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The Anglican Choral Revival


Vox Humana

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I have not had the time recently to give much further thought to this topic, but David's point here set me thinking. I am not sure whether Vatican II was cause or effect, but it is undeniable that it did coincide with a growing clamour for congregational participation. But that alone does not, I think, account for the decline in the extent of parish choir-only performances. It was a fast changing world in the post-war years. The advent of television changed the concepts of broadcasting and home entertainment for ever. TV surely played an important part in increasing the secularisation of society. Added to this, the increasingly widespread availability of pop music and the evolution of a mostly very secular pop culture discouraged interest in classical music. There may be other factors as well, but these are the ones that stand out for me as explanations for the change in emphasis from classical choral music to lighter forms of congregational entertainment.

 

One other thing that struck me, though, is that our church congregations have never been larger than when the "Parish Choral Revolution" (to tweak contrabourdon's term slightly) was at its height. In December 1884 the re-opening of the rebuilt organ at St Andrew's, Plymouth, was celebrated by a choir that numbered nearly 60, nearly all of whom were regular members - and it stayed at that sort of level for many decades. When Harry Moreton had the old Parsons/Gray and Davison instrument utterly transformed 10 years later it was because "the organ was then merely a specimen of an old-fashioned and out-of-date instrument, with a poor, thin tone, utterly incapable of holding together the increasingly large congregations or fulfilling the requirements of a full cathedral service, which was rapidly developing." Plymouth wasn't alone. At least some of this increase in congregations was undoubtedly due to the increase in the population generally, but is that the whole explanation? I would love to believe that the dignity of the ceremonial, including its music, was a major factor in encouraging the large congregations of that time, but I suspect it is not quite that simple.

 

I can't see when, if ever, I am going to have time to look more deeply into this subject, but from the little digging I have been able to do, it does look as though my estimate of 80 years for this "flash in the pan" was little pessimistic, though I still doubt that it lasted more than 100 - from, say, 1860 to 1960.

 

====================================

 

 

I just know, that as I write this, I will be guilty of any number of sweeping statements.....but here goes.

 

Although we have touched on this and that origin of Victorian church music, and its considerable outside the cathedrals and colleges (etc.) we have not really addressed the political aspect of it, except in vague reference to working-class roots.

 

Let's go back a bit, to perhaps 1880 or so, because in the process of investigating the life and work of John Compton, I came across a remarkable comment, made by a very old lady being interviewed about her memories of village life. I'll have to paraphrase what she said, but apparently, if people of a certain standing were walking down the street, they would not speak to lowly people who worked the land on the farms, because they employed people.

 

Master and servant; God and his dominions, King & Country; Patronage....everything was top-down and strictly hierarchical. In fact, when I was quite young, (say in 1965), I knew old people who had been born in that era, and they would talk of ordinary people doffing their caps as mill-owners passed in horse-drawn carriages; from whom they would receive no acknowledgement.

 

Even the local vicar was often someone to be feared rather than loved, but of course, there were remarkable exceptions.

 

A sweeping statement/question perhaps, but did the C-of-E care about anyone at that time?

 

I suspect that they were more concerned about law and order, the hierarchy and the fabric of society, which they tried to maintain almost in spite of a vastly changing landscape.

 

You've only got to look at the paintings of Hogarth to immediately appreciate the squalor, social deprivation and danger of gin alleys,

child exploitation, prostitution (including well organised child-prostitution), smuggling, pick-pockets.....the list goes on and on.....a world accurately captured in the literary writings of Charles Dickens. Add to this horrendous child neglect, poverty, overcrowding, infant mortality, a lack of health care, poor sewerage, disease, pestilence, low life-expectancy, the work-house system and the various poor laws.........the whole country was a revolutionary powder-keg waiting to explode.

 

Something had to be done in a hurry, and the French revolution was still in the minds of those with the most to lose. (Should that read Tolouse?)

 

As early as 1954, Dr Spurgeon was preaching his great sermons, which caused great missionary zeal.

 

The following is a fascinating, full-length drama documentary about him:-

 

http://www.spurgeon.org/aboutsp.htm

 

If I were to try summing-up everything that Spurgeon stood for in two words, I would be very brave, yet "self improvement" must be close to the core; the idea that personal faith and witness could become a power for change and social progress.

 

But even before Spurgeon, Wesley and his followers had put into practice the foundations of social-justice; a far cry from the indifference of the laregly Anglican establishment of the day, which sought to blame people for being poor or destitute. It was John Wesley who reversed all that, with his statement:-

 

"Make all you can, save all you can, give all you can."

 

This was the protestant work-ethic with a heart, but more importantly, it was the foundation-stone of modern-society, which brought education, welfare, social justice and human rights to the fore.

 

So powerful was the non-conformist charge, nothing could stand in its way, and rather than oppose it, some of the great philanthropists and liberal reformers joined the cause.

 

After 1850 to 60, there emerged not only a social movement, but with it, social mobility; the latter an absolute essential in an increasingly technological age. Thus was born a powerful new middle-class, as well as the civilising thrust of middle-class music.

 

I don't expect that Wesley or Spurgeon could have anticipated how church music took flight, but when it did, it took off in a massive way, to become the number one pastime of people great and small.

 

If there is a lesson for us to-day, it is the fact that art, music, social progress, faith, hope and charity; all interlink at certain times....Luther, the Reformation and Bach being perhaps the most spectacular example.

 

I tend to think that it is a mistake to assume the TV, pop music and increasing secularisation are the cause of the downfall in choral music as a pastime and as an expression of worship. In fact, I would suggest that the secular society is the lasting triumph of popular religion, for it demonstrates the coinfidence of ordinary people in shaping their own destinies and following the path of indivuality.

 

Perhaps we should bear in mind that the church had rivals a century ago....music hall, theatre, fetes, galas, popular music, dance bands, brass bands and even pop-songs of a kind. Indeed, the biggest pre-war activity was cinema-going, when droves of people would queue in a snake around the larger cinemas of a Saturday evening.

 

Now that the western world in in crisis once again, perhaps some great new movement will emerge, and when it does, music will probably be a part of it, as people place their trust and faith in whatever that movement attemnpts to achieve.

 

Our hope must be that the Devil doesn't play the best tunes.

 

MM

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In 1861 a London church appointed a (clerical) precentor to train the choir. The organist, who had previously undertaken this role, but had been persuaded to relinquish it, was much put out and, when in 1863 he related the subsequent events in The Musical Standard, he did not pull his punches in ridiculing the man (though, sadly, no names or places are mentioned). The particular traits in the precentor that the organist lampooned were:

 

-- the constant flexing of the tempi

-- teaching the boys tonic solfa and musical theory (including the meaning of terms like vivace, forte, piano)

-- making the boys sing long, sustained notes to learn breath control

-- teaching the boys to breathe in hymns according to the punctuation instead of indiscriminately at the end of every line

-- the precentor's double standards in asking the choirmen to arrive punctually for practice while slipping into his stall after services had started.

 

The final straw was a rehearsal of the Tudor anthem "Rejoice in the Lord alway" during which the precentor insisted on sharpening a note towards the end. The organist objected, but was overruled. The organist said nothing, but vowed never to attend another rehearsal.

 

The following March the two bumped into each other in the street. After exchanging civilities, the following conversation ensued:

 

P: "Why, you never come to our practice: you haven't been since Christmas."

O: "I am aware of it, Mr_____."

P: "But why don't you come then?"

O: "I have particular engagements."

P: "Teaching?"

O: "No: at home with my family."

P: "But your not attending the practices is the reason why the Organ and Choir don't keep together, you see."

O: "No, I don't see that: if the Choir sing correctly, the Organ will be played properly."

P: "But, my dear Sir, the Organ often puts the Choir out."

O: "The Choir often puts the Organist out. There is the other side to be considered."

P (getting warm): "But, my dear Sir, the Choir are much improved under my instruction and you are not!"

O: "Why, I am frequently disgusted with my playing: I can't play as I would wish. Indeed, I am disgusted with it altogether. The singing is perfectly horrifying: if there is not some alteration, I shall be compelled to give up the situation."

P (very pale): "But my dear Sir, where is the difference? The Choir cannot get on so well as they ought if you do not attend the practice."

O: "I cannot possibly see that my coming to the practice can have any effect on the singing. I cannot attend."

P: "My dear Sir, I do not know what were your original arrangements, but I consider you are bound to come."

O: "Well, after what has passed I will not attend any more practices." (Exit)

Then began an extended exchange of letters, the precentor imploring the organist to attend practices, the organist resolutely refusing on the ground that if he were not permitted to play as he used to do, it would only be a waste of his time coming to practices - this despite an instruction from the senior curate that he was bound to follow the precentor's lead. What irked the organist most was that he was no longer allowed to take the musical lead, particularly in the matter of time, but - horror of horrors - had to accompany the choir. Only when the precentor was absent was the organ "allowed to speak in exultant tones and accents of rejoicing." The precentor's "discomforting presence ... obliged the tormented organist to put his noble instrument into mourning." Other points adduced were that (in the organist's opinion) the boys could not sight-read hymns, the psalms and canticles were never practised and in anthems the boys and men frequently had no idea how the music was to be sung. Meanwhile, unknown to the organist, a large number of the congregation had complained formally to the senior curate about the poor standard of the music and the differences between the precentor and the organist. In June the organist was sacked on the grounds that his relationship with the precentor had broken down irretrievably.

 

The Musical Standard sided entirely with the organist.

 

Probably there were faults on both sides, but it is perfectly clear that the organist had no concept of how to accompany a choir musically, or even that this might have been desirable. His job, as he saw it, was to lead the services rhythmically and loudly. The organist's intransigence has something of S. S. Wesley about it. It is not him, but one could imagine SSW taking the same line. Whether the organist had a point might have depended on the standard of the choir - and The Musical Standard also printed a humourous piece on the general standard of unpaid choirs too.

 

I am reminded of an anecdote about old Harry Moreton (who got his first organist's post in 1874 at the age of 10) accompanying one of his last services on the foghorn he so lovingly designed. Apparently he completely drowned the very capable choir, using everything up to the Tromba chorus quite liberally. True, by this time he was over 90 and hearing impaired, but I can't escape a slight suspicion that this was his style anyway. I must ask.

 

===========================

 

 

I would have loved this organist.

 

I recall a hell-fire Methodist preacher, who had been controversially booked to preach a sermon at an Anglican Church where I was organist. He went on and on and on; the spiritual temperature rising, (I am told) to a white-heat frenzy, but long before it did, I slipped off the organ and went to the pub, after creeping out through the vestry door.

 

Now I'm not a drinker, and I'm not very fond of beer by and large, but a pint of Taylor's best bitter is agreeable in moderation.

 

So I ordered a pint of best, gulped it down, and made my way back into church, where the said preacher was still going strong; sweating profusely and with tears running down his face.

 

If the truth be known, the only reason I went to the pub, was so that I could thank him afterwards and breath all over him in the process. (I even doused my clothes with a few splashes of clean beer, just in case he had a poor sense of smell).

 

The look of recoil on his face was memorable.

 

MM

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Maybe Faversham? I think I read something about that sometime. Incidentally, they still have a good choir there.

 

Faversham had a VERY good choir for many years, indeed it was a training choir for Canterbury Cathedral. However, these days I believe it is really quite small and the church now boasts a 'band'.

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Faversham had a VERY good choir for many years, indeed it was a training choir for Canterbury Cathedral. However, these days I believe it is really quite small and the church now boasts a 'band'.

 

 

Dear me! I didn't know that. Is that a fairly recent development? It's worrying how much it takes to build and maintain a decent tradition of worship and how little it takes to mess it up.

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Dear me! I didn't know that. Is that a fairly recent development? It's worrying how much it takes to build and maintain a decent tradition of worship and how little it takes to mess it up.

Something that happens too often for comfort, too. When I was in Birmingham, I was assistant in a parish church near the university. The highly qualified and experienced director of music left after seven years in-post, and the vicar replaced him (without advertising the vacancy) with a person recommended by the diocesan music advisor who was neither qualified or experienced. The choir went from Sweelinck's Hodie Christus natus est to singing ditties by Margaret Rizza almost overnight, and rather inevitably imploded within a few months. Very sad, but not an isolated case.

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This is why I described the parish choral revolution as a flash in the pan. Today there is no vibrant demand in churches for classical church music and, except during that brief, 80-100 year revolution, there never has been - and perhaps not even then as far as the congregations were concerned. Oh yes, our congregations love to see a large, robed chancel party - just so long as they don't get in their way by actually doing anything useful. They'll happily tolerate the occasional anthem as the necessary price to pay, but woe betide the choir that gets too big for its boots. I tend to think that, by and large, our churches get the choirs and organists they deserve. Where they get something better it's because there's a musician who actually cares deeply enough not to mind fighting the unequal odds. Do clergy or congregations ever spearhead such initiatives?

 

My admittedly deliberately provocative sub-text is, of course, that in the "ordinary" churches of this land, high-art classical church music is obsolete, not wanted and not missed. The most depressing thing of all is that no one on this forum has yet seriously disagreed with me. (Of course that could just be because I am beneath contempt... :blink: )

 

The other big question is how often choirs themselves alienated their congregations by forcing them to endure invariably poor performances. In parish church choirs there commonly was - and doubtless still is - a defeatist attitude that good standards were only practical in cathedrals. I think it's in Gordon Reynolds's booklet "Full Swell" that you'll find a cartoon parodying the hapless organist who tries to improve standards. It shows two choirmen, one of whom is saying to the other out of the side of his mouth, "Choral Hevensong today comes from Westminster Habbey." Reynolds was, as ever, absolutely spot on.

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This is why I described the parish choral revolution as a flash in the pan. Today there is no vibrant demand in churches for classical church music and, except during that brief, 80-100 year revolution, there never has been - and perhaps not even then as far as the congregations were concerned. Oh yes, our congregations love to see a large, robed chancel party - just so long as they don't get in their way by actually doing anything useful. They'll happily tolerate the occasional anthem as the necessary price to pay, but woe betide the choir that gets too big for its boots. I tend to think that, by and large, our churches get the choirs and organists they deserve. Where they get something better it's because there's a musician who actually cares deeply enough not to mind fighting the unequal odds. Do clergy or congregations ever spearhead such initiatives?

 

My admittedly deliberately provocative sub-text is, of course, that in the "ordinary" churches of this land, high-art classical church music is obsolete, not wanted and not missed. The most depressing thing of all is that no one on this forum has yet seriously disagreed with me. (Of course that could just be because I am beneath contempt... :blink: )

 

The other big question is how often choirs themselves alienated their congregations by forcing them to endure invariably poor performances. In parish church choirs there commonly was - and doubtless still is - a defeatist attitude that good standards were only practical in cathedrals. I think it's in Gordon Reynolds's booklet "Full Swell" that you'll find a cartoon parodying the hapless organist who tries to improve standards. It shows two choirmen, one of whom is saying to the other out of the side of his mouth, "Choral Hevensong today comes from Westminster Habbey." Reynolds was, as ever, absolutely spot on.

 

=================================

 

 

I never did finish my last reply properly, for I should have addressed the competitive element in church music, which saw the Anglican church as a late entry but the surprise winner in the high-art stakes, but then, it wasn't something which occured in isolation, was it?

 

At a philosophical level, the period 1850 to 1950 was one which witnessed a great outpouring of visual, aural and written art; not all of it top-quality by any means, but generally quite worthy. Interestingly, the quality of light-music probably exceeded the quality of even the best church music written during this period....Gershiwn, Billy Mayerl, Bernstein, Coates and Farnham et al.

 

It was also international, as we know, with the great centres of civilisation acting as focal points.....Paris, New York, Berlin, Vienna etc etc. The outpouring was not restricted to art of course, and there were similar achievements in engineering, technology, science, industry etc etc.

 

In one single century, humanity went from the horse & trap, to the jet aircraft....a quite staggering leap, which was similarly reflected in other areas of endeavour.

 

What always strikes me very forcibly, (having been educated at the tail-end of all this), is the fact that society required and expected high-standards, because a new generation had to eventually fill the boots of technocrats, scientists and other high achievers. It's what you still find in Japan, China, India and South Korea to-day.

 

Art is and was the expression of that. and of course, the great educationalists had modelled their ideas on classical Greek lines; learning, good counsel and wisdom the product of careful study and observation. That, of course, is the very source of elitism, and one which is absolutely essential when social mobility and societal progress are in top-gear. Unfortunately, so enormously complex is the world, I can do no more than paint clumsily with a very broad brush, but what we see to-day is a certain duality of expectation.

 

For the past seventy years, everyone has believed that economic growth could continue forever, but as economic growth could be seen to exist year on year, there has been a simultaneous decline in output: the paradox of reflation leading to stagnation, and contrary to Keynesian economic theory.

 

What we have lived through since the end of WWII, is an economic sleight-of-hand, where demand has fuelled the selling off of the family silver, and when that (and the oil) ran out, we gave ourselves an unsustainable pay rise in the form of cheap imports. The next stage of the economic growth game, was to borrow our way out of stagnation and decline, which leads to where we are to-day; facing the stark reality of enormous sovereign debts in a global economic system founded on monetarist principles, in which money is a mere commodity, to be bought, sold and traded freely around the world.

 

The duality of expectation derives from the (false) belief in automatic economic growth on the one hand, and the exact opposite in the form of industrial and commercial decline. In a nutshell, everyone expects to be better off, but no-one can be expected to provide the means thereof in the form of skilled-jobs. In practical terms, society no longer requires, and therefore does not expect high standards of education, except in certain key areas of expertise. Ordinary working people and the once mobile middle-classes are being left behind, yet they have never been better informed or exchanged information more quickly and completely.

 

I hope that I've said enough to paint a clumsy picture within a makeshift frame.

 

Now, what hymn sheet do we use to celebrate all this?

 

What religion provides the answers or even the questions?

 

What political system is based on a duality of expectation?

 

The answer must be none on all three counts!

 

Religion promises heaven and politicians promise the earth.

 

Meanwhile the Bank of England, (and other central lending banks), promise to pay.

 

I would suggest that the very real explosion of interest in church music, such as was seen, heard and witnessed in Victorian times, was also based on a similar duality: the march of faith and reason, ("God is working his purpose out") and the growth of social conscience. (The Christian call to tend the poor, needy, lonely and destitute).

 

This is precisely why singing "Messiah" became a national institution. It embodies the high drama and duality of what was actually happening around those who sang it.......art as a reflection and expression of real life.

 

I would suggest that a sense of foreboding and insecurity now dominates the minds of people to-day in the once prosperous western world. A few will respond by embracing blind faith, while others will search for practical answers, but almost no-one can predict the future or even anticipate what is required to alter things.

 

No wonder the "art" of to-day is angry, emotive, anti-establishment and even dangerous to a point, because it is inclined to be mawkish, cynical and destructive in equal measure.

 

On the Sunday after 11/11/11, our Parish Priest said something which struck a chord with me, and I quickly grabbed the music for the final voluntary to show him something. I must have been on a bit of charge, because I suddenly found myself surrounded by a small but rapt audience.

 

The music was "Litanies" by Jehan Alain, and I explained why the "Alleluya" motif repeated constantly......the soul in pain and distress.....no easy answers....no resolution.....no comfort.....no apparent way forward.

 

We all know the background of a world in conflict, and of Alain's premature end on the battlefield.

 

It struck me then, and still does, that those apparently crass "Alleluya" songs are the low-brow equivalent to the very same things Alain was expressing in his "Litanies."

 

Should we be surprised that churches to-day no longer find true expression in traditional church music?

 

 

 

MM

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