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 37 - CHOIR MUSIC


HOME | contents | << | church music | Stanford | the service in B-flat | the other services | the anthems | Wood | recent work | music outside the English tradition | carols | You tube logo the boar's head carol (engish trad.) | >>


In church music the story is also an encouraging one. Wesley was no doubt a genius who relaid, as it were, the track along which cathedral music was to travel; but, his work and perhaps the best of Walmisley apart, the music of the nineteenth century had been either nondescript but competent or else frankly dramatic and emotional. All of it was what might be called 'easy' music; it was easy to write, easy to sing, easy to play. And its worst fault was usually that it did not derive from the text to which it was set; it could be complacently pretty when the text was charged with a strange beauty or competently dull when the words were afire with some tremendous thought. It was Stanford who followed Wesley in setting his face against writing any of this easy music. He brought to his work a competence of a much higher creative order and one which was influenced by other styles besides that of church music. His own influence and that of Charles Wood are such that these two might justly be called in an Elizabethan phrase 'the fathers of modern church music'.



[Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924). 1875, organist at Trinity College, Cambridge (till 1892). 1874, degree in Classical Honours. 1874-6, studied in Leipzig and Berlin. 1887, Professor of Music at Cambridge and later at the Royal College of Music, London. Publications: Services in A, B-flat, C, D, F and G and many anthems.]

Stanford tried his hand at every known form of composition; although it is still early to judge it is certain that he has left his mark on two branches of composition—the solo song and church music. Because he was not primarily a church musician Stanford brought to his work for the church new springs of inspiration and technique. It is a trick of history that his chief fount of technical inspiration was the Teutonic instrumental school which in lesser men. had been their undoing. But Stanford had talent and personality and so was not swamped entirely by the influence of Beethoven and Brahms.


THE SERVICE IN B-FLAT | You tube logo te deum (B-flat service)

His service in B-flat has many faults but they are the faults to be found in most of the church music of the time. He could be careless still—he was quite a young man—about his setting of words, giving sometimes the impression that he thought of a tune first and made the words fit afterwards, or, what is more usual, that he set one phrase of words whose tune, owing to the exigencies of form founded on instrumental principles, had to do duty for another phrase which would not fit. He can also, notably in the settings of Magnificat and the Nicene Creed, become too symphonic in structure, repeating the same music to words differing in sentiment and giving an instrumental bias to music intended for a church service; he sets his service, in fact, too much like a movement of a symphony. But the composer more than compensated for these faults—which he was later to correct—by many good points which put fresh blood into the music of the eighties. The rhythms are no longer always square: Magnificat opens with a three-plus-four phrase but follows it at for he hath regarded with a lapse into four-plus-four which brings a false stress on lowliness and forces a pointless word repetition on of his. The formal structure is clear —too clear, perhaps in Magnificat, but admirable in Benedictus— and although it sometimes springs from that of instrumental forms rather than from the text, it was a fault on the right side when so many contemporary works were either amorphous or built in dull sections; Stanford's use in Te Deum and Creed of the plainsong intonations (made, however, to fit his harmonic and rhythmic scheme) and of the Dresden Amen as themes on which to build re-established a long forgotten device of the sixteenth century and before, to the lasting good of the church music which was to follow; such old themes are full of association and inspire a man in the right vein. In both the harmony and the vocal writing new and fertile ideas appear: Wesley apart, no one had for a long time written such a vivid harmonic passage as that at the words is now and ever shall be in the Gloria to Magnificat. The dominant—and diminished—sevenths are relegated to a true, subordinate position more fitting their emotional nature and minor triads begin to be more frequent. His basses move with vigour, a happy correction of the usual static basses of his contemporaries. Good tunes abound which are never trivial or sentimental but move beautifully to their goal like those which open Benedictus and Nunc dimittis. The accompaniments, as well as using all the resources of the modern organ (the passage at the words is now mentioned above is marked crescendo and could be thus performed only on an organ with pistons) have an unmistakably new and more musical interest. The writing in short shows signs of a more stringent training than his contemporaries seem to have had, and coupled with Stanford's ready invention produced music which needs a corresponding effort on the part of the listener.


THE OTHER SERVICES | You tube logo magnificat (G service)

From the musical seed sown in his B-flat service Stanford reaped a plentiful harvest. In the true tradition of English composers he was moved into utterance by his literary feeling for the texts he set. It is refreshing to see what he makes of the old familiar liturgical texts. The Nicene Creeds of the B-flat and C services avoid the obvious dramatic possibilities of the words—a field too well tilled by his contemporaries—and stress instead what is surely more fundamental, a flaming belief in the B-flat service and a solid, happy assurance in the C. Benedictus in the B-flat, possibly the finest number, makes all contemporary settings seem dull and unimaginative while that in C has a seraphic quality which was easily Stanford's best vein, recaptured in the G Magnificat, the little Benedictus qui venit and Agnus Dei in F, and the opening pages of The Lord is my shepherd and How beauteous. Magnificat Magnificat - mp3. Music details HERE. The setting in F was Stanford's only venture into the old cathedral, a cappella type of short service and is work of good solid worth. His versatility is shown by a completely different type of service, the early work in A with orchestral accompaniments, a work of many fine moments laid out on festival lines; that he could be lyrical in the best sense is shown beautifully enough in the setting of Magnificat of the G service. The service in C captures some quality which is found nowhere else, a kind of spacious beauty highly charged emotionally, seraphic at times and always restrained which makes it perhaps the best of all his services.


THE ANTHEMS | You tube logo magnificat (C service)

The anthems show the same principles applied to purely choir pieces. Stanford always chooses his text with care and is always obviously fired with the words he sets. Here again his best mood is the seraphic: the happy, pastoral contentment of the opening to The Lord is my shepherd has already been mentioned; it is matched by the opening to How beauteous where the inspiration of the key­word beauteous is transmuted into some lovely music. There is, indeed, never any gloom in Stanford: one can hardly imagine his choosing Lord, let me know mine end as a text. He is always positive though sometimes thoughtful as in O for a closer walk, a model for the anthem of the hymn-tune prelude type, and excels best in cheerful texts like Ye choirs of new Jerusalem which well catches the spirit of Easter. His one dramatic experiment—When God of old—is anything but successful, but even here, as always, the harmony breaks down the old tonic-dominant-tonic rut of most nineteenth century music, which makes its music sound like a series of perfect cadences. His part-writing is unique, Stanfordian, always founded on true contrapuntal principles, admirably suited to the voices and always obeying the dictates of the text he is setting. Psalm 150 Psalm 150 - mp3. Music details HERE. In his evident singableness he beat his contemporaries at their own game, for no one could charge them with writing ineffectively for voices: Stanford writes more imaginatively, more musically and is still just as effective. He has a pleasing trick in the later work, used to perfection in the service in C, of making the organ pedal the real bass while the vocal basses hover above giving an effect of great freedom and lightness. Rhythmically he becomes less and less four-square as he grows to maturity (see, for example, the lovely opening of the C Magnificat which goes four-plus-three-plus-six) but is still led at times by his melodic invention into cruel misaccentuations, as in which kings and prophets waited FOR in How beauteous. But on the whole with his lyrical gift, his well of melody, his refreshing harmony and rhythm, Stanford released many needed draughts of fresh air into the stuffy or quasi-dramatic work of his contemporaries. By the time he had passed his sixtieth year Stanford indeed found himself the doyen and teacher of all serious minded church composers; church music could not have wished for a better master. He is never dull and always emotionally clean; if his work is sometimes more lyrical than ecclesiastical that was all to the good: church music is all the better for an occasional breeze from such work as the spiritual part-song Glorious and powerful God. As an inspiration to his pupils his work has a historic importance.


WOOD | You tube logo ding dong merrily on high (c wood arr.)

Stanford remained for the most part untouched by the ecclesiastical temper of his age. His cheerful protestantism had nothing to do with the birettas and cottas of the Tractarians or the researches into liturgiology, plainsong and, later, the sixteenth century. By discovering and delighting in the prose-like rhythms and elusive harmonies suggested by plainsong, or the subtler rhythmic and contrapuntal technique of the Tudors, men like Charles Wood managed to add to their technical resources an abundance of new or at least rediscovered devices. [Charles Wood (1866-1926). Studied with Stanford. Organ scholar of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, 1889. 1897, University lecturer in harmony and counterpoint. 1924, Professor. Much secular work.] In the hands of Wood these technical discoveries were put at the behest of a real feeling for the beauty of the liturgy and the Christian message as opposed to mere theism. With lesser men the result has sometimes been, as ever, a mere copying of the work of the Tudors or of the plainsong idiom, but Wood had a knack of transmuting these things to something his own. He harks back to the very early days of the sixteenth century in his love of contrapuntal devices ('Canon to right of them, canon to left of them', as some wag has put it) but in his best work he manages his canons with suavity and unobtrusiveness; they merely serve to give the work a subtle unity. The early and pleasant sounding 'Mass mainly in the Phrygian Mode' shows Wood writing in this vein and giving a model for many similar a cappella masses by other men. The C-minor Mass is not so felicitously wrought and struggles for expression through the quasi-modal texture but in Glory and honour he achieves a convincing blend of ancient and modern which sums up the significance of Palm Sunday and can take a worthy place by the side of two famous Tudor works written for the same occasion. But there are two Woods: the other works entirely in a modern harmonic idiom and is best represented by the glorious intricacies of O thou, the central orb, where the rich harmonies delight in his beloved sevenths and ninths, and the deeply felt miniature Expectans expectavi, an English anthem whose tenuous lines create a hushed beauty seldom achieved by anyone in English church music. Both works are thoroughly 'Christian' in feeling. If Stanford's Glorious and powerful God is theistic O thou, the central orb shows us God the Father seen athwart the humanity of God the Son. Expectans expectavi sets another musical standard in Christian feeling; it exhales a strange suggestion of the New Testament and instinctively recalls the spirit of the first Christian martyr. It has become the forerunner of many more recent works which capture the human side of Christianity without losing any of the strange 'Easter' freshness of light and joy found in the gospels.



Of more recent work it is pointless to say much if living com­posers are not to be mentioned. It is of course easy to find the influence of Stanford and Wood, of Tudor music and plainsong in all of it. The weakest work is merely derivative without the composer adding any new vistas. The best work is derivative too, as it should be, but there are many workers who show individual style and catch their inspiration in a wide but always good choice of texts—the seventeenth century English mystics are popular— and who show how the wide cleft once to be seen between secular and church styles can be bridged. More and more music is being written for the parish choirs and less for the cathedral service. That is perhaps inevitable until the cathedrals recapture an enthusiasm for their basic function of daily choral worship (it is certainly not the organists' fault that some of them have lost it). Of this growing corpus of simpler music, most of it is cleanly written and at its best has vitality and good feeling for its medium. A fault in some work of this kind has been an austerity which too easily develops into harmonic and rhythmic angularity or unvocal writing. Such work may well learn from the Victorians—if it will so humble itself—the secret of writing effectively for the voices and of not being afraid of a good tune. But there are signs that the stark period has passed. It was the result of over-correction of Victorian sweetnesses, no doubt, and gave a queer, primitive kind of conception of the Christian ethic which had more of Calvin in it than of Christ. Many composers are turning to the more warmly courageous and lyrical moods of their religion, and there is reason for just rejoicing that New Testament texts are easily more popular than those from the Old. But the lyricism of the modern composer is not the romantic, unreal, even sentimental lyricism of his grandfathers; his feet are firmly planted on the ground of realism without his head being turned by the prospect of a wicked world. The result is music whose beauty is more than skin deep and which often achieves the noble joy which once the Elizabethans succeeded in expressing—a joy which does not forget the sorrows and hardnesses of life, a restrained Christian joy.



A word may be said about music used in the English Church service which was not composed for it. Of this the greater part comes from the Bach cantatas and the oratorios of Handel and Mendelssohn. In Jesu, joy of man's desiring, All glory, laud and honour and Awake us, Lord, and hasten and other similar work Bach is drawn upon for some unambitious movements suitable for the average church choir; he provides more exacting fare for those who can tackle the longer movements from the cantatas. 'Messiah' supplies plenty of seasonal music for Christmas and Good Friday for choirs who boast tenors to whom top A is no bugbear, and the appendix chorus Let all the angels of God gives a joyous anthem in honour of the angels. 'Elijah' is drawn upon chiefly for the lovely eight-part For he shall give his angels charge over thee, while He that shall endure and Cast thy burden are not too hard to be tackled by most choirs in parish churches. From 'St Paul' conies See what love hath the father and an anthem which can be used in honour of the Conversion, And as he journeyed. For Epiphany, many choirs give the pretty Lo, star-led chiefs from Crotch's 'Palestine'. Increasing use is being made of the music written for other rites of the Christian church; some of the work of Palestrina and Victoria (Vittoria) have been given English translations, and two worthy favourites are Eccard's When to the temple Mary went for the feast of the Presentation of Christ, a sonorous six-part work of much beauty, and the highly emotional but very effective Faithful Cross by King John IV of Portugal for Passiontide.


CAROLS | You tube logo in dulci jubilo (trad)

One of the features of the recent recovery of old music has been the attention devoted to medieval folk-music dealing with the incidents of the Incarnation, originally used in connection with the mystery plays. These carols may be classed according to subjects: the lullaby, Virgin and Child type is popular and familiar enough, while the theme of the Magi supplies a good number, others dealing with the Shepherds, the Annunciation, Easter and Corpus Christi. 'Good cheer' carols like The boar's head in hand bear I cannot of course be used in church. Apart from these folk-products there is an increasing number of modern settings, all loosely called carols, which partake of the nature of the true carol, treating some aspect of the Christmas story in a human way, though some are over-precious. Byrd and Lawes have left such 'carols' and there was a spate of Christmas part-songs at the end of the last century. Pearsall's fine setting of In dulci jubilo might almost be called an anachronism, so well has the composer caught the spirit of this lovely tune. But at the end of the century some fine tunes of this kind have been vulgarised by being given poor texts: Good Christian men, rejoice is unsuitably matched with the beauty of In Dulce Jubilo - mp3. In dulci jubilo and vew this You Tube compilation - Excellent!! Good King Wenceslas, a text in folk-ballad style, seems to be the poor relation of the 'Piae Cantiones' melody to which it is usually sung. Music details HERE. Christmas Hymns like Hark, the herald angels sing or Angels, from the realms of glory are of course not carols in any sense of the word.