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Hymns and oratorios galore

by
29 June 2012

Ronald Corp looks at a century of choral and religious zeal

CORBIS/HULTON-DEUTSCH COLLECTION

Around the cultures: the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a gospel chorus from Nashville, Ten­nessee, who had toured Britain as early as 1873, at a railway station en route to a performance for King Edward VIII at Windsor Castle

Around the cultures: the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a gospel chorus from Nashville, Ten­nessee, who had toured Britain as early as 1873, at a railway sta...

Music and Theology in Nineteenth-Century Britain
Martin V. Clarke, editor
Ashgate £60
(978-1-4094-0989-2)
Church Times Bookshop £54 (Use code CT499)

ACCORDING to the blurb on the back cover of this book, the interrelationship of music and theology is a burgeoning area of scholarship. Certainly, this collection of essays offers a reasonably thorough ex­ploration of the repertory, genres, and institutions, as well as the works of various composers, religious leaders, and scholars of 19th-century Britain. There is acknowledgement that this period has been seen as a fallow period in British musical culture ("the land without music"), and we must applaud any en­deavour that seeks to show that this is not true.

Each essay is concise, and each writer works within certain re­strictions either of scope or time frame. Martin V. Clarke (the editor of this volume) considers just two hymn books in his essay "Meet and Right it is to Sing: Nineteenth-Century Hymnals and the Reason for Sing­ing".

These are the Evangelical Chris­tian Psalmody of 1833, compiled by Edward Bickersteth, and the high-church Hymnal Noted, prepared by John Mason and Thomas Helmore in 1851. Clarke shows how different theological identities in Anglicanism are expressed in the hymnody. David Brown explores the Victorian oratorio between Mendelssohn's Elijah of 1847 and Elgar's The Apostles of 1906, and remarks that almost none of the many works written in this period remain in the repertory today. Stainer's The Crucifixion is an exception, but Brown is wrong to say that Stainer's three other oratorios were taken up by oratorio societies at the time. His first, Gideon, was a degree exercise, and was performed only once in Oxford in 1865.

Another essay explores music at solemn mass, and explains how the choir moved away from its position as part of the liturgical ministry in the sanctuary to a place in a west gallery with the organ and away from the altar. It was during this period that the Viennese classics came to be sung as part of the mass, because Novello vocal scores were cheap and easily available.

A fascinating chapter by Peter Horton shows how composers began to move away from psalm texts for their anthems and turned towards settings of words from the hymns. The works of the great names of the time are investigated (Goss, Samuel Sebastian Wesley, Walmisley, Ouseley, et al.).

There are also essays on female hymn-writers, British missionaries and the hymnody in Madagascar, Moody and Sankey, the Welsh Re­vival, and the gospel-style hymnody that began to replace Watts's hymns "of human composure". Jeremy S. Begbie discusses Elgar's spiritual anxiety in the context of composing The Dream of Gerontius, and the final chapter is about Darwin, Joseph Goddard, and the "music theology of evolution". This is written by Bennett Zon, who is general editor of this fascinating Music in Nineteenth-Century Britain series.

The Revd Ronald Corp, an assistant priest at St Alban's, Holborn, in London, is a composer and conductor.

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