Books

A Horrible History of English Hymns

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

Given that for much of English history the country’s main musical tradition was that connected with the church, it is surprising that so little effort has been made to describe the evolution of, as the subtitle to Andrew Gant’s book puts it, the ‘History of English Church Music’. If we read biographical accounts of the lives of composers from Tallis to Vaughan Williams we pick up some of the story, but far from all of it. Gant is supremely well qualified to write about it. He has been organist and choirmaster of the Chapels Royal and worked at Westminster Abbey, Oxbridge colleges and the Guards’ Chapel; and he also composes.

His knowledge peppers every page of this book, giving the reader a clear idea of where our church music came from and how it has come to sound as it does, and be performed as it is. I noticed only two errors. Although he later states that Parry did not write ‘Jerusalem’ until 1916, the author first mentions it in a list of Victorian hymns. It is not Victorian, and Parry did not write it as a hymn. He also says John Ireland was ‘born in the last decade of the 19th century’, which he was not: he was born in 1879.

Gant is highly informative on the evolution of early music, suggesting that St Augustine brought the first religious music with him to England in 597. By the Middle Ages the music was modal in structure, and when rediscovered by Vaughan Williams and others in the early 20th century, it deeply influenced a whole school of English music. The author describes how music was affected by the doctrinal upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries, and how composers such as Tallis and Byrd had to change sides not merely to stay in work, but to stay alive.


However, by a few chapters into the book one ceases to regard Gant as one who wears his considerable learning lightly, but rather as one whose propensity for jokes, most of them banal, puts him on the spectrum somewhere between pub bore and pain in the arse. I am not sure whether his writing style has been influenced by the Horrible Histories, or whether his
publisher has told him that being matey with his readership is the way to communicate with them, but he intersperses serious technical discussion of music and composition with fatuous phrases: Tallis ‘played a blinder’ or ‘The Pope had a pop in 1320’.

At other times he is coarsely tabloid, as in referring to ‘Top Royals’, or describing Weelkes, in the manner of a professional footballer, as ‘one of church music’s leading bad boys’, or telling us that ‘Gibbons could do academic too’. The type of reader who will follow the analysis, grasp the careful explanations of how musical forms have evolved, and be interested in the wilder shores of the English canon is only going to feel patronised, from a considerable height, by such writing. If Gant imagines he can only engage his readership by descending to slang in so much of the text then perhaps he should not have written this book at all.

If the reader can survive this deluge of clichéd vulgarity then he or she will learn much: about the development of choirs and choir schools, about the assistance that the architecture of great cathedrals or buildings such as the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, gives to poor singing and playing through a sympathetic acoustic, about how the barrel-organ was once the staple of parish churches and, inevitably, about how the Victorians transformed everything. The revolution had already begun in the 18th century, when Isaac Watts invented the hymn as we know it, and it became acceptable for the congregation to join in with the formally trained musicians. Other hymn-writers of various degrees of professionalism joined in during the 19th century, and when Vaughan Williams edited the English Hymnal in 1906 he appropriated various folk-tunes and set religious words to them.

Gant provides such theological context as is necessary — such as the stimulation to church music given by the Oxford Movement — and engages in much helpful anecdote about the composers. It might have been useful to have had more about how so many of those from recent times — notably Vaughan Williams and Howells — were at best agnostics and at worst atheists, and what their participation in developing the canon says about them, the Church of England and modern faith. It seems that several of these great composers greatly assisted in the project of making the church a cultural force rather than a religious one: unintentionally or otherwise.

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Show comments
  • TomFP

    “Tallis and Byrd had to change sides” – I had always believed that Tallis and Byrd enjoyed royal patronage despite never renouncing, nor being required to renounce their Roman faith, and that the patents they held – for polyphonic music and for the means of publishing sheet music – were a strange, peculiarly Elizabethan way of keeping one’s friends close, but one’s enemies closer.

    Their duties, as I understood them, were taken to include the interception of messages encoded in the text of broadsides and other sheet music imported from Europe, a form of sedition much-favoured by popish plotters. At the same time the queen expected her avid appetite for continental dance music to be met. It seems unlikely that she would have given two such “converts” these delicate duties if she thought their fitness to perform them depended on a repudiation of Rome which was heartfelt, rather than merely tactical. More likely it was a pragmatic way of meeting all these conflicting demands through the use of two preeminent musicians who were unlikely to forget that she knew where they lived.

    All in all, it seems that, notwithstanding the odd scrape with the law (Byrd) and the perennial payment of recusancy fines, both composers managed to retain both their heads and their sizeable fortunes despite never “changing sides”, and at least in Byrd’s case continuing to write catholic liturgical music for clandestine use.

    But perhaps I’m mistaken.

    Interestingly, John Dowland used to moan about how his Roman faith had been an impediment to his preferment under Elizabeth. But he went off to work for the king of Denmark, who fired him for inattention to his duties, so we may doubt his word.

  • Callipygian

    Poor chap, I feel sorry for him. The writing style you deplore, I feel sure, is really not his fault. The publishing world is impatient, ignorant, left-wing, and vulgar to its fingernails. It puts all higher-minded writers on edge, as you know ought to know.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Don we now our gay apparel.
    Hard to sing with a straight face.

  • Miss Floribunda Rose

    Thanks for warning us about this book. I for one shall refrain from purchasing it.

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