THIRTEEN CENTURIES OF ENGLISH CHURCH MUSIC - An Introduction to a Great National Tradition. By W H Parry. First published in the Hinrichsen Edition Ltd., 1946. - This edition prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram 2003 and 2015.
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Listen to the sequence Listen to this mp3 music clip ... VENI SANCTI SPIRITUS. You tube logo Watch HERE!!!


It is difficult, in compiling a brief historical outline of a subject, to avoid saying much that has been said before– for one is tied to the essential and often the obvious, facts. It is equally difficult therefore to acknowledge any extraneous sources of information that may occur.   Concerning the present work, certainly most of the authors mentioned in the bibliography must have had some influence, together with others whom, through the hiatus of war-service, the writer has forgotten.

If this little book succeeds in providing an easy and accessible introduction to the subject, and in enlarging the general interest in Church Music, it is hoped that any indirect contributor will 'accept the thanks of both author and reader.

I take the opportunity of expressing sincere thanks to Dr. R. Vaughan Williams, O.M., and Mr. Inglis Gundry, for reading the MS. of the historical survey and making valuable suggestions.

The portraits of John Blow, Henry Purcell and William Boyce are reproduced respectively from "Amphion Anglicus" (1700), "Orpheus Britannicus" (1698) and Boyce's "Cathedral Music" Vol. I, 2nd edition, copies having been kindly loaned for the purpose by H. Watkins Shaw, Esq.

The following publishers have kindly granted permission for musical extracts to be reproduced:

W. Crotch:  Comfort, O Lord (No. 4)
Messrs. CURWEN:
R. Vaughan Williams: Let us now praise famous men
R. R. Terry : Myn Lyking (No. 89008)
Orlando Gibbons:  Almighty and everlasting God (No. 36)
Thomas Weelkes:  Gloria in Excelsis (No. 17) .
Messrs. NOVELLO:
Thomas Attwood:  Turn Thy Face (Musical Times Series)
S. Wesley: In Exitu Israel (No. 348)
S. S. Wesley: Thou wilt keep him (No. 107)
Purcell:  Service in G minor (No. 852)
Walmisley:  Service in D minor (No. 46)
Messrs. DEANE & SONS:
C. Hubert H. Parry: My soul, there is a country

W. H. P.



II THE FOUNDATIONS Music of the Seventh Century Plainsong - Modes –Neums
III CHURCH MUSIC ADVANCES (AD 1000-1400) Organum - Polyphony - Accompaniments - Institutions  - A note on recordings of church music
IV THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY Early names - Music of the century
V THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY General features - Taverner - Tye – Tallis - The Reformation - an interruption in tradition Tudor Composers - William Byrd - Music and recordings of the century
VI THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY Composers of the age - Orlando Gibbons The Commonwealth - a second interruption in tradition - The Restoration - Henry Purcell - Music and recordings of the century
VII THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY Composers of the age - Music and recordings of the century
VIII THE NINETEENTH CENTURY Composers of the age - Some music and recordings of the century
IX THE ENGLISH REVIVAL Hubert Parry - C. V. Stanford - C. H. Lloyd The new English school, in chronological order
X THE TWENTIETH CENTURY Music and recordings of the new English era
top BIBLIOGRAPHY Books for further reading



An increasing number of people are becoming aware that Britain is not, after all, a country without music. Many have vaguely heard, too, that England once had a "golden age" of music when she was the leader of the art in Europe – as some claim her to be today. 

Britain's musical achievements have in fact been very considerable, and throughout our history we have been greatly indebted to the Church, which possesses a fine wealth of the most beautiful music: a heritage which is far less widely known than it deserves. 

Admittedly it is difficult to know church music unless one experiences it in its proper setting– in fact unless one goes to church! And even then one must be fortunate or discriminating in one's choice, for the mere weekly round of hymns and psalms which many churches still provide is but a minute part of this subject. Like all music today, however, it is available for enjoyment at home – through cheap publications, the gramophone, and the wireless. 

As throughout its long history, it is no small part of the church's musical value that it provides the most easily accessible form of music for the amateur to participate in. It provides a fine training-ground for the appreciation of all forms of music– and the writer makes no secret of his hopes that some readers of this brief work may become tempted to join actively in the present-day performances of church music.

This book then, is intended for three types of readers:

  1. The musically minded person who hitherto has missed this whole branch of the musical art, regarding music as something essentially of the concert-hall.
  2. The organ-student or chorister who is so fortunate as to be an executive of this music.
  3. The general reader who is interested in the cultural history of his country.

Before approaching the history of church music – that is, music written expressly for church and cathedral services – we must briefly consider one fundamental question.

Why has music always been associated with religious ceremony?

In outline the answer is this. Music is the most intangible of the arts, being beyond all contact with the material world.   The sculptor and the painter depict tangible objects: the architect is bound by the utilitarian demands of his building and by the law of gravity: the poet is constantly striving to overcome the bonds which cumbersome words set on his flights of thought. All these artists have, within their limitations, added to the glory of English church tradition. But the musician is completely free. If we try to analyse his work we become aware of his crafts-manship, it is true, but the mystery of the composer's power remains. All we can say is that the music has an effect on us–and beyond that its function almost defies investigation. Psychologists state that music can satisfy our "herd instinct." In the mere singsong of people at a party, or the vast chorus of a football crowd, we say that a powerful "atmosphere" is created.   With religious music however this "atmosphere" is raised to its purest and highest plane, and music can transcend us to realms of spiritual receptiveness.

This invaluable power has always been recognized by leaders of religion: and indeed, on surveying the history of the church, one is tempted to conclude that whenever the church's power and influence were at their height, its music too was very flourishing – and this was part of the cause rather than the effect!

In order to examine church music adequately, the reader must be introduced to much early music which he is never likely to hear.   However, no apology is made for this, because it will be found to be – even in the brief study possible here – a fascinating chapter of history, and one which will add interest and colour to his outlook on music generally. The chief aim has been to trace the continuous development of our church music, and in so small a space many worthy names have been omitted in the interests of clarity. The reader, should he be inclined, is advised to investigate the subject further – for which end the bibliography will be of great assistance.

He will learn most of all, however, from the music itself, and works recommended for study (costing a few pence each) are listed at the close of the chapters.



Introduction | Music of the Seventh Century | Plainsong | Modes | Neums |

The origin of music, as a source of expression and delight, probably lies soon after the time when man emerged from pure animal status– when his instincts began to become controllable emotions, and when dawning intellect stirred him to create his own delights to satisfy these emotions.

What actually occurred in music prior to its association with the Christian Church in Britain is a matter chiefly for speculation, and is beyond the scope of the present work. However, it is important for our purpose to realise that both voices and instruments had been combined in ritual, entertainment, and dancing, for some thousands of years. We know this from biblical references alone. But when several instruments play together a degree of harmonisation is implied: and when music accompanies the dance, a sense of metrical rhythm is inevitable. Music then had some degree of organisation– although all this is veiled from us by the loss, where any existed, of written records.

Britain too must have had her share of this pagan music for centuries, but music as an art in this country began at the close of the sixth century, with the introduction of music to the Christian Church.


At this point our best approach to this mere essence of English music is to discover what it was not, and how it differed from the music we hear today.

  1. It had no "time" and no "harmony." Thus the simplest of our modern hymn-tunes would be wildly incomprehensible to a seventh-century singer.
  2. Implied by the above, it had no sense of phrase-lengths, or of modulation to different keys.
  3. It was purely vocal music, having no accompaniment: none of our modern instruments were then invented.
  4. It could not be written down because our system of notation, too, had not been invented.

It was what we can generalise as Roman Catholic music, and all the texts were in Latin.  There was, of course, no Church of England as we know it today.



  1. The introduction of Plainsong with its modal scales. Plainsong was introduced by Aethelbert, King of Kent, just before the end of the sixth century, and St. Augustine, who brought it with him from Rome, became the first archbishop of Canterbury (and thus the founder of English music).

  2. Development of Neums. Neums, a primitive system of notation, came into use not long afterwards, obviously as a result of the expansion of plainsong in the church ritual.

  3. The church, the only seat of learning in the land, became the centre of the musical art, giving music indeed the right to be called an art. As mentioned above, we do not know what secular music existed at the dawn of the church tradition, but it is most probable that the purpose and discipline with which the church imbued music– while giving it a healthy and careful cultivation–restricted it from many desirable advances which occurred outside: advances which the church recognised and adopted often with much reluctance. For centuries the church laboriously cultivated its music while the songs of the countryside grew profusely and at will.

Let us glance then at the main feature of plainsong, modes, and neums.



The name is important in that it implied a reaction to music that was ornamented (and which we have said, must have existed in secular society). It is an appropriate term too, for this was music at its plainest. It was a kind of elevated speech to a simple melody (called a canto fermo), with a basic reciting-note around which it moved. Later it developed an intricate vocal art around these "cantos" (canto fermo means "fixed song"), but for congregational use in psalms and responses it can still be heard in something like its original form– although, of course, it is now accompanied by the organ, as a rule. With its simple unison melodies and "speech-rhythm" structure it was ideally suitable for congregational singing.

(As the system developed the canto was sung by the tenors, who had to hold on to this melody while others sang different notes. Hence the term "tenor"–from the Latin tenere-–"to hold on").

Pure plainsong found its peak of achievement in the early eleventh century, after which new forces were at Work.

  Listen to Vire Lege sung by Sir R Terry & Choir - Trinity College, Dublin.



Modal scales provided the musical material for plain-song, and, indeed, for all music until our present scales emerged at the end of the seventeenth century.

Our modern (diatonic) scales are all transpositions of a standard pattern: e.g., in major scales, the semitones occur invariably between the third and fourth, and seventh and eighth notes; thus to every major scale we can sing our doh ray me fah soh lah te doh formula. However, let the reader play on the piano the white notes from middle D, for an octave, and try to sing the sol-fa scale. This is obviously something very different.   It has the semi-tones at different points– and is, in fact, probably the oldest scale in our western civilisation. It is the Dorian Mode, by far the most popular scale of this period.

St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, established four modes for church use in the fourth century. They were, in white notes on the piano:

Dorian D to D
Phrygian E to E
Lydian F to F
Mixolydian G to G

Each of these scales, it can be seen, contains a different arrangement of semitones, and consequently sounds different – even when transposed in pitch, as they frequently were.    (The "reciting-note" which we have mentioned was almost invariably the fifth note of these scales: it dominated the music, and thus the fifth became known as the "dominant" of any scale).

Pope Gregory, before sending St. Augustine to this country, established four new modes on the dominants of the original four, and with these eight modes the system was complete up to the sixteenth century–when four more were added.

katapi ed: And HERE's an excellent You Tube introduction to the church modes.


Some important points concerning the modal scale

  1. There was tremendous scope for variety of sound in a system with so many scales. We do not appreciate how completely the modern diatonic scale has become part of us, until we hear the effect of different scales, such as these modes– or, to quote an extreme case, those of Arabic music.
  2. The "reciting-note" used to resolve on to the root (i.e., the doh) of the scale, and this was the germ of harmony, developing a sense of relative pitch and cadence.


Neums (or Neumes): the slow growth of a musical script

A brief review of the growth of musical script must find its place here for several reasons:

  1. It throws considerable light on the music of the times.
  2. It is essentially a product of church music.
  3. A highly developed form of the early system is still in wide use in church plainsong-manuals.

One of the reasons that music has lagged behind its fellow arts is that it was so long finding a written medium. An individual genius would die, and apart from what his pupils remembered, nothing could be "handed down." Composers were practical experimenters. They were well aware, however, for the need for notation, for countless experiments were made from the earliest days of English music.

From such attempts developed the system of neums. It looked rather like our present-day shorthand, and was scrawled above the text to show the rise and fall of the music. With some limitations it reached a high degree of competence, although, like all primitive "languages," it became unduly complex.

The chief among its limitations were:

  1. It did not indicate the exact extent of the rise and fall, and consequently there was a considerable amount of guesswork needed.
  2. There was no standard system, many writers using their own peculiar versions. Thus manuscripts were not widely interchangeable.
  3. It could not give the relative length of notes. This was not a great disadvantage in music that depended so much on the rhythm of the words.

We must look ahead to the tenth century for the next development, which reached the valuable goal of being a system from which one could read music at sight. It was a system – using notes in the following manner:

semi-breve black diamond
Breve black square
long breve with a stem
Maxima black rectangle (double square) and stem

while later were added

minima semi-breve with a stem
semi-minima minima with a stem and a tail (like our present quaver)

Obviously here is the origin of our modern notation – for it only remained for some of the shapes not to be "blacked in" for our modern semi-breves, minims, etc., to emerge. This stage was not reached for several centuries and meanwhile many trials were made with coloured notes, etc., to deal with the growing complexity of the music. The problem of relative time-values was not yet solved either, for the maxima could equal two or three breves according to the context in the music.

Originating in the tenth century too, was the other great invention: the use of lines to indicate the exact rise and fall of the music.

Starting with one line, the system eventually resulted with four – as it has today in our plainsong-manuals. Here again various colours were used at first to distinguish the lines, and it is interesting that the early exponents of this system regarded it merely as a teaching-method for new music – to be discarded as soon as possible by the learner. Presumably it made music too easy!

The clef, a K-shaped sign – really a C – appeared fairly early to fix the root of the scale, but time-signatures did not appear until the fifteenth century, and such refinements as bar-lines until about 1600.

Nevertheless, by the time our Magna Carta was signed, music was well on the way towards having a written language!



Introduction | Organum | Polyphony | Accompaniments | Institutions | A note on recordings of church music

The year 1000 is probably rather early" to mark this second stage in church music. However, a great deal of deductive guesswork must be employed in these initial centuries, and the date is temptingly convenient. Music was of course advancing from its very inception, but some vital changes began to take place about this time, which greatly accelerated the process.


1. Organum–The Beginning of Harmony

Up to the tenth century all church music had been in unison– or where soprano voices were used, in octaves. The way this was superceded is curious in the extreme, and probably was due to the lack of musical sense rather than the development of it.

When the plainsong canto fermo was sung, it was pitched (by the priest) at some mid-way point in the voice-span, e.g., A or G. But many tenors and basses would find the canto far more comfortable to sing at the mid-way point of their own voice-span. Thus the practice crept in of singing parallel parts to the canto at intervals of a fourth above and a fifth below; which means, of course, singing the melody at the root-notes of the scale as well as at the dominant.

If then the sopranos sang the canto an octave higher than the original pitch we now have a kind of four-part harmony– except that all the parts were singing the same tune: and the effect of this curious parallel music, as is often pointed out, may not have been as unpleasant as we at first imagine. (The greater number would be singing the original canto tones). It is, in fact, an effect occasionally reclaimed by some of our modern English composers.

The challenge to loosen the bonds of parallel organum was at first met in the following ways: The gradual introduction of thirds and sixths among the organum fourths and fifths. These new intervals made their appearance at the end of the thirteenth century.   (It is amazing that the simple third–a doh-me chord of two notes, was considered barbarous and revolutionary for so long).

  1. The use of passing-notes. If two consecutive notes in a melody were a third apart, there was a tendency to join them up by means of an intermediate note.

  2. The influence of descant composers who experimented with a canto and one other free part. A fair stage of harmonic advancement was attained by the late fourteenth century. And after harmonising a canto fairly freely with three other parts it only remained for the composer to invent his own canto for true harmonic composition to begin.


2. Polyphony

Polyphony (which we can identify with counterpoint) is a tremendous advance on the old organum: for whereas in the previous system the voice-parts were strictly parallel, polyphony meant independence of parts – and from the eleventh century onwards the polyphonic age slowly increased in skill and maturity.

Among the chief contributions to its advancement were:

  1. The combining of several established melodies. This peculiar practice was quite common, the melodies being slightly modified where they clashed badly. Frequently each melody retained its original words!

  2. Imitation. It was found a pleasurable experience for one voice-part to repeat a phrase immediately after another. This had the valuable effect of giving each part prominence in turn, a vast advance on the old canto idea.

  3. Contrary motion, and the crossing of parts. Parts moving in contrary motion were found to estab-lish a feeling of symmetry.   The crossing of vocal lines was another important step towards freedom.

  4. The introduction of "rests." A part entering after a series of rests did so with the effect of emphasis, and added to the independent importance of the polyphonic strands.

All the above, too, contributed to the expansion of harmony – for when the parts moved freely, the harmonic chords through which they moved (i.e., the vertical cross-section of this lateral movement) naturally varied a great deal: The greatest problem of composers at this time was to write attractive independent parts which did not produce unpleasant harmonic clashes with others.

By the end of this second preparatory period polyphony had become the established medium for the church Mass, although of course it still had much to learn.   Sense of metrical time and of "relative keys" was slow to come. We now expect music to be based on a regular rhythmical pattern, and also that it should "modulate" to various keys – to give it a satisfying form. Whether we are technically aware of these things or not we would miss their presence in early polyphony, finding it aimless and restless. It was for the great early English composers to overcome these deficiencies.

At this stage we are first in contact with one of the chief problems of church music. Music was becoming a complex art that could be performed only by an educated minority, and what music gained in artistic achievement the church often lost in the fervour of the congregation. There were, however, considerable "congregational" parts of the service, such as psalms and responses; early hymns were now beginning to appear, too, with their short simple phrases and more regular metre.


3. Instrumental Accompaniments

Even in such a brief background to church music a glance must be made at accompaniments, which became almost universal in this period. 


were certainly in use in this country in the ninth century. But for several centuries the organist's post was not so much one for a musician as for the strongest man available!   Organs at first had draw-bars to release the wind into the pipes, but soon adopted keys – about fifteen in all, about four inches wide, and played (of necessity) with the fist. When organs began to grow to size, it frequently took forty or fifty blowers, working treddle-bellows to supply the wind. Reed pipes were not introduced until the late fifteenth century, and pedals not for three hundred years after that. No doubt, however, these early organs served admirably in supporting the simple canto of church plainsong.


resembling violins and 'cellos, had a prominent place in church music, playing the same music as the voice parts.

katapi ed: More about Medieval musical instruments in these You Tube videos: | part 1 | part 2 | ... music. |

Other instruments

it would appear from contemporary records that most of the instruments exalted in the 150th Psalm – including the "loud cymbals" – found their way into church accompaniments, much to the distress of many dignitaries of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Secular influences have always presented a problem for those concerned with church music!

Altogether the services of these early centuries must have made a very joyful noise – which, of course, does not in any way reflect on their sincerity and fervour.


4. Institutions

Music could not spread and advance without organized centres of development. At first the church provided these alone. The seed of plainsong planted at Canterbury was to flourish in cathedrals, churches, abbeys, and monasteries throughout the land.   But in the middle of the twelfth century the Chapel Royal was founded as a court institution for all musical purposes. It soon became the leading influence when kings began to vie with foreign monarchs in the excellence of their music. An interesting feature was the "press-gang" system established by Richard III, whereby choristers from other institutions could be legitimately "stolen" for service at court. This licence was wisely used however, and no doubt the choirboys concerned raised few objections.

Most of our greatest composers were "Gentlemen of the Chapel," and the enthusiastic patronage of monarchs, especially the Tudors, was invaluable to musical development.

Up to about 1400 then, church music was slow and laborious in its growth. By our present standards it lacked variety and expression: it was vague and unmeasured: any music of this early period would sound harsh and almost incoherent to us today.

A tenth century organ

and an organ of the thirteenth century

katapi ed: You tube logo Medieval Church organ

A Note on Recorded Music

The "Columbia History of Music" and the Parlophone "Two Thousand Years of Music" contain numerous interesting examples of Continental church music of ensuing centuries, together with some English secular works by composers we are to mention. Unfortunately, recordings of English church music of these periods are very rare, but when they occur they are mentioned at the end of the relevant chapters.

Pertaining to the present chapter, the reader's attention is drawn to a record of plainsong with organum and with descant (Columbia 5710).