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I Saw Eternity the Other Night, by Timothy Day

21 December 2018

Edward Wickham looks into the art of singing timelessly

A PRIMARY-SCHOOL maths book of the 1930s posed its readers the following problem: “In a church choir are some men, aged 73 yrs. 9 mths., 81 yrs. 3 mths., 78 yrs. 4 mths., and 79 yrs. 2 mths. What is the average age of these men?”

A school textbook is not an obvious source of evidence for a historical study of the English choral tradition, but it is typical of Timothy Day’s omnivorous archival appetite that he has drawn on this, as on so many other types of source. It is also typical of his ingenious deployment of evidence that this maths question encapsulates with memorable humour a telling caricature of the superannuated church musician.

Formerly Curator of Western Art Music at the British Library’s sound archive, and a leading light in the Research Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music (CHARM), Timothy Day has devoted much of his career to the history of music through sound. He thus brings to his work a focused and incisive vocabulary for the analysis of recorded music, as well as a familiarity with sociological and anthropological approaches to music and “musicking”, to use a term coined by the ethnomusicologist Christopher Small.

Notwithstanding the art nouveau cover and the subtitle quoting Henry Vaughan, I Saw Eternity the Other Night is not a dewy-eyed paean to King’s College Choir and its extraordinary place in English musical culture. The clue is in the phrase “and an English singing style” (my italics) in the subtitle. The indefinite article defines the perspective and underlying theme of the book.

The archive of recorded music, great malvern/roy goodmanA break in the recording of a 45-minute BBC TV programme in 1964; from the book

The English Choral Tradition (the upper-case treatment itself bespeaks a cultural hegemony) is oft spoken of as being one of this country’s greatest cultural assets. Formed from a unique intertwining and interdependence of church institutions, liturgical tradition, and elite education, the Tradition has its quintessential representation in sound at the service of Nine Lessons and Carols. That this service is only 100 years old may surprise at least some listeners, who have bought into the beguiling faux-medievalism of the liturgy. Surely we are witnessing the ritual of the ancients, accompanied by the sounds that would have adorned, in unbroken tradition, the centuries-old edifices of England?

Many have imagined this — some of whom should know better. Taking the story of choral performance in church back to the mid-19th century (while casting an eye further back still), Day categorically debunks the notion of a trans-historical singing style, and instead identifies in early-20th-century reforms — including the articulation of a more sophisticated singing pedagogy and the improvement of the status and employment conditions of lay clerks — the shaping of new aesthetic priorities.

As Day skilfully observes, musical taste can never be regarded as independent of institutional politics and personality. In that he believes tastes in musical performance are intimately bound up with many other, apparently extra-musical, interests, he follows the work of other distinguished musicologists: Daniel Leech-Wilkinson (a colleague in the CHARM project), whose The Modern Invention of Medieval Music describes the forces that shaped performance style in the early-music revival; and even Georgina Born’s classic study of the French avant-garde institution IRCAM, Rationalising Culture.

The underlying message of Day’s book is of similar significance in that it subverts an inclination to sanctify with the confected scent of tradition our current aesthetic preferences. If we are to value and admire the music-making of our choral institutions — which, in the early 21st century, are surely as proficient, if perhaps not so numerous, as they have ever been — then let’s find reasons other than longevity to base that admiration upon.

© 2018 BBCThe Christmas 1958 Radio Times, with an illustration by Eric Fraser, advertises services including Willcocks’s first Christmas Eve as director at King’s; from the book

Some of these extra-musical influences are easily identifiable. The advent of recording and the transmission of choral services on the BBC made a notable impact on the ambitions and expectations of the established cathedral and college choirs. Elsewhere documented are the debates that in the early years of BBC religious broadcasting weighed up authenticity of religious expression with musical expertise. The latter won out, and listeners to the weekly evensongs on the BBC can get dizzy on what is the aural equivalent of fresh paint, as each week the choral foundations present their finest repertoire. To this one might add architecture and acoustics — at King’s favouring a certain restraint in dynamics and tempi — and personality, about which Day has a great deal to offer in terms of anecdote.

More ambitiously, Day is keen to relate the individual personality traits and tastes to broader political and cultural movements. Boris Ord and his successor as organist at King’s, David Willcocks, both maintained an English reserve that in the case of Willcocks was rooted in a distinguished but, no doubt, traumatic military career. Communication was effected through small directorial gestures; little was said, and questions from the singers were frowned upon. Day quotes a typical exchange between Willcocks and a choral scholar, the former asking the latter how things were going: “Fine, David, I’m just beginning to sing out.” To which the retort comes, “O, yes. . . Don’t.”

The cool delivery of psalmody, canticles and anthems was the result, Day argues, of Anglican mistrust of Catholic effeminacy and Nonconformist enthusiasm. It was — and to an extent remains — the timbral expression of an English sprezzatura, a diffidence nurtured by a cultural suspicion of professional dedication and a long-ingrained distaste for explicit piety.

Readers with very different requirements of such a book will find much to engage them; and it is rich in humorous and insightful anecdote. Indeed, the wealth of material which Day has accumulated over the many years devoted to this enterprise, and which he clearly feels a responsibility to record, occasionally impairs the flow; at such points, he will open a fresh paragraph with a question, as if to slap himself round the face and refocus his attention. And within the anecdotal passages — unfailingly and conscientiously attributed — one encounters the odd moment when the author’s otherwise keen, sceptical eye will display a gentle tint in the presence of personalities for whom he clearly holds great affection.

Such registral shifts can be forgiven in a book that sets out not to undermine but to liberate the English Choral Tradition from the weight of long-held prejudices and expectations. For somebody myself engaged in teaching Master’s students from far-flung countries about the tradition that they have so long admired in this one, it is an invaluable corrective and one that might be regarded as a base camp for further examination of this extraordinary cultural phenomenon. And, as that fearless treble launches into “Once in Royal” on Christmas Eve, we should not be disappointed to remind ourselves that it was not ever thus.

Dr Edward Wickham is Fellow and Director of Studies in Music at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge.


I Saw Eternity the Other Night: King’s College, Cambridge, and an English singing style
Timothy Day
Allen Lane £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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