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Staying in tune with the regime

27 November 2015

Helen Burrows enjoys a lively history of English church music

By permission of the Provost and fellows of eton college

Chant: a folio from the Eton Choirbook, c.1520. From the book

Chant: a folio from the Eton Choirbook, c.1520. From the book

O Sing Unto the Lord: A history of English church music
Andrew Gant
Profile Books £20
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STUDENTS of Long, Temperley, Routley, et al., might question the need for another history of English church music. It takes only a brief foray into Andrew Gant’s compelling narrative to concede that there is certainly room for a volume such as this.

O Sing Unto the Lord, which is written in an absorbing style, covers the history of English church music from the beginnings of plainsong to the present day. Gant’s enthusiasm for his subject is abundantly evident as he traces not just the development of music and its relationship to the liturgy, but also the stories of the individuals who enrich and invigorate the text.

He begins with speculations about the music of the early Celtic Church, the arrival of Roman-style chant, and the development of Gregorian plainsong at the end of the sixth century; and then demonstrates how this monodic form gradually expanded into improvised harmonies, and the rhythmic complexities of the polyphonic motet.

Examination of the pre-Reformation period, through to the flowering of musical sophistication in the 17th-century Restoration period, is accomplished by considering the lives of the musicians of the time.

Being required to embrace the vernacular, and provide opportunities for the congregation to participate in vocal worship, required considerable skill and not a little diplomacy on the part of many English composers: Tallis and Byrd were two of the greatest.

Earlier, Taverner escapes execution for being “but a Musician”. Most church musicians tried to keep out of the way of trouble; many lost their jobs. Some, such as William Hunnis, seem to have escaped incarceration in the Tower for treason simply because the monarch valued their musical services in the Chapel Royal.

Today, it is difficult to appreciate just how shocking and liberating the change to the sound of the church musicians’ singing in English was. But such was the revolution that, in this era of Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer, Gant determines that “there is no doubt at all who was the finest composer for the English Church. It was Thomas Cranmer.”

Leading Roman Catholics such as Tallis adapted their style to write English service music, while still contributing Latin church music — albeit in a distinctively English style — to the repertoire.

After the hiatus of the Commonwealth, the late 17th-century saw a real flowering of the English style, with the Chapel Royal as elitist as ever. Meanwhile, the influence of popular metrical psalms and Nonconformist hymn-singing has persisted throughout Mendelssohn’s revivalism and Victorian efforts at invigorating choral singing. The Victorian concern with practicalities gave rise to that curious hybrid, Anglican chant.

Church music in the 20th century also reflects the politics and culture of the era. Parry and Stanford dominated the early years; since then, cathedral music has blossomed as never before, and the divergence in musical genre in English church music has never been greater.

Gant acknowledges that his principal source material has come from a lifetime of working with church music. His extensive practical experience as choirmaster at the Chapel Royal inevitably leads to considerable, and justifiable, reference to the lives and work of musicians associated with that place.

The intimate knowledge of, and interest in, not just the music, but the people behind it, has resulted in a freshness of approach which is apparent throughout nearly 400 pages of enthusiasm for a continuum of musical development within the English Church.


Dr Helen Burrows is Director of Music at St George’s RAF Chapel of Remembrance, Biggin Hill, and at Combe Bank School. She is also Examinations Secretary to the Guild of Church Musicians.

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