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Creating a safe stronghold for the music of worship

30 June 2017

Lucy Winkett traces the legacy of the Reformation for church music today

Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library/Alamy

Lutenist: Luther with his family, by Gustav Spengenber (1828-1891)

Lutenist: Luther with his family, by Gustav Spengenber (1828-1891)

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.

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