O Sing Unto the Lord: A History of English Church Music, by Andrew Gant

Enjoyed reading this fascinating (and witty) book by Andrew Gant (2015): O Sing Unto the Lord: A History of English Church Music.

Early in the book, Gant names ‘a divide which runs from before the Reformation and forward for the rest of this history, between music written for and by the trained professional, and music meant for anybody, anytime, anywhere’ (p. 55). This divide, he says, is ‘rooted in doctrine’:

Musically, the revolutionary idea of the Reformation was that you could sing to your God yourself in church, not just listen to a trained initiate do it for you in a secret, private language which he understood and you didn’t (p. 55).

The book itself covers both sides of this divide, with the emphasis on the ‘professional’ (choral music) side of things, but plenty about congregational music too. It isn’t much fun to read about music that you don’t know, so I would heartily recommend the book only to those who are schooled in the English choral tradition. But the account of congregational music would be of wider interest, and I will try to offer a brief sketch of it in what follows. (This builds on a post I wrote a few years ago: Whatever happened to congregational singing? The authoritative source, it seems, is Nicholas Temperley, who was ‘the pre-eminent modern chronicler of these matters’, p. 185.)

We start with the striking fact that, after 1547, metrical psalms were ‘the only music sung in the ordinary parish church until the eighteenth century’ (p. 79): Sternhold and Hopkins, perhaps along with some of Marbeck’s setting of parts of the liturgy. Moreover, these psalms were not even sung as part of the service, but only before and after the liturgy (and the sermon). The Royal Injunctions of 1559, under Elizabeth I, laid out the ‘standard “legal” position concerning congregational singing and the liturgy for centuries to come’ (p. 110):

it may be permitted that in the beginning, or in the end of common prayers, either at morning or evening, there may be sung an Hymn [i.e., a metrical psalm, p. 110], or such like song, to the praise of Almighty God, in the best sort of melody and music that may be conveniently devised, having respect that the sentence of the Hymn may be understood and perceived (p. 105).

Psalm-singing became enormously popular, both in church and in the home. Other metrical psalters were published, but the ‘Old Version’ of Sternhold and Hopkins reigned supreme, only gradually being replaced by the 1696 ‘New Version’ of Tate and Brady (pp. 218-219).

How were these metrical psalms sung? Unaccompanied:

The practice of an ‘officer’ or clerk reading or singing each line of a psalm, which is then sung back at him by the congregation, began to catch on. … This kind of psalm-singing became known as ‘lining out’, and it became popular and widespread and therefore, of course, controversial and suspect to those who didn’t like it. The key to its appeal was its practicality (p. 184).

It probably sounded quite dire:

There was probably precious little ‘grace’ in the way this music actually sounded out of the mouths of ordinary parishioners. How do you know which tune to sing, once the clerk has read you the first line? You guess. What do you do if the person standing next to you knows a different tune to this psalm? You carry on and see if they fit together. How do you get your pitch, in the absence of an organ or other instrument? You wait for someone else to sing it. How do you know when to change chord? You swoop and slide between pitches until the next chord emerges. How do you spice things up a bit once the psalm has set off on its lugubrious way? You add little scales, runs and ornaments between the notes of the tune (pp. 184-5).

Things started to change in the eighteenth century, with the Enlightenment inviting people to question sources of authority.

This had implications for music. For the first time, the music of the parish church and its practitioners began to develop independently of, and in some cases in opposition to, the parish priest. Increasingly, what went on in church on a Sunday became divided into ‘your bit’ and ‘my bit’. This is a distinction, or at least a perception, which has not gone away (p. 224).

Change was soon to follow:

Parish music had become an ungovernable thing, especially the haphazard ‘old way’ of singing psalms. The eighteenth century began to tidy it up. Its weapons were the choir, the organ, the singing teacher and the rehearsal. This made the music better, of course, but also less inclusive. For the first time since before the Reformation, congregations found themselves listening to the music instead of joining in (p. 234).

(It’s worth noting that ‘the “old” way can still be heard, more than two hundred years later. Some Gaelic-speaking churches of the Western Isles of Scotland, particularly Lewis, and some Old Order Baptists and others in the USA, still sing their psalms like this’, p. 238.)

The transition away from metrical psalms was partly through the introduction of Anglican chant (initially sung by the choir rather than the congregation). However,

The impression that chanting the ‘prose’ texts was an invention of the Oxford movement in the nineteenth century, like the idea that Tate and Brady replaced Sternhold and Hopkins all at once, is to over-simplify a much more gradual and complex (and more interesting) process (p. 239).

But by far the biggest blow to the hegemony of metrical psalmody was

a new approach to text and music which, in time, produced perhaps English church music’s finest achievement of all – hymns (p. 239).

These hymns originated in the eighteenth century outside of the Anglican church, with Isaac Watts (1674-1748) being ‘One of the first, and still one of the very greatest, of the hymn-writers’ (p. 239), followed later in the century by John and Charles Wesley.

Eventually, the artificial division which attempted to keep this kind of musical worship out of the established church was bound to break down. The old Calvinist idea that only the directly inspired word of God was permissible in service clung on, dug in by stubborn habit (p. 266).

The decisive date for the change is 1819:

In 1819 the Sheffield clergyman Thomas Cotterill published his own Selection of Psalms and Hymns for Public and Private Use, with the assistance of his local newspaper editor, the hymn-writer and social reformer James Montgomery. A group of his parishioners brought an action against him in the Consistory Court, which eventually found that hymns had exactly the same status as metrical psalms, and could be sung in church before and after the liturgy (p. 267).

As the nineteenth century proceeded,

There was a deluge of new hymnbooks and a torrent of new hymns, on all sorts of subjects and for all sorts of uses, including many of the best and most enduring of all (p. 287).

And the rest of the history is much more familiar.

‘Psalm chanting was here to stay’ (p. 300). But it continued to evolve:

As noted above, Henry Walford Davies pioneered speech-rhythm chanting at the Temple Church, helped by the new art of broadcasting. Sydney Nicholson’s Parish Psalter with Chants of 1930 codified this approach in print. The old, unsatisfactory Cathedral Psalter manner was superseded, just as the ‘old way’ of singing died out in the eighteenth century. With it went any real sense that psalm-chanting belonged to the congregation. Today it is a polished art, for many musicians the ultimate test of a church choir’s skill and sensitivity to text and the bedrock of all that it does (p. 357).

The ‘worship band’ makes its appearance towards the end of the book, along with some striking observations:

The ‘worship band’ is here to stay. It has proved itself the ideal musical vehicle for Evangelical congregational worship since its introduction in the early 1970s, being approachable and adaptable, with the early preference for acoustic instruments and a folk style mostly giving way to amplified rock. There is an irony here that that strand of ecclesiology which set out to remove the impression of a separate group of musicians giving a ‘performance’ has ended up with exactly that: a worship leader with a microphone, facing the ‘audience’, his backing musicians behind him, like any other gig. It’s not the only time in this story that a musical idea has in practice ‘flipped’ from one side of the philosophical fence to the other (p. 360).

In other words, the divide between ‘professional’ and ‘congregational’ music is still with us.

It is striking how unfamiliar most of this history is. We tend to assume that ‘traditional’ worship has always been the same, but that is far from the case. It is also striking how there has been such a divide (within Anglican churches, at least) between liturgy and music. For centuries, there was little or no music in the liturgy (except where Marbeck was used), with the metrical psalms being kept strictly separate from the liturgy. Even today, it is common to have a ‘hymn sandwich’, with the music basically filling the gaps in the liturgy caused by people walking around doing various things. The integration of music and liturgy is still very much a work in progress.