Gregorian chant or plainsong
Christian worship’s earliest music: its simplicity and flexibility allowed the words to be presented without obscuring their meaning, while bringing out their import.
Sequence: Victimae Paschali (11th century)
Conflict between composers and officialdom has always been a condition of church life, but inspiration always finds an outlet. Adding a tail to the Alleluia created new patterns of sound, required new texts to assist the memory. Popular throughout Europe, the sequences (as they are known) that resulted opened the way to vernacular religious song.
Organum (ninth-12th century)
The development of polyphony — singing in independent parts — has been described as “the greatest evolutionary shift in the history of music”. It began with the improvisation of a second voice exactly parallel to the plainsong melody, the new parts ultimately making a break for independence.
Perspice Christicola (c.1310)
The Reading Rota (“round”) was a contrafactum (substituted religious text) of the remarkable six-voiced “Sumer is icumen in”, one of many medieval examples of a secular piece pressed into the service of the Church.
Dunstable: Veni, Sancte Spiritus (c.1440)
By now, composers are named, and compositions are in independent vocal parts. In this outstanding setting of a Pentecost text, musical ideas are developed, not simply varied. Parts move at different speeds, held together by a sonorous, slow-moving (possibly instrumental) bass.
Coventry Carol (16th century or earlier)
Most church music, including the office hymns for the cycle of daily services and special festivals, were sung by the professionals. Carols, written for all seasons, were sung outside the liturgy. This one came from one of the Coventry Mystery plays.
Taverner: Westron Wynde Mass (16th century)
Medieval music, so often awkward and gawky, comes of age in this mature and ingenious mass setting. It was closely based on the melody of a popular love song, bringing the mystery of the mass into touch with the realities of life.
Sternhold and Hopkins: The Whole Book of Psalms (1562-63)
The Reformation’s emphasis on the primacy of scriptural texts, and on the participation of the people, resulted in the metrication of the psalms, to be sung to ballad-like tunes in church and at home. The kernel of this collection was by Thomas Sternhold, groom of the royal wardrobe, and it remained the definitive psalter for 140 years.
Byrd: Ave Verum Corpus (1605)
The Reformers, “for the comforting of such as delight in music”, had called for “modest and distinct song” so that “the prayers . . . be plainly understood.” Byrd, the outstanding composer of his generation, made the regulations work for him in this, his best-known single work: pellucid, expressive, and unmistakably English.
One of Anglicanism’s greatest gifts to the Church. Cranmer’s combining of vespers and compline created a pattern that allows for musical embellishment without overly increasing the length of the office. And its script is light enough to be endlessly renewed by a variety of musical idiom, a form of worship in which it is as involving to be a listener as it is to be an active participant.
Merbecke: Book of Common Prayer Noted (1550)
A household name throughout Anglicanism, Merbecke’s was a one-syllable, one-note setting of all the parts of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer that could be sung. It was truly an example of “modest and distinct song”. Little used in its own time, it came into its own in the 20th century when the eucharist was restored to the centre of parish worship.
Purcell: ‘Rejoice in the Lord alway’ (c.1683)
At the Restoration, radical new musical fashions crossed the channel when the equal voices of the Tudor composers gave way to virtuosic display. This verse anthem makes use of the new expressive vocabulary to telling effect. Its instrumental symphonies, dotted rhythms, soaring melismatic passages, suspensions, and changes of time signature make it the most widely sung of Purcell’s choral compositions.
This unique form came out of the meeting between Gregorian chant and the later harmonised music. Although prefigured in Byrd’s setting of Psalm 114, it fully emerged only after 1700. Flexible reciting notes and light cadences allow the (prose) words their full value, while the harmonic interest, coupled with the varied lengths of the verses, continuously hold the attention.
Battishill: ‘O Lord, look down from heaven’ (c.1770)
In a somewhat barren period for cathedral music, from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century, this sumptuous, multi-voiced piece stands out not just for its skilful use of chromaticism and counterpoint, but for the imaginative and effective silences as the music resonates in the space. Perhaps the composer was recalling his experience of being a chorister in St Paul’s Cathedral, with its famous echo.
Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley (d.1748, 1788)
These, and their fellow hymn-writers, rebelled against the restrictions of the Psalms. They believed that spiritual growth and fullness of worship demanded a richer fare, and that congregations were capable of giving more in worship aesthetically and artistically. Through Wesley in particular, worshippers were taught scripture, brought to prayer, and taken on the path to Christian maturity.
West Gallery bands (1700-1850)
Found in parish churches and also in Non-conformist chapels, the instruments supported the voices, with the singers of each part gathering round its player. Thomas Hardy came from a family of such musicians, and chronicles them in Under the Greenwood Tree.
Samuel Sebastian Wesley: ‘Blessed be the God and Father’ (1835)
The first choral composition with an independent organ part. At the time, only two out of 33 cathedrals had even a few pedal pipes, and it was only after the Great Exhibition of 1851 that organs began to have full pedal boards — an innovation resisted by leading church musicians of the day. The outstanding composer of his time, Wesley was as notable for his tract A Few Words on Cathedral Music and the Musical System of the Church, with a Plan of Reform (1849), which exposed the poor state of cathedral music and called for change. In this, he was in sympathy with the aims of the Oxford Movement.
In the second half of the 19th century there were many initiatives to improve church music. The most lasting was the system known as tonic sol-fa, popularised by Thomas Curwen. Showing the relationship of each note to a movable “doh”, it brought the ability to read music within reach of everyone, and it was customary, well into the 20th century, to print hymn books and oratorios in both notations.
Many defend this popular and accessible cantata, still the staple of local choirs at Passiontide, but others feel that the “sensational” wins over the devotional. Most would agree that the composer was at his best in shorter forms, and we would not wish to be without the hymn tunes (some from this work) that he has left.
Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861 full-music edition)
This historic compilation was a product of the Tractarian movement, designed to be a companion to the Book of Common Prayer. It was the first to offer a tune for every hymn on the same page. There have been many editions. The most influential was that of 1875, which established associations between texts and tunes for all denominations. Its successor is Common Praise (2000), and, following in the A & M tradition, the new supplement Sing Praise. Equally influential was the English Hymnal (music editor Ralph Vaughan Williams), a century later.
Nine Lessons and Carols
Begun at Truro in 1880, this interleaving of scripture narrative and carol on Christmas Eve remains the best attended act of worship throughout the country. Many more people follow the broadcast annual service from King’s College, Cambridge.
Parry: ‘I was glad’ (1902)
This resounding Coronation anthem represents a return to a high quality of church composition. More a composer for the concert hall, Parry brought a skilful use of melodic themes, contrasts of key and texture, and an attention to the meaning of words, all with an imaginative and rousing accompaniment. His organ music is much played, and “Jerusalem” is still a standard at the Last Night of the Proms.
School of English Church Music (1927)
This was founded by Sir Sydney Nicholson, then organist of Westminster Abbey, for the improvement of church music. In 1945 it became the Royal School of Church Music, and now supports a worldwide network of 8500 churches, schools, and individuals in a mutual commitment to seek the best use of good music in worship whatever the resources available and whatever the style.
Twentieth Century Folk Mass (1957)
The Twentieth Century Church Light Music Group, founded at Cambridge University by Geoffrey Beaumont, Patrick Appleford, and others, created a sensation with its first composition, which made use of popular secular idioms. It was one of the triggers for a ferment of exploration in succeeding decades of popular styles of music in worship.
Britten: Noye’s Fludde (1957)
A new version of an early-15th-century Mystery play from the Chester cycle, this returned drama to the heart of the church. The cast consisted primarily of amateurs, while the congregation joined in the three well-known hymns in the course of the work.
The Taizé and Iona communities
Both these 20th-century communities seek to model reconciliation in contemporary society, and both give a central place to liturgy and music. Taizé draws on ancient church practice, and Iona harnesses folk-music traditions and world music. Both are eucharistic communities, and have produced settings that enable participation by the congregation.
BBC Songs of Praise
First broadcast in October 1961, from the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Cardiff, the format is now one of the longest-running television programmes in the world. During its history, it has visited more than 1800 churches, cathedrals, and chapels, introducing, in a peak-viewing period, those who do not attend church to some of the great hymns of the faith, including new favourites.
James MacMillan: Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman (2010)
MacMillan, a Scottish Roman Catholic, is a leading contemporary composer for opera house and concert hall. Even in his “secular” music, MacMillan draws inspiration from scripture, Christian history, liturgical material, and musical forms, not least plainsong, and from the Church’s engagement with social issues. As well as works for choir, as at the enthronement of the present Archbishop of Canterbury, he writes for local congregations. All parts of this new work — the first setting of the revised text of the mass — used both at Glasgow, and Birmingham, during the Pope’s recent visit, could be sung by all those present.
The Revd Dr Douglas Galbraith is is a tutor in the International Centre for Sacred Music Studies, Bangor University, Wales, and a member of the advisory and consultative panel of the RSCM.