At 2015’s annual dinner we presented gifts to two long standing, highly valued retiring committee members, Sue Heath-Downey and Anne Rickwood. The gifts in question were identical, a recently published book called ‘O Sing Unto the Lord’ by Andrew Gant, subtitled A History of English Church Music. My husband and I bought the same gift for one of our sons for Christmas, and he, having seen the same book in a bookshop in Yorkshire, bought us one as well! Great minds think alike, it seems, and we had a good laugh.
Many words have been written on this hallowed subject, mostly erudite, detailed and for the most part, readable. I wondered why there is now another one. As everyone knows, the minute a book has been finished, it is out of date. By the time it reaches the bookshops it is well out of out date, as at least one more new composition will been have written on the same day that the manuscript is submitted for publication. This new book reaching 2015, and referring to James Macmillan amongst others in the final pages, describes the process of how things changed.
It is easy to feel rumbled when changes to one’s routine are proposed. In Dulwich we have enjoyed an unchanging routine for the many years I have been organist at the chapel. Sung Matins and Evensong have been faithfully maintained according to the Book of Common Prayer. The numbers attending have dwindled, yet the merest whiff of change has brought out a strong, dogged reaction to why the status quo must now develop anew. Some feel that the foundation of their existence has been pulled from under their feet. Yet, the proposed change is nowhere near as radical as that of the Reformation during which people were martyred for not toeing the party line. We can breathe a sigh of relief and feel hopeful for the future. Another church, St Augustine’s Honor Oak, where I was organist between 1987-1991, closed altogether, reopening in 2004 after people felt its loss as a church and community place.
The Anglican Church faces an ever present challenge of keeping the pews full. Lifestyles have become so charged with heavily timetabled work and leisure activity that few people have the time to worship at the end of a busy week. More still choose not to. The centuries between the present day and medieval times are witness to the process that eventually allowed ordinary people to read, write and think for themselves. We are no longer required to attend church because the boss commands it. Freedom of expression means everyone can choose faith or no faith. It is ok to play football, clean the car, go shopping or go to church, all on Sunday. Or, as Beethoven said, you can talk to God on your own in the depth of a forest. All this is the result of Reformation and the Enlightenment.
Mr Gant’s book shows how, through the centuries, despite every possible reason why church music might sink into oblivion, it still continues to thrive and develop. Ordinary folks singing psalms in parishes, learned from each other. It meant that something was kept alive, and it is always hard to change old habits! Many of today’s church choirs are truly excellent, cathedral choirs world famous. Organs being built today are nothing short of magnificent. Broadcast services are heard each day and each week on Radios 3 and 4, showing the very best of liturgy and our musical heritage from Dunstaple to Macmillan. In this, Her Majesty’s 91st year, church music has never been better. In our times, as in Queen Elizabeth I’s time, every opportunity for a new composition and celebration is taken. How interesting that there is excellence at the top of the church music hierarchy but in some places a struggle to keep musicians is evident. Nothing new here.
In our generation there is a sharp contrast of expression between choral and organ styles and happy clappy choices. Both can be good and inspiring, and both can be deadly dull. It takes good leaders, both musical and clerical, to create the right conditions for good music to thrive. In my itinerant role as a visiting, supporting organist, I come across churches with choirs and without them. It is clear that those without are missing something. An organist who is principally interested in giving organ recitals won’t want to be bored out of his/her mind by playing uninspiring music for people who are not that confident or keen on singing. An active, good personable organist is always going to be happier in a place where there is a sense of community, something to do, and people to work and socialise with. Handing on a tradition from older to younger, from peer to peer, is what makes the tradition thrive, and being learned informally, it sticks very firmly.
If everything in any style of sacred or secular music was perfect there would be no need to make constant effort to improve what we are aiming to do. Perhaps perfection would be rather dull. Variety is the spice of life, we are told. The best we can do is carry on singing, playing the organ, practising, choosing and maybe commissioning new music, continuing to make an effort, especially to draw in those who might notice something attractive or deep in their apparent drifting through time and space. I commend Mr Gant’s book both to learn things you didn’t know and be cheered that things are not as bad as they might seem. In the right mood, you will also have a jolly good laugh at some of his turns of phrase, which colourfully describe situations in the Chapel Royal, in cathedrals, in parishes, as they were a long time ago. England, meaning the UK, was once described as the ‘Land Without Music’. Musicians from abroad, including organists, now join postgraduate organ playing courses here, and some like what they see to such an extent that they decide to stay. We must be doing something right. Perhaps that is the British tendency to muddle or find a way through somehow.