THE SINGING CHURCH - an outline history of the music sung by choir and people. By C. Henry Phillips B.A., D.Mus., A.C.D.C.M. sometime Lecturer and Sub-Warden of the College of St. Nicholas, Chislehurst. First published in Mcmxlv by Faber and Faber Limited 24 Russell Square London W.C.1. - This edition prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram 2004.

Chapter 25 - CHOIR MUSIC


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The Village Choir - Water Colour - T Webster 1847.


After Purcell the traditional stream of English church music begins to dwindle and widen. The masterpieces which crowd between 1570 and 1625 thin out considerably during the next eighty years or so; from 1715 onwards the works of genius are more spaced still and not usually of such a high order, while the tradition itself becomes weaker as the years creep towards 1900. Not that there are fewer composers; there are more. But the leaven is less. Two hundred years saw extraordinarily little change of style and it would be arbitrary to imagine 1800 as a dividing date. The number of major works is quite small and the term genius can seldom be applied to the composers of the period. On the other hand, shoals of competent, useful and dull work appeared during the whole period, many outside influences were at work and some collections of the music of the cathedral repertory were made.



Three collections of the existing repertory had been made during the preceding century. The first was that of the Rev. John Barnard, Minor Canon of St Paul's, published in 1641; the collection was published not in score but in the Elizabethan manner in part-books. No complete set survived the Commonwealth according to Boyce, but a complete score has been compiled since from existing parts and is invaluable to modern editors. Barnard's work is useful as a source book for Tudor scores and is instructive in providing evidence of the repertory of cathedral choirs between 1625 and the date of its publication. Barnard also left a large manuscript collection of contemporary work with which he intended to form a second part to his work; the collection has survived. Tudway's large and valuable manuscript collection was made for Lord Harley. The other famous seventeenth-century collection, that of Clifford, 1665, unfortunately contains words only; as the composers are mentioned it has often proved useful in tracing lost anthems. Clifford also gave some very necessary 'brief directions' for the conduct and understanding of the service and a small collection of chants for the psalms, thus covering the ground of Edward Lowe's Short Direction for the Performance of the Cathedral Service already mentioned.



The famous three volumes of Boyce, his Cathedral Music, have an interesting history. In 1752, Dr John Alcock, in turn vicar-choral, organist and master of the choristers at Lichfield, wrote on a leaflet inserted into a book of chants he was publishing:

As the late Dr Croft justly observes, among many other curious Particulars, (in the Preface to his Anthems) That at this day it is very-difficult to find in the Cathedrals, any one ancient valuable Piece of Musick that does not abound with Faults and Imperfections; ... In order to remedy which, my Intention is, to publish several of the choicest ancient and modern Services compleatly in Score, (and figur'd for the Organ) one every Quarter of a Year, as I have now by me an exceeding valuable Collection of them. ... But as I imagine many Persons will be glad to see in what Manner these Services are to be done, I intend, by Way of Specimen, to print one of mine, as it is perform'd at New-College, and Magdalen-College, in Oxford: In the mean Time, I shall esteem it as a Favour, if those Gentlemen who approve of this Scheme, will send their Names and Places of Abode, to me. ...

Maurice Greene was apparently also engaged on a similar collection, and Alcock on hearing of it handed over all his manuscripts; Greene retired to the country to complete his work, but his untimely death prevented his finishing it. Fortunately he commended his plan to his pupil Boyce who began to publish his monumental work in 1760, the other two volumes appearing in 1768 and 1778. Ten years after the date of publication of the third volume another edition was printed from the same plates. To complete the story: Novello in 1841 reprinted the work in separate parts with an additional organ-playing edition, and again in 1848. Joseph Warren also edited the work in 1849 making several additions, which brought the work up to date. The original Boyce edition set out the music in score with C-clefs and a figured bass for the organ; Novello and Warren both substituted G-clefs and wrote out the organ part, usually a short score of the vocal parts. Arnold's Collection which when it appeared in 1790 sold only 120 copies was a supplement to Boyce containing a mixture of old and new services and anthems; its three volumes were re-edited by Rimbault in 1847.


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In the eighteenth century the exact work of modern palaeography was unknown. The historical sense of even Burney and Hawkins, the first two compilers of musical history, is necessarily extremely woolly when they deal with the remoter past. It is thus hardly to be wondered at that Boyce and Arnold could make neither head nor tail of the bar-free Tudors with their contrapuntal licence and rhythmic complications/ they therefore 'corrected' them unblushingly in accordance with the rules of music as they understood them. A simple error, seemingly, due to an unavoidable lack of historical perspective, but it not only showed that the Elizabethans were no longer understood; it also proved that the bar-line had blunted men's rhythmic imagination so that the whole corpus of music before 1600, including plainsong, was a closed book to them. There is no real reason why Boyce should not have kept his bar-lines in his own compositions but still have been able to seize himself and teach to his choir the barless rhythms of the Tudors; but the Restoration period and the hundred years after it were an arrogant age which hung on the latest fashion and thought no music correct or even possible but its own. The sad consequence about Boyce's corrections is this: for a century and a half the music of Tallis, Byrd, Gibbons, even Purcell, and the rest was misunderstood, found dull and un-grammatical, and, worst of all, exerted no inspiring influence on composers; for most of the old music was obtainable only in the eighteenth century editions. The story of the greatness of the Elizabethan giants was passed as a silly rumour from mouth to mouth but the music was found unconscionably boring. Church composers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries lacked not only the musical influence which the Tudors might have exerted on them but also the sense of pride in their heritage which might have made even a moderately talented man like Boyce a thousand times more vital and turned a man like Wesley into a second Byrd. But it must be said in fairness that all honour is due to those who, like Boyce, strove in their unfortunate ignorance of the glorious past to keep their own work clean and competent.



It must not be supposed that the absence of the influence of the past was the only cause of the thinning out of inspiration. Into this body of church musicians working away in their cold and empty cathedrals came Handel, a brilliant young genius and a first class imitator. With an enthusiasm lacking in his brother English musicians and with the insight of genius, he set to work to imitate and improve upon Purcell's inspired methods of handling words and large choral masses. Some years later the Handel oratorio with its noisy concert technique swept the board of fashion till it became 'the vogue' to go to the theatre for one's religious thrills rather than to the church with its reticent little 'chamber' choir. The too apologetic church musician gave way before this whirlwind from Hanover. Is it, indeed, fantastic to find a symbolism in Dr Maurice Greene, with his coat off, blowing the organ at St Paul's while his friend Mr Handel extemporised for hours on end?



After Waterloo another tornado in the disguise of a Zephyr descended, this time from Berlin. Mendelssohn, the young, beautiful and gentle lion of society, set a new fashion, not that of the sparkling orchestral works or the serious-minded organ sonatas, but that of the more sugar-sweet Songs Without Words or of If with all your hearts. His easy harmonies were made for imitation and composers of the weaker sort turned out their charming pieces. Later still Gounod, paying frequent visits to All Saints', Margaret Street, and showing undiluted admiration for the musical products of the English church, set the town afire with his dramatic, opera-like music and its exciting Spohr-like chords, its thundering marches, its bewitching orchestration. As well as works like The Redemption and Nazareth he wrote some anthems and services to show his imitators the way; they needed no such stimulus, however, and were already at work on their crashing et resurrexits, diminished sevenths and thirty-two foot pedal notes, while on Sundays they provided their psalms with wonderful illustrative accompaniments. The church had succumbed to the opera. A halt was at last called with the publication by the young Stanford of a service in B-flat; really this brought yet another influence to bear, this time more beneficial. It was that of Beethoven and the lieder-writing Schubert. The form and organ-parts of church music became more interesting and though they could hardly be said to be in the English church tradition, now almost lost but for Wesley, they brought with them a really wholesome influence. Stanford himself had yet to learn better ways, the way of The Lord is my shepherd and How beauteous: other influences, too, were to help in the recovery, that of plainsong and the rediscovered Tudors.