ENGLISH cathedrals are justifiably proud of their engagement
with the visual arts and, in the 20th century, can point to an
impressive history of commissions by artists of international
standing. This tradition has continued into our own century, and
tourists and worshippers appear comfortable with the visual
juxtaposition of the old with the new.
But where is the musical equivalent? When looking for images for
a book about the lack of a corresponding body of 20th-century
cathedral music, I was spoilt for choice: Elisabeth Frink at St
Edmundsbury; Craigie Aitchison and Tracey Emin at Liverpool; Bill
Viola at St Paul's. The list could be extended.
In contrast, there is scant evidence in cathedral music of
influences from the great movements of change which swept through
compositional activity in the century from such diverse aural
landscapes as those created by Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Ligeti,
Webern, Stockhausen, Boulez, Henze, and Glass, to pick a few from
The reasons for this are rather more disturbing than a simple
failure by cathedrals to keep their eye on the rapidly moving ball
of compositional development. The evidence points to a concerted
campaign by leading cathedral and church-music bodies (particularly
the RSCM, the Church Music Society, and the first two of the
Archbishops' reports, in 1922 and 1951) to impede stylistic
development in cathedral music. This led to its becoming, over the
century, an archaic and poor-quality aesthetic "product", which is
clearly distinguishable from contemporary practice, and often
carries only the slightest indication of individuality.
This is all the more worrying given the failure to grasp the
huge compositional opportunities afforded by the significant
liturgical changes in the period. The main criteria used for
inclusion of music in the 20th-century cathedral repertoire were
ease of performance and enduring popularity, but this has created a
musical genre incapable of fruitful development.
MUSIC had to be "fitting" for worship (even down to which
chords, melodies, and rhythms were appropriate); there was an
emphasis on an amateurish approach to composition (which was seen
to be quintessentially English); and, crucially, a linking of
musical style with the language of the Book of Common Prayer.
Church-music bodies and the cathedral musicians and clergy
developed strategies and rationales for preventing music of a
different style from entering cathedral repertoires, despite
repeated calls for action from many sides.
The opportunities afforded by post-war liturgical change were
also fiercely resisted, and cathedrals doggedly clung on to Prayer
Book evensong, despite being offered the ASB, then Common
Worship, and all the other liturgical re-sources that appeared
along the way.
Sung evensong is, of course, difficult to tilt against, as it is
so popular, particularly with those who wish to drop in anonymously
to ponder the great questions of life to the backdrop of
easy-listening music. Through this period of enormous compositional
and liturgical change, however, the Church has been left with a
body of work which is so lacking in integrity that, for the vast
majority of contemporary composers, the Church is not now thought
of as a credible commissioner.
Congregations are happy to submit their senses to the lush
harmonies of Herbert Howells, the neo-religious wallpaper music of
John Tavener, or to be jollied along by the Carols for
Choirs style of David Willcocks and John Rutter which pervades
so much cathedral music; but these and other sub-genres are
stylistically stuck and anachronistic, and also worryingly easy to
Performances of the more challenging pieces by Giles Swayne,
Diana Burrell, Judith Bingham, Jonathan Harvey, and others are
rare; those of Brian Ferneyhough, Peter Maxwell Davies, Elisabeth
Lutyens, and Geoffrey Bush are vanishingly so.
THERE have though been exceptions to this pattern, where
forward-thinking clergy, organists, and composers coincided with
one another. One example is the period at Winchester which brought
together the composer Jonathan Harvey and the organist Martin
Neary, with the Dean, Michael Stancliffe, and Bishop John V.
There were also individual contributors to the repertoire who
wrote their music anyway, and often failed to have it performed.
Then there were the occasional works dropped into the repertoire
from leading figures, including Britten, Tippett, and Walton.
THE architectural heritage of the great cathedrals has not been
damaged by bold experiments of melding the new with the old. On the
contrary, the engagement of cathedrals with the visual arts in the
20th century has often been imaginative, leaving a substantial
legacy of profoundly engaging work by leading artists.
If the Church is to regain the respect of contemporary
composers, the great west doors - and the organ lofts - of the
cathedrals need to be flung wide. Otherwise, we shall be faced with
perpetuating a musical continuum that fails to be either a
significant partner to the liturgy or a relevant and enduring
The Revd Dr Martin Thomas is Team Rector of
Plaistow and North Canning Town, and Assistant Area Dean of
He is the author of English Cathedral Music and Liturgy
in the Twentieth Century (Ashgate), which is being launched at
Church House Bookshop on 17 June.