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A plea to silence the organ

28 September 2018

September 27th, 1918.

IN TUESDAY’s Times there appeared, from the pen of Mr S. Townsend Warner*, a letter advocating the use of unaccompanied Plainsong. It is really significant that such a letter could find space in a daily paper at all, and would seem to support Mr Warner’s opening statement that “at present there is a widespread feeling for Plainsong among English musicians.” That this feeling exists and is extending we do not doubt, and we hope that it is as widespread as Mr Warner appears to think that it is. In this interesting letter it is argued most persuasively that “the extreme delicacy both in rhythm and intonation of the ornaments which are an integral part of melismata in Plainsong can only be given properly when the voice is unhampered by any reference to a keyed instrument of arbitrary tuning.” Plainsong, when it was at its zenith, was always sung unaccompanied. The use of accompaniment, even of the best, tends to destroy the freedom and the melodic form of some of the figures. Plainsong is essentially vocal, and accompaniment is not merely superfluous but even deleterious. There is one thing in Mr Warner’s letter that we read with regret. He there invites his readers to visit the great basilica in Ashley Gardens to hear Plainsong rendered, during the absence of the men and the temporary breakdown of the organ, by an unaccompanied choir of boys. We are not complaining of his invitation, but of his being compelled to make it. Why should it not have been possible for him to send people to St Paul’s Cathedral in preference? At certain times the Palestrinian Masses without organ are heard there, but it would be still more edifying if, at least occasionally, the offices were sung to the ancient modes, in accordance with the best traditions of Plainsong so far as research has rediscovered them.

*probably in fact Sylvia Townsend Warner, the musicologist and novelist

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