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 36 - CHOIR MUSIC


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Since 1700 or so music composed in England had become a mere black and white copy, as it were, of the highly coloured work produced in the Teutonic countries, which for two hundred years had been travelling along a purely instrumental path. Taking their cue from the suites of Bach and Handel, composers like Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven had evolved their sonatas and symphonies; after Waterloo the romantic spirit had been patent in the work of Chopin, Schumann, some of Mendelssohn, Liszt, Brahms, Wagner and Strauss. All this music was based fundamentally on the playing of instruments; writing for voices had had to fit a preconceived instrumental scheme in the cantatas of Bach, the oratorios of Handel, the lieder of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and even the music dramas of Wagner for the most part. Accompaniment was no longer a background as with Ford, Campion, Dowland, Lawes and Purcell but an equal partner as in German lieder and Wagner. In Russia, France and England few at first could be found of sufficient genius and personality to withstand the influence of this steady stream of masterpieces. But in Russia a national school, amateur but efficient admirers of Glinka, was working in St Petersburg chiefly during the sixties and seventies; their music, which owed little to Teutonic influences, was not known in England until 1914 or so. Debussy in France tried with courage, fervour and a rather restricted genius to establish a school of truly French music founded on the French tradition of Couperin and Rameau and equal in vitality to the contemporary literature and painting of France: that he was successful is shown by the work of Ravel and 'Les Six'.



Secular music in England had, after the death of Purcell, come under many successive influences. Handel, the hordes of Italian opera singers and instrumentalists who followed him, the more drawing-room side of Mendelssohn (he had other, better styles like those of the enchanting 'Midsummer Night's Dream' music, the 'Hebrides' overture and the organ sonatas) and later still Gounod (but only the Gounod of the maudlin-sweet church music) and the slithering, chromatic harmonies of Spohr. No genius appeared in England of a calibre to produce 'English' music of any real staying power against the charmed onslaught of the invaders. Not that there was no music in England. More music was being produced than ever by Englishmen, but it had charm without vitality: so it was with the operas of Boyce and Arne, the symphonies of Boyce, the pleasant pieces of Shield, the countless imitations of Cherry ripe or Lo, here the gentle lark, the slight, well-wrought glees, and most of the later works of Sterndale Bennett.


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The recovery came late. It is often dated from two works, 'Trial by Jury' of Sullivan, 1875, and 'Prometheus Unbound' of Parry, 1880. These were certainly more alive than most of the work being produced in England at the time, and to them the church musician likes to add the service in B-Hat of Stanford. The new and creative vitality behind these works is hard for us to seize today as we look at them across the later and better achievements of their authors; they tend to pale before such works as 'The Mikado', 'Blest Pair of Sirens' and Stanford's service in C. But the creative force behind the earlier works is plain enough compared with the milk and water compositions of twenty years before, though it is not until after 1900 that a recovery of English music can really be said to have taken place. Without mentioning living composers we may signalise Elgar and Hoist to show that English music is no longer the colourless thing it was in 1850. Living composers have no less a share of creative power than these men and that in spite of the fact that secular music in England enjoys no patronage save that of the concert-going public and so dooms composers of promise to a drudgery of uncreative work. Even with these disadvantages England has already retaken her place beside the other musical nations of Europe in the realms of chamber music and orchestral and choral works.