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.


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We may here fitly bring together what is to be told of that corpus of music which is to be sung by the priest or antiphonally by priest and people. These simple melodies are perhaps the oldest music of any that is still performed, and as they have undergone little or no change they are doubly interesting: they were a thousand years old at least when the oldest of our folk-songs were first composed. They were older still if, as we may suppose, they were taken over from the synagogue services. Throughout the middle ages these priestly melodies remained without any fundamental alterations and on the appearance of the 1549 Prayer Book we may suppose that the new English versicles, responses and other melodies were fitted experimentally to the old Latin tunes.



It has been shown [See page 110.] that Merbecke's Book of Common Prayer Noted, 1550, Lowe's A Short Direction, 1661, and Clifford's Brief Directions, 1664, prove that an effort was made to preserve the continuity of the music for priest and people. [The 1662 preces differed slightly from those in the two previous books.] At the Restoration, even in the royal chapels where many innovations were made in the music performed by the choir, no hand was laid on the old responses. No doubt the same was true of those parish churches throughout the country which had any sort of musical establishment. During the following two hundred years the traditional versicles and responses were not altered in any way, though from time to time various composers thought fit to write versions of their own in many cases not founded on the plainsong melody. Such, for example, was the nineteenth century compilation called the 'Ely Use' which is still sung in some churches. There is obviously much to be said in these days of diocesan choir festivals and similar co-operative efforts for a standardising of the details of response settings and the publications of the Church Music Society and the School of English Church Music might well form a simple model. Recently the Sarum plainsong version, much less plain than the usual responses, have been Englished and are useful where a four-part choir is not available: where a homogeneous service is sought after they are, of course, not appropriate with Roman altars, vestments and ceremonies. The same applies to the Sarum Sursum corda and proper prefaces for the mass. The Mutual Salutation (V. The Lord be with you. R. And with thy spirit.) whether used sporadically throughout the mass or merely before the Sursum corda is sung usually to the plainsong versions. As its use ordinarily denotes the start of a new section of the service some care should be taken to make a pause before it is sung.



The method of singing the responses has varied from a deliberate 'chanting', the usual plan up to the end of the last century, to a talking speed as commonly used today. The old cathedral tradition accompanied the so-called Festal Responses of Tallis with a fairly full organ and a liberal use of the preliminary 'door-knocker' pedal note before each response; modern usage tends towards the disuse of the organ where speech-rhythm—singing as near slow speech as possible, with regard paid to word-accent—is practised. Sung unaccompanied at a slow speech-speed and in speech-rhythm the responses (and the versicles) are made to keep their true place in the service, that of introductory matter to something else. At matins and evensong, for example, the opening set leads to the act of praise of Fenite or the psalms; the second set leads to the collects. There is therefore every reason for not singing the last response before the collects any more slowly than those preceding: to do so gives the impression that the last response ends a section of the service. We should rather press eagerly forward to the climax which is the collect for the day. Apart from spoiling the structure of the service—which is really spoiling the psychological efficacy of it—to drawl out And take not thy holy Spirit from us suggests rather a pagan slave groaning under the heel of some cruel god than a hopeful, rejoicing Christian. Responses are in general best sincerely 'spoken on a note' rather than 'sung'; they are sometimes given too much emphasis or sung like an anthem. The inflexions in the singing of collects are in general giving way to a plain intoning on a note: some ending inflexion is, however, possibly desirable to prevent the occasional premature Amen.



There is a growing practice of saying in the natural voice the Creed, Lord's Prayer and General Confession. Such a practice, where unanimity of utterance is rehearsed and achieved, makes for artistic relief from uninterrupted singing and enables everyone even those shy of singing, to join in these important acts. At the start of matins and evensong it helps, too, to make the structure of the opening clear—penitence followed by praise. Massed speaking, which can be achieved with an experienced leader, is in fact as impressive as massed singing; but its pace must be well suited to the building. The sorry and blasphemous gabble, however, still heard from some thoughtless congregations (though it is often the direct result of thoughtless and inexperienced leadership) might well be cured by a course of singing instead of speaking. The larger the building the more difficult it is, of course, to achieve good massed speaking; for that reason much more speaking on a note is advisable in large churches and cathedrals, especially when a numerous congregation is present.