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 27 - CHOIR MUSIC


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It is apt to be disheartening to contemplate this jumble of music which like Browning's fugue subject contains 'nothing ..., that I see, Fit in itself for much blame or much praise.' Especially is it so when we consider that in, say, 1900 the music libraries of most choirs contained little else but this sort of work. The common fault of it all is not that it is generally unmusical or in bad taste; indeed, the taste of such men as Nares, for instance, is never in doubt, while few composers of today can surpass the Victorians in providing a good vocal line. With all of it the fundamental trouble is that its inspiration, where it has any, springs from the text only seldom. In music written for the church service the notes must catch fire from the words, themselves aflame with the deep meanings behind them. The composer must be moved by the words into music; when this verbal inspiration flags he is always tempted to fall back on purely musical devices. That was a real temptation to men like Tallis when setting liturgical Latin: Byrd and the rest in the following generation set a fashion of sensitiveness to words which has never been surpassed. After 1625 and before Purcell, composers like Lawes were so preoccupied with the words that they too often wrote dull music, but with Purcell himself the rival claims of words and music adjusted themselves once more. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries one sees spreading through secular and church music alike an increasing insensitiveness to words. A hundred reasons for it might be suggested, like the rise of purely instrumental music that evolved its own logic of construction, or (in England) the influence of Handel who never learnt to speak the King's English - the king himself could not speak it - or the meteoric rise in popular estimation of opera and the prima donna. Whatever the reasons, in theatre and cathedral alike the interest in the outward forms overbalanced the interest in content among the less notable composers: the result, as always in such a case, was unadventurous harmony and stereotyped rhythms.



The matter worsens after 1800.  Smart and Goss are usually careful but trip up at times as in Smart's

Example 44. Treble from Smart's Te Deum in F example 44.

not a serious fault here if the music is sung flowingly with only one accent to a bar; but that sort of thing began to grow. The lovely unbalance of Byrd's answering phrases was slowly replaced by a dull, continuous see-saw of four-plus-four, so that in the least inspired effusions of 1860 or so words are mangled together to fit the Procrustean bed of four bars or repeated to fill out the phrases. In Boyce's

Example 45. Treble from Boyce's Te Deum in A example 45.

where the bar-lines might well be omitted, a phrase of four accents follows one of two. (In Boyce's time the bar-line had not yet achieved the tyranny it exerted later; that is evident, for instance, in the typical Handelian cadence where the accent cuts across the bar structure.) Smart's four-bar version of the same words:

Example 46: Treble from Smart's Te Deum in F example 46.

balances perfectly and dully by giving a fast mouthful of syllables in the middle of the second phrase, the tenor having a specially difficult time with a leap to a top F at this point. Instances of filling out the musical phrase by word repetition when it is understocked with words are plentiful enough: Stainer who indulges more than most sometimes creates laughable results. 'Whoso believeth in him' is changed to the questionable axiom, 'Whoso believeth, believeth in him,' while a fugue subject has to carry the remarkable understatement, 'as it was, it was in the beginning.' Stanford succumbs badly at times, a flagrant example being found in the B-flat Te Deum at the words, 'and we worship, we worship thy name:' here the words, 'and we worship thy name' have two accents and the musical phrase three, hence the need for repeating, for Stanford is intent on the restatement of his theme and sacrifices the words to his musical needs. In the B-flat evening service the four-accent musical phrase which has to carry the words, 'and his mercy is on them that fear him,' (three accents) and later 'as he promised to our forefathers,' (two accents) has, for the same reason, its words spun out in the ugliest and most unsingable manner. In the same work Stanford makes no attempt to match the difficult dactyls of lowliness, Abraham, or that bugbear word handmaiden, set so beautifully in the service in C.

[Stanford is pilloried only because the examples are likely to be familiar to everyone. Stanford's songs and secular choral works show few such defects; his church music, however, exhibits a mixture of care and carelessness. Perhaps he thought that false accentuation was part of the true church style and tried to remedy it! One forgives these faults in him more readily than in the less inspired composers who preceded him. See page 223.]

This fetish of the even number, seen no less on the Victorian mantelpiece than in the Victorian music, has a devitalising effect; it is too easy to grasp and in consequence makes an immediate appeal to the uninitiated whose verdict on Tudor music is that it has 'no tune'. They merely mean it is rhythmically too subtle for them: an hour's explanation would doubtless put the matter right.