Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Sing unto the Lord!

O Sing Unto the Lord: A History of English Church MusicO Sing Unto the Lord: A History of English Church Music by Andrew Gant
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you’re a fan of English church music, if you know the pieces and the people discussed then this book will be a joy. But it will take a long time to read. James Booth’s biography of Larkin had me constantly scurrying back to the collected poems. And it’s almost impossible to read ‘O Sing unto the Lord’ without stopping on every other page to trawl your CD shelves or do a quick YouTube search. If Gant says (of the music of William Lloyd Webber, among others) that it ‘compressed the sound-world of the Palm Court orchestra and the romantic symphony into well-crafted music for choir and organ, like tinned Gounod’ you just have to hear that with your own ears!

And If a survey of two thousand years of church music proves anything, it’s that there is nothing new under the sun. Certainly, disputes about music go back several centuries. The poor monks of Glastonbury found themselves quite literally on the sharp end of their Abbot’s sword, when they proved less than enthusiastic about Thurston’s new continental musical practices. And if you think discordant harmonies are modern, or practices like improvisation innovative, think again. Jamming (they may not have called it that) goes back almost a millennium. As Gant says, get someone to sing a song with another improvising a harmony line above and someone improvising a bass line below and ‘they will be doing something their medieval forebears did every day... your choir will be doing something it didn’t know it had forgotten how to do.’ (p42). The book is full of such rich details.

Gant also has a vividly memorable and pithy way of summing up the broader historical picture. The English Reformation was ‘an insurrection by the government against its own people, a war… with the added complication that the government kept changing sides.’ This was the time when ‘English church music hit puberty. Before this, you didn’t have to think about whether you accepted the Pope, or if the Virgin Mary answered your prayers: Mum and Dad were always right. Afterwards, there was a period of experimentation, and a series of associations with with partners of wildly varying character, none of which - perhaps fortunately - lasted very long.’

Sometimes you actually seem to get a better sense of history and a deeper understanding of an era from such small details, approached here from a very specific direction. Gant quotes the only eyewitness account of the dissolution written from the monastic side of the fence. A monk present when Henry's commissioners arrived a Evesham Abbey recalls that in the 'yere of our Lorde 1536 the monastery of Evesham was suppressed... At evesnonge tyme... at this verse 'Deposuet potentes' and would not suffer them to make an ende.' Deposuet potentes being the Latin phrase 'He hath put down the mighty from their seat' from the Magnificat. In other words the troops waited until the very moment in the service when the words being sung were most significant - and pounced!

At other times Gant (a distinguished church musician himself) memorably sums up a situation that would in other hands require an entire dissertation. ‘Church music,’ he writes (p312) ‘has always had a place for those who are good at sucking up to the clergy and the pen-pusher, and has shown itself concomitantly intolerant of those who find such arts undignified.’ Enough said.

That particular mot juste was inspired by Samuel Sebastian Wesley (grandson on the hymn-machine, Charles) - that slightly loveable but decidedly odd composer almost of the ‘he’s-so-bad-he’s-good’ variety. Explaining Wesley’s appeal to the English (while Europe was enjoying Wagner) ‘is like trying to explain cricket to the French,’ says Gant. ‘But it’s worth it... English church music needed Samuel Sebastian Wesley. Though, perhaps to our relief, we will not see his like again.’ (316).

English church music is a rich and varied subject. Covering it comprehensively could have been a dull but worthy undertaking. In Gant’s hands it is anything but.

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