IF YOU attend choral evensong in an English cathedral today, you will more than probably hear something of the story of the Reformation told in music. The Magnificat will be sung regularly in Latin as well as in English; and music from the French Renaissance composer Josquin will be sung alongside the English (Roman) Catholic William Byrd, who, in turn, will find himself sharing the service with the very Protestant S. S. Wesley.
In one English cathedral this year, on the feast of Richard Baxter (the Puritan divine whose Protestant ardour had him preaching “as a dying man to dying men”), the choir sang canticles by the English Reformation composer William Mundy (1529-91), but, because it was the eve of Corpus Christi, they also sang the European Catholic Palestrina’s setting of John 6.57 — the proper from the Latin mass — Qui manducat meam carnem (”Whoever eats me will live because of me”). And the service ended with the hymn beloved of the Oxford Movement and of Anglo-Catholics everywhere, “Sweet sacrament divine”, with words by the 19th-
century English Roman Catholic priest Francis Stanfield.
So, the via media of the English Reformation is evident, both theologically and musically, on most days, at most evensongs and sung eucharists; but the circuitous way in which the musical via media has come about reveals a fascinating story of tunes which leap across national borders, religious sensibilities, and from generation to generation. The story of the musical Reformation reminds us that music is itself a language of the human spirit, whether or not any text is used. And it begins because Martin Luther himself was a musician: an accomplished lutenist.
I WAS in Germany recently, exploring the link between Martin Luther and Johann Sebastian Bach for a radio programme. On the trip to Leipzig and its environs, I learned that Luther and Bach had attended the same school and the same church, 200 years apart. I also discovered, in a way that I hadn’t quite appreciated before, that the Reformation that Luther set in motion was not just a Reformation of the words spoken in church, or of the church hierarchy itself, but was a singing Reformation, strategically organised and efficiently established, whose influence is still felt in the Church of England today.
That the people should sing in their own language, besides studying the scriptures in the vernacular, was vital for Luther. We do not ordinarily associate the Reformers with a love of music — we tend to think that they stopped it, and were suspicious of it — but, in fact, both the German Luther and the Swiss John Calvin knew the power of music very well, although they drew different conclusions from this recognition.
Broadly, Calvin cautioned against what he saw was the potentially corrupting power of music; but Luther harnessed music’s power to instruct, to encourage, to strengthen, and to unite.
Luther formed choirs at church and schools all over Saxony. He wrote vernacular versions of the psalms: for him, the psalms contained such a variety of petitions, experiences, prayers, and even curses, that setting them to music would be a way of enabling people to sing about their own life and faith before God. But (again in contrast to Calvin) Luther also believed in the power of extra-biblical texts set to music to spread the word of God.
It was in the 1520s — only a short time after he had been declared a heretic, in 1519 — that Luther published his first hymn book. His tunes were simple, catchy, lively: to be sung not only in church, but around the family meal-table and in the fields at work. Soon, all of Saxony was singing his tunes.
This was not just because people liked his music (although we must assume that they did): Luther was highly organised and systematic. He wrote to noted poets of the day, begging them to write versions of the psalms in German; his main collaborator, Johann Walter (a schoolteacher), was energetic in supporting him, constructing books of musical psalms for children to learn every day at school. By harnessing the influence of the two institutions of church and school, Luther made sure that children learned by rote, at school, the hymns and psalms that adults were learning in church.
So Luther’s Reformation was a singing Reformation, encouraging everyone — not just the priest or the choir — to learn by heart the psalms, set to popular tunes, and to join in the singing of hymns.
IN CONTRAST with Germany, there was no hymn-singing in England to speak of until the 18th century.
The Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter (the bedrock of English congregational psalm-singing) actually had its beginning about 14 years before it was published in its final form. Although the exact date is not known for certain, 1548 is generally accepted as the year when Thomas Sternhold published his first collection of 19 psalms. When Mary became Queen, in 1553, Protestants fled to the Continent and learned Genevan psalms; over the next 200 years, an ever-expanding set of psalters was published for congregations to sing together.
English congregations, therefore, did not sing hymns until well into the 18th century — with one exception. In 1700, a new supplement was added to the books of psalms being published by Tate and Brady. Nicholas Tate had paraphrased the story of the shepherds in St Luke’s Gospel; so the very first hymn sung in English churches — and the only one for quite a time — was “While shepherds watched their flocks by night”.
It was not until an Anglican priest, John Wesley, was travelling to America in January 1736 that hymns made their way to England. When a life-threatening storm blew up, rather than panic, the Moravians (German Protestants) who were Wesley’s fellow-passengers simply sang hymns until it was over. The effect that the hymn-singing had on the Moravians convinced Wesley that hymns were a vital element in the spiritual life; he collaborated with his brother Charles, and the rest, as they say, is history.
BUT not only were English parishes not singing hymns while Protestant Germany was awash with them: there was also a clear musical distinction between England and the Continent. Thanks to one woman — Queen Elizabeth I — England kept its cathedrals with their choirs. Because of Elizabeth’s personal patronage of composers at the Chapel Royal, and her known support for choral singing, a twin-track musical Reformation began to take shape: parish congregational singing, and professional cathedral music.
Thomas Tallis (1505-85) and William Byrd (1543-1623) were engaged at the Chapel Royal. Tallis had pioneered anthems in English for the Church of England — and then switched to Latin Masses when Queen Mary came to the throne. Later, in 1575, Queen Elizabeth granted Tallis and William Byrd a 21-year monopoly for polyphonic music, and a patent to print and publish music.
Elizabeth not only tolerated but encouraged these composers to continue writing in both English and Latin. In this way, she was more Lutheran than Calvinist — she might even be described as a lone Lutheran amid the prevailing Reformation culture in England, which was Calvinist. More than any other individual, she set the course for the musical story of Reformation England, and by establishing an expectation that might be characterised as “both/and” rather than “either/or” (professional and congregational singing), she enabled the broad and rich musical inheritance that we enjoy today.
THE debates about music that erupted during the Reformation are still alive today. In parishes all over the country, Sunday conversations will include a complaint that the service “felt more like a concert”, or that a particular hymn tune or worship song was not to the taste of the congregation.
It is not just classical church music that exposes these debates. When Graham Kendrick or Matt Redmond use familiar cadences and instrumentation from pop songs to express spiritual themes, they, too, are joining the conversation. How much should a congregation sing all together, and how much is played by the band for them to meditate to?
In services such as U2charists, or rock eucharists, the secular music of a single artist such as k. d. lang, Adele, or others is used throughout. Luther and Wesley might approve; Calvin certainly wouldn’t.
Today’s professional classical church music scene is vibrant: Judith Bingham, Cecilia McDowall, Judith Weir, Gabriel Jackson, Cheryl Hoad, Jonathan Dove, and others are all regularly commissioned and celebrated, not least at the annual London Festival of Contemporary Church Music, which continues to champion new music for today’s liturgy. The music of the Orthodox John Tavener, and the Roman Catholic James McMillan, are sung regularly in cathedrals, confirming the ecumenical musical taste of modern precentors, directors of music, and congregations.
The twin-track Elizabethan musical Reformation means that, theologically, congregations are shaped and taught not just by the text but by the form of the music itself. In meditating during a professional rendition of the Gloria, I remember that God is transcendent, beyond me. By participating with gusto in a hymn such as “All my hope on God is founded”, I remember that God is immanent, beside me.
And so, however tribal we get about music, however coded the sight of a guitar or an organ, an Anglican sensibility faithful to our Reformation roots will challenge any kind of musical purism or aggression. As a hybrid Church, shaped by a mess of politics, the personal infidelity of a king, irrigated by the stubborn reforming zeal of Luther and — some would say — the equally stubborn resistance of the Pope and Curia, the Church of England bears the imprint of bloody revolution.
For me, there is something both instructive and inspiring about an Anglican identity that — perhaps because of its bloody beginnings — wants to be humane, musical, and resistant to totalitarian ideologies or dominating melodies of any sort. It is also an identity that, in its commitment to contemporary music composition, can bear dissonance as a way of praying through the contradictions of a modern world that remains both intoxicating in its beauty and horrifying in its cruelty.
It is attributed to St Augustine that the person who sings “prays twice”. Whenever we sing, or when we pray while others sing for us, we can surely say that we are people of the Reformation.
The Revd Lucy Winkett is Rector of St James’s, Piccadilly, in London.