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Angela Tilby: Thank you for the music, Elizabeth I

26 November 2021


The Queen meets choristers after the unveiling of the Diamond Jubilee Stained Glass Window in The Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy, in London, in 2012

The Queen meets choristers after the unveiling of the Diamond Jubilee Stained Glass Window in The Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy, in London, in 201...

SO, THE season of robed choirs, candles, and carols begins. Even those whose taste is for worship bands can find themselves drawn to a different beat, while hard-headed atheists find themselves shedding tears for the echo of transcendence.

Advent and Christmas produce music that blends mystery, longing, and wild anarchy, and which sounds ancient, even when it is recently composed. Anglicans are a Christmas people, as Bishop Michael Perham once said. As long as there is Christmas, the English choral tradition will survive.

I have been reading Diarmaid MacCulloch’s majestic book Reformation: Europe’s house divided, 1490-1700. In an aside, he suggests that the English choral tradition might owe its survival and flourishing to something quite accidental: Queen Elizabeth I’s deep love of church music. It was, for her, was both escape and sustenance. She had her musical preferences, and was known to sneer at “Geneva jigs”, the metrical psalm-tunes popular with Continental Reformers.

The Queen ensured that her own chapel, the Chapel Royal, kept a first-class choir, and that composers and musicians had opportunities for advancement. She didn’t care about their religious allegiances. Two of the greatest composers of her reign, Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, were Roman Catholics.

The Queen never disclosed her most personal beliefs, and, as one of her contemporaries noted, she had no interest in making windows into men’s souls. Conformity mattered more than private conviction.

And then there were the cathedrals and collegiate chapels, which, thanks to Henry VIII, retained independent governance, along with their choirs. Parish churches had to stick to the restricted Geneva diet until the new hymnody that came in with the 18th-century Evangelical revival. Later, parish churches imitated cathedrals in adopting pointed psalmody and canticle settings for matins and evensong. Many parishes produced amateur choirs, attracting musical youngsters from non-privileged backgrounds, and setting some on a path that they might not have expected.

Our choral tradition has shown extraordinary resilience. It has carried the hopes and fears of the nation as well as of countless individuals. In today’s mixed ecology, church and cathedral choirs provide a form of outreach to the young. Some choir-churches are promoted as Fresh Expressions, offering a musical education for children, besides introducing them to the Christian faith through the rhythms of the church year.

English choral music is both an expression and an enactment of the way in which traditional Anglicanism brings together the personal and the corporate. When a choir sings, each vocal line matters, and yet together they produce a whole beyond the parts. Personal commitment and discipline create something beyond themselves. Conformity produces social capital, which is more enduring than individualism. Amen to that.

When the Church of England calendar is revised, I nominate Elizabeth I as a lesser festival — a worthier monarch than the already commemorated Charles I.

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