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.

Summary of Contents

Home | Part II –18th–20th cent | Selection of Composers | Bibliography

(Part IV)


Having reviewed in outline the history of our church music, we can now examine some of the representative composers in rather more detail. It has been thought best here to concern ourselves with composers from about 1600 onwards, for the music of earlier periods demands rather more detailed treatment than space will at present allow. An advantage in this method is that it emphasizes the continuity of the church tradition in the last four centuries, and brings to notice the small but ever-present stream of worthy music that linked the end of the "Golden Age" to our own times.

Composers represented in this section

Thomas Weelkes 1576?-1623
Orlando Gibbons 1583-1625
Henry Purcell 1658?-1695
Thomas Attwood 1765-1839
Samuel Wesley 1766-1837
William Crotch 1775-1847
S S Wesley 1810-1876
T A Walmisley 1814-1856
C H H Parry 1848-1918
R R Terry 1865-1938
R. Vaughan Williams born 1872


Weelkes was born probably in 1576, and died in 1623. He thus lived through a period when secular music in this country–especially the madrigal–was at its full nourish Much that can be said of his work naturally pertains also to his contemporary, Orlando Gibbons–but these two great composers are included here to underline the high merit of the later Reformation music–when the real Englishness in our tradition was becoming increasingly apparent. Weelkes, however, was primarily a secular composer, and probably the greatest of all our madrigal writers: but such of his church music as recent research has brought to light, shows an almost equal degree of mastery.In his service-settings and anthems Weelkes displays a fine spirit of adventure typical of his day. Perhaps the greatest advance in his work, however, is his use of block harmonic chords and rests to break the continuous flow of the voice parts. Typical of contemporary composition too, he has a considerable dramatic sense in his culminative crescendos and in his appropriate use of extremes in voice-register; while in the way of innovations–especially in his secular writing–he was considerably ahead of the more famous Gibbons. Although he is so notable as an experimenter, his ultimate worth depends on his wonderful facility in contrapuntal part-writing. Whether five, six or seven parts are employed, there is always present a vigorous vitality. Times not long before, when composers worked hard at the scientific study of fitting parts together seem far distant. Voice parts are now completely independent and of equal importance; imitative entries are natural and effective.Weelkes' massive Gloria in Excelsis is, like most of his works, beyond the power of present-day choirs on normal church occasions. The extract here clearly demonstrates the harmonic sequences, the lively imitations, and the complex counterpoint we have previously mentioned. The work is interesting too in that it is in a distinct ternary form–with a glorious contrapuntal Amen serving, as it were as a coda.


Gibbons provides a focal point in English music. The last of the Elizabethans, he consummated the whole development of the art up to his own day, and also pointed the way ahead in many bold and inspiring ways. Of first importance perhaps is the essential Englishness in his conception of musical composition. He not only wrote entirely to English texts, but showed an unmistakably English quality in his actual music–being an obvious fore-runner of Purcell. For the first time to any sustained extent do we see in Gibbons' music a completely personal means of expression. He has even been called a Romantic in his fineness of feeling for words: certainly there is no occurrence with him, as almost invariably with earlier writers, of writing generalised music for a generalised church dogma. This great advance in expressiveness leads to a variety of style which is very new, and as with Weelkes and the later Purcell, we find a contrast of harmonic and contrapuntal passages, contrasts of pitch and voice-combinations, together with freedom and skilful imitation in the part-writing. Gibbons was born in Oxford in 1583, of a musical family, and was soon caught up in the many musical advances of his times. At the age of 21 he became organist to the Chapel Royal, and in 1623 organist at Westminster Abbey. He also held many court appointments as a teacher. The great musical experiments of the times found a ready patron in Gibbons, and, apart from being the foremost exponent of the organ and virginals, he wrote substantially in all the current forms of composition. His innovations include developments in the "verse-anthem," the introduction of solo parts, and advances with orchestral accompaniments. He was not, however, drawn into trivialities of the day, and fundamentally is well within the main stream of musical development, showing all that was best in the music that preceded him. It was for Purcell to advance these measures still further and to add the more "modem" effect of balance and rhythm within the flow of the counterpoint. Almighty and Everlasting God shows a similar contrapuntal texture to that of the Weelkes example–but in keeping with the text is naturally of a more subdued nature. As we usually find with Gibbons however, the flow of part-writing is rather more continuous– and, if anything, has a slightly more formal flavour. For sheer beauty, dignity, and purity of style Gibbons nevertheless surpasses anything that preceded him in our musical history. (The present editor for practice purposes, as with the Weelkes example, of course includes the accompaniment).
Henry Purcell


Purcell was born in London in 1658 or 1659, and although little is known of his earliest years (there are several contradictory accounts) he was certainly born into a musical family with connections at the Chapel Royal– of which he became a chorister at an early age.  Pelham Humphrey and John Blow were among his teachers, and Purcell began composing while still a boy. When his voice broke, however, his greatest experience came– for he was given several official appointments, including keeper of the king's wind instruments, copyist, conductor (i.e. harpsichord-player), composer to the king's string band, etc. This varied work, at a time when the art of music was rapidly expanding on the secular side gave the young Purcell fine equipment for his later years. Picture – Henry Purcell (1658-1695)

At the early age of twenty Purcell succeeded Blow as organist at Westminster Abbey–a post that he retained right up to his death–and he began to compose voluminously in all the vocal and instrumental forms of the day. Church music, indeed, claims a relatively minor proportion of Purcell's work, but the many anthems and two service-settings that we sing today are of greatest beauty and sincerity. There is a tremendous vigour and zest in his anthems, together with a great variety of style and texture. In his verse and chorus sections he frequently alternates between the flowing polyphonic medium and the newer more fashionable harmonic progressions. His innovations with organ or orchestral accompaniments and interludes are of great interest– although many of his larger orchestral anthems become too long for normal use nowadays. Other points of interest are his extensive employment of violins in his accompaniments– the violin then being considered vulgar and barbaric beside the more placid viol– and, as we have mentioned earlier, his frequent introduction of solo passages into his choral works. Purcell himself had a fine bass voice, but his many bass solos were written specifically for a member of the Chapel Royal named John Gostling, and their great range makes many of these anthems a rarity to­day. Purcell also sang well as a falsetto alto, and here again our present-day performers find Purcell's alto parts very difficult to perform. Purcell used then the whole forces of the art to their fullest extent, and his ingenuity in calling on secular forms and in incorporating any worthwhile innovation makes Purcell's contribution to the church's musical history very great indeed. 

There are two service-settings of Purcell's in present-day use, and the quotation here is from the Gloria of his famous G Minor Service. Harmonic and polyphonic mastery are well in evidence, and we are frequently reminded throughout this work that Purcell could write with great success in the more dramatic forms of music. He also makes fine use of antiphonal singing (where alternate sides of the chancel sing "verse" passages and then join forces in sections for full choir). This Gloria begins with some thrilling canonic writing, and the great variety of Purcell's texture is soon apparent: sustained counterpoint, harmonic sequences and the stimulating interpolation of solo passages all add to its manifold attractions. Above all, there is strength and vigour here which most later composers were quite unable to attain.

Windows Media Player (.asx)  Listen to the New College Choir, Oxford singing Purcell's "I will Sing Unto the Lord." Music details HERE, & view the score (Gosling mss reproduced by kind permission of the editor: Dr Gordon J Callon. BMus. MMA, McGill University; DMA, Washington, Seattle. (PDF)) HERE.


Attwood was quite a prolific composer in many forms of music, but unfortunately could not free himself from the deadening inartistic atmosphere that had descended on eighteenth century England.

Born in Chelsea in 1765, he became a chorister of the Chapel Royal at the age of thirteen. He, like Purcell, had good fortune at the end of his choirboy career, having the then rare experience of being sent abroad to study under royal patronage–his patron being the Prince of Wales (later George IV). As mentioned in the historical survey, Attwood presents an interesting figure in English music, having been a close friend of both Mozart and Mendelssohn. Whether Attwood really had the makings of greatness in him or not is difficult to say, but the promise he showed under Mozart's tuition in Vienna did not flourish on his return to England– and the capabilities praised by his illustrious teacher came to little. However, although he failed to infuse our music with the polished artistry of Vienna, Attwood holds a creditable place in English musical history. He became an example of those church musicians who, alone in the whole field of our music, produced works sincerely conceived and sound in craftsmanship. He was renowned as a teacher, held many court appointments, and won respect as organist of St. Paul's Cathedral and conductor for the Philharmonic Society. He died in 1838 and was buried in St. Paul's. 

Our example of Attwood's work, Turn Thy Face from my sins, is a "verse" anthem–a form, as we have seen, much favoured by Purcell. (Where the full choir sings throughout a work the term "full anthem" is normally used.) It is still quite well known today, and is rather typical of the dozen or so anthems we have under Attwood's name. Written with a formal organ accompaniment–in which the organ makes no individual contribution–it has in comparison with our previous examples, an over-refinement and a rather forced simplicity that detracts from its artistic power and value. The dominant-seventh harmonies and 4/3 suspensions are too prevalent, giving the work something of a self-righteous atmosphere. The formal repetition of phrases in the text is also rather typical of music of this period. Although we cannot feel, as with composers a century earlier or later, that the composer is speaking with great personal conviction, there remains a certain sincerity and a slender charm in this work that will keep it alive. Its fitness and appropriateness–valuable assets–can be appreciated only on hearing it performed in its proper setting. But we lament the absence of the virile polyphony and bold strong harmony present in Purcell, Gibbons and Weelkes.

MIDI Listen to Attwood's "Turn Thy Face from my Sins", & view the score (PDF)


Born in Bristol in 1766, Samuel Wesley is not, strictly speaking, a great church composer. The son of Charles Wesley the hymn-writer, he became a Roman Catholic early in his career, and thus his purely church music is limited in extent. Much of his time too was spent with secular composition, and with his distinctive function of organ playing. But for all this, Wesley remains of the very greatest value to the English church tradition– chiefly in his strenuous work to revive the glories of J. S. Bach, a composer virtually unknown in this country at the time. Wesley, the greatest organist of his day, achieved much in this direction, and later was joined by others–including the visiting Mendelssohn. Thus at a time when English music was of very low vitality, Wesley sought guidance from the best possible source, and persuaded many later composers to do the same: the ultimate value of this work to English music was perhaps far greater than we realize.

The few of Wesley's motets which survive are not, however, mere imitations of Bach, for, a thorough scholar, he also studied earnestly the works of Byrd and Gibbons–a very rare occurrence in this period. In reviving the polyphonic style too, Wesley added a strong vitality born of his own idealism and sincerity, and drew on the many harmonic and structural resources of his own day. 

We quote here from In Exitu Israel, a splendid motet for double chorus, and realize that even the rightly maligned nineteenth century could produce some really first-rate music –to most people a surprising discovery. It is with such compositions that the church alone sustained the precarious continuity of the art in England. The influences Wesley sought give the work a solid strength and dignity, and the whole is admirably suited to its text from the 114th psalm. In particular is it free from the stinted academic formality which marred most nineteenth-century attempts at polyphony, and from the timidity and self-consciousness of the numerous lesser composers–the composers of "hymn-tune anthems." It is unfortunate that these rare works of Wesley are too lengthy and difficult (being influenced by the oratorio-form) for frequent use at present–but they have a permanent place in the repertory of church festival music.


Born in Norwich in 1775, Crotch is an interesting if minor figure in our musical history. His father, a carpenter, built an organ upon which the young Crotch learnt to play at an incredibly early age. He gave recitals in London at the age of four and composed an oratorio before his fifteenth birthday. He took his Bachelor of Music at Oxford, and became Professor of Music there in 1797– achieving great renown as a teacher. His "Elements of Musical Composi­tion" had long and extensive popularity after its publication in 1812.

There is none of Wesley's ardent pioneering about Crotch, and it is interesting to place a good example of his work–the standard type of composition of the day–along­side the greater man's work. We reproduce therefore an extract from his Comfort, O Lord, an anthem still frequently sung–and part of a larger work, Be Merciful unto me. It is completely unpretentious, and simple in the extreme, yet it has a serene and mellow quality that raises it well above the commonplace.   Many composers of the day made mawkish sentimentality out of such a text, but here Crotch attains a high degree of success. The music is certainly appropriate to both text and function–indeed one can say that the music with its tender and restrained pleading has a distinctly comforting quality. Again our conclusion is that the artistic spirit of the time was not completely extinct while such achievements, slender though they may be, continued to exist.


The son of Samuel Wesley was born in London in 1810 and died in Gloucester in 1876. Rarely can a man have lived up to illustrious Christian names so fully, or so completely fulfilled his father's hopes! Taking his place alongside the whole range of English composers, S. S. Wesley can unreservedly be called great. A chorister of the Chapel Royal, he showed remarkable early promise at the organ, with which instrument he out-topped his father's fame–serving among other places at Hereford and Gloucester cathedrals. 

With the younger Wesley we are aware, probably for the first time, that the English musical tradition is not merely hanging on grimly to life, but looking forward with determination to the future: not that Wesley's musical output was very extensive, nor that it contained any startling innovations which foreshadowed a new era. But the fight is fully joined against the laxity and artistic sterility of the day. Discouraged by lack of support and impoverished choirs, Wesley did not write extensively, but the quality is abundantly and confidently present. Influences from his father, from Bach, and perhaps most of all from Purcell are always evident– together with a fire of personal conviction for the cause he was fighting. Purcell is present in the variety of harmonic and polyphonic styles, the frequent dramatic touches, and the fine arias, while to these Wesley adds a more advanced measure and harmony and a masterly use of recitative. Many of his anthems, like those of his father, are too lengthy for normal church and cathedral use today, but the smaller works are well known and widely cherished. 

Thou wilt keep him, which We quote here, although one of the slighter works, shows what above all we can expect of Wesley–complete sincerity. It has a few nineteenth-century touches that are well out of favour at present, but it is very pleasing music both to perform and hear–and has a beauty of melody, a dignity, and a complete appropriateness that will keep it alive in our services.

  Listen to Wesley's "Thou wilt keep Him" sung by St Paul's Cathedral Choir. Music details HERE, & view the score HERE.


Walmisley, born in London in 1814, was again the son of a musician, inheriting the best musical environment of the day and soon developing a fine ability at the organ keyboard. A pupil and godson of Attwood, whose name he bears, Walmisley joined those few nineteenth-century composers who looked back to the glories of the past rather than accept the popular sacred music of the day. (One of the chief difficulties that these pioneers had to face was the introduction of cheap choral music publishing after about 1830. This valuable commercial enterprise came–perhaps inevitably– at the wrong time. Hundreds of mediocre anthems and service-settings flooded the country, and very many of them are still in existence.) Walmisley's high artistic judgement becomes all the more remarkable in this setting, but it is significant that he fought strenuously to revive the purifying influence of Bach and Purcell. He did this to considerable effect while professor of music at Cambridge. He died at the early age of 42. 

Walmisley wrote a considerable number of anthems– some of them disappointing to us today, but the Victorians were always at their best with service-settings. The anthem-form with its free choice of text left them too much liberty and frequently led to lapses of taste, lapses from which Walmisley himself was not immune. As an example of Walmisley's writing then, we choose the famous D Minor Service, still a firm favourite with our choirs, and a work conceived with a distinct strength and conviction of utterance. There is no sentimental weakness of melody or harmony, and a notable freedom from the mechanical squareness of phrase and the false accentuation of words that were almost inevitable in contemporary church music. The chording and careful balance of the antiphonal sections remind us strongly of Purcell, although no attempt is made at the older master's complexity of counterpoint. Of considerable interest too, is the organ accompaniment. This is probably the first example of a service-setting having an organ part boldly instrumental and independent of the vocal parts. The whole work is not difficult of execution, but is very satisfying and enjoyable to both singer and listener.


In some respects Sir Hubert Parry was similar to many of his musical predecessors. He was born into a musical family (1848) and was a man of varied gifts and capabilities. He was too, a man of great personal charm, a thorough scholar, and a youthful prodigy. The elements of his life and career, therefore, could be those of many we have mentioned earlier, but these attributes came nearly a hundred years later than they did, for example, in Attwood, and through them the late blossoming of English music–long hoped for by those we have been discussing–became a reality. 

Parry, with every environmental aid, qualified as an Oxford Bachelor of Music while still at Eton, and made his first significant contribution to musical literature at the Gloucester Festival of 1880. His appointment as professor at the newly established Royal College of Music in 1883 hampered his early zeal for composition, but towards the end of the century this great sportsman-artist was producing choral works of the greatest power and originality. Large oratorical compositions, instrumental music of many kinds, part and solo songs, all followed rapidly, and–perhaps most important of all–the public were now ready to receive once again music worthy of our old traditions. Throughout Parry's work there is a natural and robust forcefulness of style: a harmonic, contrapuntal and even dramatic mastery: a spaciousness and craftsmanship which has few traces of the academic self-consciousness of all but the best of earlier composers. Above all there is a pure Englishness of style that was to find fuller and more comprehensive expression when it descended to the greater genius of Elgar

A great teacher, Parry is still frequently recalled in his musical writings–some of which, like his "Evolution of the Art of Music" and "Studies of Great Composers" are invaluable to the student to this day. He was knighted in 1898, and succeeded Stainer as Professor of Music at Oxford in 1901. Dying at the age of seventy, widely respected and admired in himself and his work, he was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral. 

My Soul, there is a Country is typical of Parry's smaller choral works.  Although appropriate to church use and frequently on the cathedral lists, it contains an invigorating element of the secular part-song, and a certain lyrical quality: it has a freshness, vitality and consummate artistry that give it a universal value and appeal. Like most modern composers, Parry shows impeccable choice of words for his vocal settings, and here he uses every fine shade of thought and emotion to the full. There is a great variety of style in the easy-flowing polyphony and the sudden dramatic chordal sequences. It is a composition of rare beauty, and sung (unaccompanied) in its proper setting, achieves all we can ask of church music. MIDI Listen to Parry's "My Soul, there is a country" sung by the choir of St Paul's cathedral. Music details HERE.


Sir Richard Terry, like many musicians throughout our history, was not primarily a church composer, although his contributions to the church repertory are highly valued. 

Terry was born in 1865 and died in London in 1938. He thus covers a most interesting period of musical development, Becoming Director of Music at Westminster Roman Catholic Cathedral, he was a modern example of the scholar-musician, and left many fine critical writings on music. However, the name of Richard Terry is probably most widely known to the general public in' connection with folk-song of the sea–namely shanties–where his collecting and editing made a distinctive and valuable contribution to our musical literature. Terry was, in fact, a very great authority on folk-song of all kinds, and made notable researches into Tudor and medieval music. It is appropriate therefore that we include here an example of the folk-song of the church–the carol "Myn Lyking", to represent his work. 

Our quotation is from one of the twelve delightful carols by this composer, and is well representative. The scholarship and idealism of men of this school has led to an accuracy and care in their approach to music that has been invaluable to our present musical knowledge. Among the mass of nineteenth-century church compositions we have mentioned were many inferior tunes (with equally inferior words) published under the title of "carols."  Terry, however, insists that merely because the words are appropriate to Christmas, it does not follow that they become a carol when set to music, but rather a tune can only be termed a carol the nearer it approximates to the folk-song type, and the farther it departs from the hymn-tune. 

Using words of fourteenth-century origin, Terry thus recaptures the true traditional spirit of the carol, and at the same time gives us something of great beauty, purity, and sincerity. Of its kind nothing could be more pleasurable to sing, and here is one example of many modern works of great merit that can be well rendered by any good amateur choir. The part quoted includes the chorus–a distinctive feature of the carol-form.


It is quite impossible to name any one modern composer as representative of present-day church composition. Styles are widely varied and a high degree of artistic achievement is apparent on many sides. 

Dr Vaughan Williams

Dr. Vaughan Williams was born in Gloucestershire in 1872, and received a full academic musical education. From 1890 to 1896 he studied under Stanford, Parry and Charles Wood, and thus became well versed in the new English tradition. A period of work abroad under Max Bruch and Maurice Ravel no doubt added a spirit of experiment and adventure to this sound nurture.

But the distinctive force in his music derives from his intense study of English folk­song and music of the Tudor period - a study that resulted not in the amassing of academic knowledge, but in the resurrection of the true living spirit of this early music.

This is no place to discuss the great merits of this composer, or to dwell on his contributions to the major orchestral and choral forms of music. In his smaller vocal and choral works however he achieves equal success - sometimes through the medium of the earlier English schools, and sometimes (as in the example quoted) more in the Englishness of the Parry-Elgar tradition. The extract is a unison-song setting of a fine passage from Ecclesiasticus XLIV, and although writing in this miniature form the composer achieves a moving dignity of spirit - indeed even a splendour in music, which has given this work a prominent place in our churches, cathedrals, and schools, for ceremonial occasions. 

The passage commences soon after a sudden change from the key of E major to E flat, where, after grandly singing of the glories of the famous, we recall the virtue - and equality - of those whose names are not inscrolled in great historical records. The massive measured tread of the bass figure moves on relentlessly throughout the work, like the passing of time itself. The bold changes in harmony, the strong challenging discords, the fluency and complete appropriateness of the melody add up to a tremendous strength of expression. As with hundreds of other modern examples of church music that could be cited, we feel that the "Golden Age" of English music has at long last returned.


History of English Music H Davey Curwen
The Glory of English Music Basil Maine Wilmer
Music in England E Blom Penguin
English Cathedral Music E H Fellowes Methuen
English Church Composers W A Barrett Sampson Low
A History of Music in England E Walker Oxford
Manual of English Church Gardner and Nicholson S.P.C.K
Music Voice and Verse H C Colles Oxford
The Progress of Music G Dyson Oxford
A Short History of Music A Einstein Cassell
Summary of Musical History C H H Parry Novello
The Growth of Music (Parts I & III) H C Colles Oxford
The Listener's Guide to Music P Scholes Oxford
The Complete Book of the Great Musicians P Scholes Oxford
Cameos of Musical History S. Macpherson  
William Byrd Frank Howes  
William Byrd E H Fellowes Oxford
Purcell J A Westrup  
Henry Purcell W H Cummings  
John Blow A K Holland  
Purcell H Watkins Shaw  
The Puritans & Music P Scholes  
English Madrigal Composers E H Fellowes Oxford
Music & Worship Harvey Grace  
Music & Religion B Wibberley  
The Story of Organ Music Abdy Williams  
The Story of Notation Abdy Williams  
Hymnody Past & Present C S Phillips  
Musical Instruments & their Music G R Hayes Oxford
Modern Music & Musicians W McNaught  
Oxford History of Music (Introductory Volume & relevant later chapters)   Oxford
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