Mass music for the Housewives’ Choice crowd

29 November 2007

It is 50 years since the BBC unbent to broadcast Geoffrey Beaumont’s light music in a liturgical context. Arnold Hunt tunes in

Begin the beguine: the Revd Gerald Fitzgerald at the altar of St Augustine’s, Highgate, with the Peter Knight Orchestra and Singers

Begin the beguine: the Revd Gerald Fitzgerald at the altar of St Augustine’s, Highgate, with the Peter Knight Orchestra and Singers

FIFTY YEARS ago last month, the BBC broadcast a service of holy communion from St Augustine’s, Highgate, with music by the Revd Geoffrey Beaumont. It stirred up intense controversy. One newspaper declared that “this disturbing racket . . . was one of the most incongruous things ever seen on TV.” Not many church services get reviews like that in the Daily Express — but then Beaumont’s Twentieth-Century Folk Mass was no ordinary piece of music.

Geoffrey Beaumont (1903-70) was an Anglo-Catholic priest who had served with distinction as a naval chaplain in the war, and was later to become a monk at the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield. He wrote the Folk Mass while chaplain of Trinity College, Cambridge, in the early 1950s.

His Trinity colleague, the Revd Harry Williams, gave an affectionate account of him in his autobiography, Some Day I’ll Find You (Mitchell Beazley, 1982), where he describes Beaumont rehearsing the Folk Mass with a crowd of undergraduates in his college rooms, vamping at the piano amid cries of “Geoffrey, let’s have another gin before we try the Agnus.”

The Folk Mass draws heavily on the light music of the 1930s: the Kyrie and Agnus Dei are set to “beguine tempo”. Though sometimes misleadingly referred to as the “Jazz Mass”, it is not particularly jazzy in style — though the setting of Psalm 150 allowed the trumpets, guitars, violins, and clarinets to improvise in the style of the “hot breaks” favoured by some pre-war big bands.

Beaumont himself characterised the work accurately in a newspaper interview. “What is the modern appeal? I should say somewhere around the appeal of Housewives’ Choice.”

At the time of its composition, it would have been hard to imagine its ever being broadcast on the BBC. But the establishment of independent television in 1955 meant that the BBC had to face competition for the first time. The new Head of Religious Broadcasting, the Revd Roy McKay, was determined to secure a place for religion in the television schedules by adopting a bolder programming policy, aimed at attracting viewers from outside the mainstream Churches.

The BBC archives show that the initial proposal to broadcast the Folk Mass came from the saxophonist and bandleader Frank Weir, who had recorded an LP of the work. Christian Simpson, a BBC music producer, went to hear a playback of the recording, and reported favourably: “The lush intimate crooning style of singing is exploited to the full and I have no doubt that the teenagers who go for this kind of music will be considerably impressed.”

The proposal was enthusiastically supported by the Religious Broadcasting Department, where the Revd Oliver Hunkin described it as “a somewhat daring experiment”. He continued: “From the religious angle we are fully prepared to take the risk of criticism, as we feel it is an important attempt to show that the old familiar words are absolutely up-to-date.”

THE original plan had been to broadcast the service from the composer’s own church, St George’s, Camberwell, but Beaumont was uncomfortable with this, fearing that it might seem like self-promotion. The venue eventually selected was St Augustine’s, Highgate, where the Vicar, the Revd Gerald Fitzgerald, was an old friend of Beaumont, who had served with him as a naval chaplain.

The choice of such an extreme Anglo-Catholic church caused some problems, as the order of service differed considerably from the Prayer Book. Fr Fitzgerald was unwilling to make any changes, arguing, not unreasonably, that the main purpose of the broadcast was to attract the unchurched, who would be unaware of any deviations from the standard Prayer Book service.

On being told that the BBC would have preferred “an ordinary 1662 Holy Communion service”, Fr Fitzgerald was finally moved to protest. “In that case why approach me about it? It must be clear to anyone who comes into the church and is confronted with votive candles before the statue of St Anthony of Padua that this is not the sort of church where that would be feasible.”

On another issue, it was Fr Fitzgerald who nudged the BBC towards a more progressive attitude. The BBC’s policy at that time was not to film individuals receiving communion, as this was deemed to be an intrusion on a moment of personal devotion. It was therefore proposed that the broadcast should fade out during the communion of the people, to be replaced with a picture of Lake Windermere. Fr Fitzgerald firmly vetoed this idea, which he rightly regarded as a piece of “false sentimentality”.

As the date of the broadcast drew nearer, the BBC became increasingly nervous about the likely public reaction. To pre-empt criticism, Hunkin placed an article in the Radio Times, in which the Folk Mass was described, modestly, as “an experiment offered to God” — following, it was claimed, in the tradition of John Merbecke, who had set the Prayer Book to the popular music of his own day.

On the day of the broadcast, Sunday 13 October 1957, McKay provided a briefing note for the BBC duty officer to deflect the hostile phone calls that, it was feared, would flood the switchboard.

SOME of the press coverage was predictably hostile. “This grotesque mixture had moments of madness,” declared the Daily Express. “The Creed began with a boogie beat and turned into a samba . . . Within minutes the saxophones were moaning in waltz time as Mr Fitzgerald prepared the wine and bread for Communion.”

Another journalist waited outside the church to catch the mood of the congregation on their way out. “I’m not sure it had a lot to do with religion,” one elderly woman was heard to remark, “but at least the young people can’t complain about its being stuffy.”

“Not quite their cup of tea, really,” was Fr Fitzgerald’s comment — though he himself felt that the service had gone “wonderfully, much more wonderfully than I had ever expected”, with a real atmosphere of reverence.

The public reaction, however, was surprisingly positive. On the night, the BBC received only seven phone calls, six hostile, but the seventh describing the service as “magnificent”. Of the 80 or so letters that came in afterwards, 60 were in favour of the service, and only 20 were against.

Fr Fitzgerald’s mail followed much the same pattern — 70 letters in favour, 30 against — although he received one phone call denouncing him as a “fiend from hell”. His own congregation, he reported, had been very supportive, although the younger parishioners had been harder to convince than the old.

He added that only one of his correspondents had criticised the liturgical detail of the service — a lady who complained that he had failed to kneel during the Prayer of Humble Access, as required by the Prayer Book rubric. She was, he observed, “terrifically worked up by this”, so much so that she had failed to notice that large sections of the communion service had been taken from the Roman Missal.

The more thoughtful criticism centred on the incongruity between the music and the traditional Anglo-Catholic ritual, which one correspondent compared to “oil and water”. This view was privately shared by several people within the BBC. The producer, Christian Simpson, hoped for a second broadcast, this time in a more Low Church setting, attended by more young people (“including Teddy boys and the like”), and “using every means to capture the enthusiasm of young and old”. It was a prophetic suggestion. The future of popular music in the Church of England would belong overwhelmingly to the Evangelicals.

Listening to the Folk Mass today, it is hard to understand what all the fuss was about. The Musical Times described it, almost hysterically, as reminiscent of “the fetid atmosphere of a night club, dance hall or cabaret, and its emphasis on cheap, moronic sexual allurement”.

The poet David Holbrook called it a work of “emotional corruption”, and, “in the deepest sense, blasphemy”. Yet it strikes one today as a deeply romantic and nostalgic work (not without occasional moments of unconscious humour), looking back yearningly to a lost world of pre-war innocence.

In 1957, the first stirrings of rock and roll were beginning to be heard in Britain. Elvis Presley’s “Blue Suede Shoes” had come out the previous year, and, in the autumn of 1957, “Jailhouse Rock” was topping the United States’ charts. Neither Beaumont nor his critics could possibly have imagined how thoroughly the coming revolution in popular music would turn the Folk Mass into a period piece.

Dr Arnold Hunt is Curator of Manuscripts at the British Library.

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