*** DEBUG END ***

Where is the brave new music?

05 June 2015

Why don't cathedrals match their bold visual art aurally, asks Martin Thomas


No musical equivalent? Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), a permanent video installation created by Bill Viola and Kira Perov, was unveiled in St Paul's Cathedral in May last year

No musical equivalent? Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), a permanent video installation created by Bill Viola and Kira Perov, was unveiled in St Pa...

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 many.

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 replicate.

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. Taylor.

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 artistic offering.


The Revd Dr Martin Thomas is Team Rector of Plaistow and North Canning Town, and Assistant Area Dean of Newham.

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.


Letters to the editor

Letters for publication should be sent to letters@churchtimes.co.uk.

Letters should be exclusive to the Church Times, and include a full postal address. Your name and address will appear alongside your letter.

Forthcoming Events

6-7 September 2022
Preaching as Pilgrimage conference
From the College of Preachers.

27-28 September 2022
humbler church Bigger God conference
The HeartEdge Conference in Manchester includes the Theology Slam Live Final.

More events

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four* articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)

*Until the end of June: we’re doubling the number of free articles to eight, to celebrate the publication of our Platinum Jubilee double issue.