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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The church music of England previous to 1500 has few English qualities; such music was sung all over Christian Europe, and it would have been difficult in 1500 to assign to any of it a nationality.  Christian music did indeed reflect the vision of the Christian community whose object had always been the breaking of barriers and the discouragement, on the whole, of local tradition.  A common doctrine, language, liturgy and music assured that local customs were mere excrescences on the parent tree. But by 1600 we can distinguish a 'Lutheran' chorale, a 'Palestrina' mass, a 'Gibbons' anthem and we have now to track down the reasons for this blossoming into nationalism and tell the story of the change.



The mainspring of the change was the Renaissance, that new movement in the mind of man to trust his own experience, to draw his own conclusions and, if need be, to jettison authority. Copernicus turned from the Aristotelian books on astronomy to watch the moving stars; Rabelais left his medieval medical treatises to take up dissecting. Both came up against the established authority not only of their own sciences but of the church; they none the less pointed the way to the new experimental attitude in astronomy and medicine. Similarly in religion Erasmus and Luther insisted on thinking about religion instead of blindly accepting the teachings of the church, Coverdale translated the bible into his mother tongue for all to read and discuss, composers hunted their bibles and primers for new and appealing texts on which to write their anthems, and reformers of all nations sought to rethink the purpose and forms of the over-complicated church services. 'There was never anything by the wit of man so well devised,' says the Book of Common Prayer, 'or so sure established, which in continuance of time hath not been corrupted'; and, like Luther and Calvin and the rest, the compilers of the Prayer Book attempted to end this corruption by going back to first principles. The spirit of Protestantism was born. It is clear that changes in the forms of service would involve corresponding alterations in the music.



Of all possible reforms the most pressing was the replacement of Latin by the vernacular. A new local consciousness was welling all over Europe and great nations were forming. The days of the Holy Roman Empire - in 1500 only a pathetic ideal - were numbered. Even in England, which had always been insular and aloof, the Tudors were reigning over a new and united England and a wave of patriotic feeling was initiated which went eddying through the centuries, especially after the defeat of the Armada in 1588. Spain' had become a mighty nation with rich colonial possessions in the New World and France was at last united under the aegis of Paris. The French language crystallised into two main dialects and her modern literature was born with Ronsard, Du Bellay, Marot and Rabelais. The German language was given a fruitful model in the German bible, while Coverdale translated the bible into what could justly be called standard English. Taught by the exiled courtier Clément Marot, the reformers taking refuge at Geneva poured out their metrical versions of the psalms in English and French. The nationalist feeling spread to music, so that by the end of the century we can talk of 'English' madrigals, 'German' chorales; 'English' church music begins in the sixteenth century, and it can hence-forward be considered as an art product with its own history arid traditions.



Certainly 'in continuance of time' the mass had become corrupted: it had, in fact, become little more than a monologue in an unknown language interspersed with" singing by a professional choir. Returning to first principles the reformers set out to make it into a congregational service. With this end in view the bishops, after much discussion, issued 'The Order of Communion' to come into force at Easter 1548. An experimental measure, it arranged that the mass should go on in Latin as before, but at the communion time the priest was to turn to the intending communicants and lead them in private devotions consisting of the present exhortation, confession and absolution, together with the comfortable words and the prayer of humble access, the whole in English. It met with such a poor reception that preaching was strictly curtailed to prevent the clergy - both conservative and left wing - from influencing the people against it. During the following months the mass was sung in English at St Paul's and other London churches. Extant choir-books show that many experiments were tried in adapting the traditional plainsong to English words, chiefly by simplifying the music or writing simple four- and five-part settings. From these books it is clear that various translations were tried out, presumably to find the most singable versions. Such efforts to retain the old type of music show that the English reformers were at this time more liberal-minded than those in other countries where everything that smacked of the old traditions was excluded. Here, as everywhere in the 1549 Prayer Book, when it appeared, the spirit shown was one of simplification and cleansing rather than of upheaval and rejection. The experiments went on throughout the summer and autumn of 1548 and ultimately gave us the singable version of the mass as we know it. [For details of the changes made in the form of the service, see page 22.]



Remaking the mass into a people's service was simple when contrasted with the herculean task of reforming the divine offices. The offices or day hours were not originally intended as services for a congregation of 'men in the street', but were a useful feature of monastic life seeking to turn the minds of the monks at regular times to spiritual matters. Thus, as the Book of Common Prayer points out, the fathers 'so ordered the matter that all the whole Bible ... should be read over once every year; intending, thereby, that the Clergy ... should (by often reading, and meditation in God's Word) be stirred up to godliness.' The original intention had long been frustrated; the elaborate system of saints' days, the 'planting in uncertain stories, and legends', - lives and sayings of the saints were often read - the 'multitude of responds, [The respond at prime goes:

V. Jesu Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy upon us.

R. Jesu Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy upon us.

V. Thou that sittest at the right hand of the Father;

R. Have mercy upon us.

V. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.

R. Jesu Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy upon us.]

 Verses [Versicles.], vain repetitions [Antiphons, for example, often repeated between the verses of the psalms.], commemorations' had so complicated the original design that 'commonly when any book of the Bible was begun, after three or four chapters were read out, all the rest were unread.' The question before the reformers was indeed a thorny one and they solved it ruthlessly. Except for the commemorations of the apostles, the Saints' Days disappeared; only the major church festivals were retained; a calendar of stark simplicity was drawn up; and, 'for this cause be cut off Anthems [Antiphons.], Responds, Invitatories [See the invitatories to Venite in the 1928 Book. They are intended to give the 'key' to the service at the festival seasons.] and such like things as did break the continual course of the reading of the Scripture.' The psalter was divided into 'days' to ensure its being read in its entirety once a month. Remembering that men going about their daily business attended church only once or twice a week, the reformers cut down the divine offices to two: morning prayer, a fusion of mattins and lauds, and evening prayer, similarly made out of vespers and compline.



This was an uprooting of weeds with a vengeance. But the reformers went further: in the old days the clergy- and choir-stalls must have been littered with books all necessary for the conduct of the service. There were 'missals' or mass-books, 'grailes' containing the graduals sung after the epistles, 'hympnals', 'antiphoners', 'processionals', 'manuals' for the conduct of weddings, etc., 'portuasses' or breviaries containing the priest's private offices, 'primers' or books of private devotion in Latin and English, 'couchers', so called as they were large books to lie on the reading-desk, 'journals' containing the day hours, 'ordinals' for the consecration of priests and bishops, 'epistollers', 'gospellers', 'collectars', 'legends', 'consuetudinaries' and so forth. Here again reform was ruthless. The new service book must be the supplanter of them all, the one and only vade mecum, a pocket guide for the services of the church. Everything needed must be between its covers and must be readily found. If in previous days the 'number and hardness of the rules called the Pie' - rules for finding out what was to be sung on saints' days, commemorations, octaves and so forth - 'was the cause, that to turn the book only was so hard and intricate a matter, that many times there was more business to find out what should be read, than to read it when it was found out,' it must now be easy for any schoolboy to find his place. Completeness must be sacrificed, even imagination must be strangled, but the book must be compendious and simple. The ancient and imaginative ceremonies connected with the major festivals, and especially with Holy Week, were mercilessly cut down to a few Proper Prefaces. It is unnecessary to point out the obvious merits and disadvantages of such a sweeping reform. Suffice it to say that the 1549 Book was a remarkably sane production for a time when religious temperature was already high. It was faithful to every word of its title, 'The Boke of Common Praier', but was not completed without much discussion and difficulty, made worse by the hurry imposed by the protestant-minded regency of the youthful king, Edward VI. Each for his own reasons, few of the council of bishops expected it to please everyone. On January 21st, 1549, the Boke of Common Praier was given a parliamentary send-off in the first Act of Uniformity. As was to be expected, the subsequent history of the book belied the title of its enabling act. A split appeared within the Church of England, which has never been closed. Churchmen of conservative trend interpreted the absence of rubrics as freedom in matters of ceremonial. The more zealous reformers wanted more violent changes and eventually won the day: the second Prayer Book, considerably more protestant that the first, was ordered to be used on and after All Saints' Day, 1552. On that day in St Paul's Ridley in a rochet and his clergy in surplices celebrated the communion to the new use; the quire of the cathedral had been deprived of its ornaments a week previously and the organ had been - similarly in anticipation - silenced a month before. [In this matter the reformers mercifully retracted; no doubt a few organless services made them think better of it.] The reforming spirit had triumphed. The interval during the reactionary reign of Bloody Mary, when the book was repealed, need not detain us, as it had no permanent effect on the music of the church. The Elizabethan Prayer Book of 1559 was substantially the same as that of 1552.

[Note that no doctrinal questions are discussed in the above brief account of the English Prayer Books. Such questions affected the music only in a general way.]