The story of English church music can in the sixteenth century boast of two pieces of sheer good luck: one was an archbishop who thought music worth his concern, the other a school of fine musicians to cope with the problems raised by the reform of the services. In the company of music-loving clerics, of Gregory and Ambrose, Archbishop Cranmer deserves honourable mention. He was willing, in the midst of the incessant personal work he did in Englishing the services and supervising the compilation of service books, to give time to caring for the music to be used and the manner of its performance. Like Gregory before him he recognised that once music is admitted as part of worship it must be regulated as to the kind of music used, the use made of it and the manner of its presentation. Thus Cranmer not only translated himself the Latin litany (1544) to be used in national processions during the war with France, but wrote later to the king:
If your grace command some devout and solemn note' - that is, music - 'to be made thereunto, (as is the procession which your majesty has already set forth in English) I trust it will much excitate, and stir the hearts of all men unto devotion and godliness: But in mine opinion the song, that shall be made thereunto, would not be full of notes, but, as near as may be, for every syllable a note, so that it may be sung distinctly and devoutly.
These words accompanied some drafts of translations that Cranmer was sending to the king, and the words in brackets presumably refer to the already published litany, which had appeared in 1544 set to simple music. Later in the letter the archbishop says of the Latin music to Salva festa dies that it is 'sober and distinct enough,' adding, however, that 'they that be cunning in singing can make a much more solemn note' - festival setting - 'thereunto.' Without, in fact, suggesting that more ornate settings be discarded, he gives simplicity, dignity and distinctness - clarity of words, perhaps - as the essentials. The ideal was a sensible one, typical of an English churchman, and was unconsciously followed by the composers of the time. [Unconsciously, because Cranmer's letter in which the passages occur was not presumably made public. But Cranmer quite possibly knew many of the composers of the time and we may assume he sometimes discussed the problems with them.]
It is clear from the experiments carried out in various London churches [See page 55.] that the translations intended to be sung from the Prayer Book are not mere translations but versions compiled to be fitted to music. An obvious example of exact translation yielding to a singable version is Cranmer's English equivalent of miserere nobis in his litany. Miserable sinners is a rhythmic paraphrase, of which other examples can be found throughout the Prayer Book. The history of the English version of the psalter in the Prayer Book shows a similar principle: the 1549 Book used Coverdale's [Miles Coverdale (1488-1569). His Bible appeared in 1535.] beautifully sonorous and rhythmic version, which is far from accurate. In the subsequent Prayer Books, though other translations were substituted elsewhere the Coverdale psalter remained; even in the 1928 revision it has been left alone despite the frequent nonsense of its meaning. [See, for example, psalm 68, verse 30, a difficult passage. The Prayer Book version:
When the company of the spearmen and multitude of the mighty are scattered abroad among the beasts of the people, so that they, humbly bring pieces of silver: when he hath scattered the people that delight in war;
is given by the Revised Version and Driver as:
Rebuke the wild beast of the reeds, the multitude of the (troop of - Driver) bulls, with the calves of the peoples, trampling underfoot the pieces of silver; he hath scattered the peoples that delight in war.]
The reason given in 1662 for retaining it was that the singers had got used to it; in 1928 the reason must have been the same. Its eminently singable qualities can best be appreciated by contrasting it with the more correct Revised Version or with Driver ['The Parallel Psalter' - S. R. Driver (Clarendon Press).]. We must note in passing that all the careful work of Cranmer, so far as congregational music goes, amounts to very little. Cranmer's efforts helped the later composers of choir music but did not succeed in establishing a people's song.
It is obvious that on the publication of the 1549 Prayer Book an immediate need would arise for some authoritative musical counterpart such as had always existed for the Latin services. Unfortunately no such authoritative book has ever appeared. [The Cathedral Prayer Book, 1891, was due entirely to private enterprise. A modern 'Prayer Book Noted' drawn up by a joint committee of organists and clergy is long overdue. See page 195.] In 1550, however, John Merbecke, who almost certainly had been working in conjunction with Cranmer during the experimental years before the 1549 Book, published his Booke of Common Praier Noted - that is, set to music.
[John Merbecke. (Birth and death dates unknown.) The name is spelt in many different ways. Appointed to the Royal Chapel at Windsor, 1541, where he was succeeded by Mundy in 1585. His religious views became so pronounced that he talks of 'playing of Organs, wherein I consumed vainly the greatest part of my life.' Some early Latin music shows him as a composer of considerable ability, but after 1550, though organist of Windsor, he seems to have spent his time writing his con?cordance and various anti-popery pamphlets. He remained unnoticed in Mary's reign, and was probably humoured as a well-known retainer by Elizabeth.]
His ardent zeal for reform had all but cost him his life when in 1543 he was convicted for writing a concordance to the Bible in English and for uttering blasphemies against the mass. The story runs that he was let off, when three of his fellow singing-men were burnt in front of Windsor Castle for heresy, in order to help with the work of Englishing the services - a possible proof that experiments were being made six years before the appearance of the 1549 Book. Like the Prayer Book to which he added his music, his book was meant for congregations to use; it was not a choir book. Its successful music to the mass and the divine offices is singable and never difficult. Not only does it satisfy Cranmer's ideal of soberness and distinctness but it keeps rigidly - perhaps too rigidly, even though it is intended for the people's use - to the plan of 'for every syllable a note'. The music, however, was neither fish nor fowl; it was a typical English compromise. Though it sounds reminiscent of plainsong, being sometimes, as in the Te Deum setting, an adaptation of the traditional Latin melody, it could not be called plainsong. The preface makes it clear that the composer meant his music to be sung in time and it is full of the rhythmic mannerisms of the period; the phrase quoted below [See example 14, page 69. 62], And I look for the resurrection of the dead, might well be taken from any simple four-part mass of the time. Thus to plant a foot in both worlds was novel, and modern performances of this music show that it is easy to sing even by the uninitiated. At the time, however, in which it was written, no doubt other things crowded out the effort needed to acquire the new style, and there is no evidence of the book's having been used. What chance it may have had of survival was wrecked by the appearance of the 1552 Book where too many alterations were made in the texts for Merbecke's book to be of very practical use. It is a pity that it was not revised and taken up as the authoritative book, for who knows that it might not have been an element in preventing the disuse of the sung mass during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; if all the congregations of England had learnt to sing Merbecke's mass they might well have been more loth to let the service drop in esteem as it did. Perhaps owing to his extreme anti-popery (he later wrote a book with the intriguing title, The Ripping up of the Pope's Fardel ) Merbecke was not willing to help in perpetuating even the traditional plainsong on which his book was in a general way based. The failure of the book to be retained as a singers' handbook was a blow to congregational music and so also a blow to the intentions of the reformers to create a congregational service. From now on only the service without music can be properly described as congregational; the historian of the sixteenth century is thus denied a chapter on the establishment of congregational music. We may note in passing that the book sadly burked the issue in morning and evening prayer by setting the canticles to two plainsong tones apiece; Venite and the psalms are dealt with even more cursorily. One verse and an 'etc.' is all they get: it would have been a discouraging prospect to sing the whole psalter year in and year out to tone viii.
After three hundred years Merbecke has come into his own as a revival initiated by Stainer's Cathedral Prayer Book. But he has not always been sung as he intended, a misfortune for any composer. His note-lengths have been grouped into a square four-in-a-bar or ironed out into a series of nothing but minims or quavers; he has been harmonised, even descanted. The accompaniment, if really necessary, interferes least with the composer's felicitous rhythms when done on plainsong lines, though there seems no reason against an occasional accidental in the manner of 1550.