and diocesan cathedrals. This task is being undertaken with an increasing sense of its relationship to mission and education as well as with a degree of professionalism which has begun to take in aspects of communication and marketing skills along the way. The ‘good’ choirs get better and better it seems and the demand for recordings grows ever more insatiable. Specialist choral groups have sprung up, and flourished with the express purpose of providing music for worship services during periods when the resident choir or choirs take vacations. The Cathedral Voluntary or "Special" Choir, is enjoying a revival in terms of recruitment, support, and musical standard.

It is, however, sad that these centres of excellence seem so often to operate at a level far removed from ordinary parochial or community experience. Especially concerning must be the lack of decent choral standards in areas where choral singing flourishes within the state, as well as the private, educational sector. The British Federation of Young Choirs, the Association of British Choral Directors and the blooming Sing for Pleasure movement all bespeak highly encouraging developments during the past quarter of a century. 

The reverse side of this happy state of affairs is to be found in many parishes, alas, in which the shortage of quality musicians has now reached the level of an epidemic. It is worth re-stating that the foundations of the 20th century choral repertoire of Eucharistic settings were laid by professional parochial musicians of the calibre of Harold Darke at St Michael’s, Cornhill and John Ireland at Holy Trinity and St Luke’s in Chelsea. The demands of contemporary musical input into Sunday worship grow ever more extensive and it has to be admitted that only a workaholic or a musician of wide practical experience and skill (or both, of course) will be equal to the task. 

Arranging, composing, proper and adequate rehearsal - all are just as vital, if not more so, as with the more conventional choral provision. The number of establishments where a substantial programme of contemporary music flourishes is unknown, but the desire to involve the maximum number of instrumentalists as well as vocalists is clearly on the increase. Where this richness of resource exists happily alongside vocal and choral talent, the results can come close to what may ‘please’ everyone - it may therefore be a congenial co-existence: ‘both, and’ rather than ‘either, or’ one might say.

The inverted commas around the word ‘please’ are crucial. Music within divine worship is perhaps too often offered as a placebo - something to be enjoyed - rather than the ‘duty and delight’ of the late Erik Routley’s evocative phrase; notice, though, that the duty is placed first and foremost.

Taken as a whole, the great strength of choral worship within a traditional framework is its continuum. It may possibly be the very dependability of order and content that is, in hindsight, so very important. Worship that involves detailed visual perusal of a book, booklet, leaflet or script on a curricular basis is likely to be just as difficult to handle as the concept of familiarity as breeder of contempt which critics of conventional worship seem ever more eager to assert. It is likely that hymnals of the future may need rather more of the liturgical resource book about them very much in the manner of the final sections of the 1906 English Hymnal and its successor, the New English Hymnal of 1986.

In terms of music, the vital relationships are those of page to ear, of voice to verse - each partnership deriving from a strange alchemy of focus. It simply is not the same to detach repertoire from the context for which it was designed, transplanting or grafting it on to a foreign plant such as a service made up as if by prescription. There can be detailed constructional elements of the music itself which, though appearing seamless or insignificant in the setting for which they were intended, become disturbing when the context is altered by circumstance. But it is not merely what many might mistakenly regard as musicological niceties such as these that become disturbed. It may fairly with confidence be asserted that George Oldroyd’s liturgical pieces were, like Comper’s buildings, intended for a worshipping congregation on its knees for the majority of the Eucharist rather than one in a standing posture.

The reverse side of the approach of this "horses for courses" coin can be found in the astonishingly successful incorporation within the Anglican framework of templates from other traditions. Serbian and Russian Orthodoxy, Gregorian Chant, Lutheran Chorale, melodies derived from the priceless inheritance of folk-song and folk-dance from every corner of the globe - all these have honoured places in the experience of many. 

The revival of carol-singing during the past two centuries has been a further enrichment to spiritual experience - and one which has, like hymn-singing, passed into a national rather than a purely religious sub-consciousness. It will be for many a sadness to reflect that future generations of BBC radio listeners will, it seems, be deprived of the touching and uniquely British tradition of preceding the first news bulletin of the mornings of Easter and other Christian festivals with the singing of a seasonal hymn. Even the use of the National Anthem is now to be curtailed at this point in the broadcasting morning.

The significance of liturgical music as a focus for national identity remains, however, considerable. Millions all over the globe are able to recall highlights of church music provision on the broadcasting media. Among many such, the Croft Burial Sentences and the boldly majestic pacing of the Battle Hymn of the Republic at the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill and the compelling vitality of William Mathias’ rondo-like setting of Psalm 67 at the Royal Wedding of 1981 spring readily to mind. Freshest in the memory is the gripping power of John Tavener’s incandescent chant at the close of the obsequies of the late Diana, Princess of Wales.

A pressing and urgent need is surely evident for quality music which employs both choir and congregation in fresh, new repertoire - pieces for traditional as well as contemporary verbal texts. Most congregations are far more able to assimilate new music than the professional liturgists and musicians would seem prepared to credit. Litany-like utterance can soon pall, and the concentration soon wavers - though a trance-like repetition also has a strange power of its own under the right conditions.

We are in great danger of patronising the young with our shallow assumptions of what they want; young folk are possessed of an innate ability to recognise quality in artistic terms. The special appeal of Gregorian Chant, of Polyphony, of what is referred to as "Early Music" - all these are significant growth areas in terms of the perception of the hearers of tomorrow. We seem to be enjoying a degree of success in drawing people towards the heart of some of the finest music in western civilisation as well as kindling interest anew in the more ancient music from the eastern arm of christendom. Here in Britain we enjoy the fruits of a heritage that is unique in the civilised world. There are many who fight to preserve the highest standards and, indeed, to push the standards ever upwards. It would be sad indeed if the great work and influences of the parochial musicians of yesteryear were to be unequalled in our own day. Our children, and their children surely deserve far better.

An attempt to analyse the elusive appeal of certain types of musical utterance is a soul-searching business for the would-be scholar. The system of modality, with its bitter-sweet melodic lines, is certainly a factor. Some composers of the early half of the twentieth century exploited this element to the fullest extent. Ley, Oldroyd, Wood - among those who produced less elaborate music for worship - all excelled at producing a cappella essays with in modal bounds while the more expansive expression of Herbert Howells drew heavily on melismatic lines atop pungent and sometimes ecstatic harmonies. 

In terms of congregational music Dom Gregory Murray and Anthony Greening are but two examples of those who have succeeded in encapsulating within simple mass settings something of the mystery of the sacrifice while still producing music that is both memorable and, importantly, easy to sing. They have both proved themselves very much heirs and successors to the Martin Shaws of yesteryear. Choirs in the past decade have been particularly well served by former Cathedral Organists Richard Lloyd (Hereford & Durham) and Noel Rawsthorne (Liverpool) as also by York Minsters Philip Moore and Malcolm Archer of Bristol and Wells.

Nor should one under-estimate the huge contributions of major figures such as Francis Jackson, Kenneth Leighton, William Mathias and Arthur Wills. It is sad that much of a very large corpus of music each has been composed specifically for parish (rather than collegiate or cathedral) use is heard comparatively rarely. Their more elaborate repertoire is sung far more widely than the considerable body of works each has devised with great success for resources of more modest scope and accomplishment. The output of Herbert Sumsion, the doyen of the more traditional voices, continued uninterrupted well into the composer’s ninth decade. In his case, it has been the discovery of more elaborate pieces that has been particularly enriching.

Among other prolific composers of the second half of the century, the impact of highly individual and important figures such as Andrew Carter, Francis Grier, Jonathan Harvey, John Rotter and John Tavener remains hugely influential. The evidence of issued publications from the pens of younger figures who plough similar furroughs to these five very contrasted composers suggests that the lead of the Carters, Griers, Harveys and Taveners is being followed and fully developed. 

John Rutter’s influence is, of course, heightened by his immense melodic skill and ability to write music that is grateful as well as graceful for singer as well as listener. His special relationship with the public regarding repertoire for Advent and Christmas is unique and much treasured - in each of his trinity of talents as composer, author and arranger. Musically, expression that is in the main diatonic (that is drawing upon pitches within the strict bounds of the key or tonality) is often of greatest significance and impact. In harmonic terms, the chromatic or modulatory soon pails with frequent repetition. There is, surely, something strangely and inherently satisfying in fabricating music within the confines of its tonal base. Certain it is that the more restrained expression of composers who utilise such techniques can be infinitely more fulfilling within the context of divine worship.

Then there is the perennial poser as to what makes good church music. Often, we may proudly proclaim, "our" music is the best of its generation. We have our Byrds and our Bachs from every century in the last five. But, dare it be uttered, sometimes the very best music for the context of worship may not be of the highest aesthetic quality in abstract terms but contrives wonderfully well to do the job for which it had been intended. Much of the most powerful music can prove infuriatingly elusive in performance. This mercurial quality applies particularly to the later output of Sir Edward Bairstow - a fluent and controlled rendition of repertoire such as the exquisite chants to the Lamentation, the 1937 Coronation Gradual or the late evening service in G is an intensely rewarding experience.

A commendable and hugely encouraging development in recent years has involved a desire to integrate both choir and congregation within a musical setting. Working with great distinction in the United States for many years has been John Bertalot (formerly of St Matthew’s Northampton and Blackburn Cathedral). His contributions to the repertoire for singers choral and congregational follows in the train of through composed psalm settings (to the Grail translation of the verbal texts) pioneered with consummate success by Colin Mawby - through-composed and with precise note-values.

Dr Bertalot’s remarkable and powerful setting of the Passion Gospel from St Matthew draws on a diversity of stylistic traditions - inflected and metrical plainchant, Lutheran chorale, organum. Harmonised choral contributions of the turba or crowd material contrast with vividly declaimed unisons and open intervals.

Brother Reginald SSF in his entirely admirable Alcuin Club issue Make music to our God - subtitled How we sing the Psalms draws attention to Bertalot’s ingenious chants which are part choral and part congregational in the mould of Dom Gregory Murray.

Those of us charged with the presentation of music in Church have a pressing need of more such material as this, of consistent quality and enterprising scoring - expression that is as suitable for the most highly trained singing group as for the smallest choral ensemble of average attainment.

A few years ago was mounted a memorable campaign to retain district post offices in the service of local communities. "Use it, or lose it" was the watchword and its impact was considerable. This motto would, constructively, serve as a slogan for the retention of choralism (dare one say conventional choralism?) in parish worship. Gender and inclusive language have all exercised much energy for a couple of decades. Hopefully, such issues can be put behind us as we enter the new rniilenium. It is, still, not too late to strive to provide for the parishes the very best products from contemporary musicians. With adequate imagination and resource, such output might yet prove to provide a highly desirable unity by its regular inclusion in the weekly experience of the worshipping community.


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