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December 13, 2017397Views

O SING UNTO THE LORD

Henry Hopwood Phillips reviews Andrew Gant's History of English Church Music.

Iremember pursuing a music scholarship at school and being introduced to the choir. A deeply serious exercise if ever there was one. The headmaster ushered me into the chapel to hear his angels. And though talk of angels speaking through the boys seemed a little far-fetched, the stone was suffused with feeling directed skyward.

My own sentiments translated into an eagerness for the pain, the elation, in short, the good fight the music was touching upon: a battle in which I was so certain I would triumph - as only an eleven year-old can be. Yet, of course, the twin of earnestness - farce, absurdity - lurked in the folds of our robes. You can't trill in the higher registers, in a dress, using that diction, and pretend it didn't happen on the sports field.

The holy-absurd mobius strip is an important nuance Andrew Gant captures in O Sing Unto The Lord: A History of English Church Music. Its sprightly tone and pace leavens heavy content. The composer, choirmaster, musician, lecturer and writer is just as happy pointing and laughing at the vicars-choral of Ripon who were told to 'stop spending so much time in the pub', or Thomas Weelkes who urinated on the head of the Dean of Chichester from the cathedral organ loft during service, as articulating the complex hows, whys and whens of English musical development. And he pulls it off with trolleys of brio. The result is a book full of what I shall christen rogue 'Gant-isms',a good example of which is when he describes a resurgence of church music as 'collapsing, like a whore's make-up in candlelight'.

The plot is linear enough to satisfy the general reader but meanders down a sufficient number of dark, scholarly valleys to have purchase with experts; steering a sensible course between the glib and the unintelligible. Plainsong, Sarum, nativity plays, John Dunstaple, Byrd, Tallis, Cromwell, Psalms in the vernacular, the Chapel Royal, Purcell, Handel, Watts, Wesley, and Williams form the main staging posts of the journey. Though it does feel a journey weighted towards its first half, this is perhaps a result of the author's noble aim to not just cover unrepresentative geniuses but also the more mediocre meat-and -two­ veg sorts after the Reformation.

Much of Gant's own genius is wrapped up in his ability to say it how it is unburdened by academic fashions or obligations. So, instead of the caveats, apologias and lengthy expositions that constitute so much of today's constipated literature, Gant tells us the choral tradition didn't go under at certain stages in history 'because the English just loved singing', Tallis is great because 'he is just so singable', and many parishes boasted a vamphorn 'which was basically a big megaphone'.

Among all the stabat maters, trolly lolly los and 6/3 chords created by faburden ('three voices proceeding primarily in parallel motion in intervals corresponding to the first inversion of the triad', according to Britannica), the key message seems to be that while things change, they also stay the same. In the epilogue, after noting the rise of agnostics, Britten and Howells, and the militant atheist, Tippett, Gant quotes Diamaid MacColloch:

"It is one of the curiosities of Western society since the Enlightenment that much of its greatest sacred music has been the work of those who have abandoned any structured Christian faith... What do we make of this paradox?"

And answers him with a slight sidestep, another question: 'Does it matter?' His own idea seems to be that the letter of survival doesn't matter as much as the spirit of the subject staying intact, the implication being that those unsatisfied with this settlement would probably rather church music died on its own terms than survived on others. Not that he's unaware of the dangers, he quotes Philip Larkin's Church Going, the poem in which a culturally anaemic visitor stares at 'some brass and stuff', standing in the 'tense, musty, unignorable silence'. But Gant, immersed in and taking such joy from English Church music, thinks the tradition strong enough to afford to be capacious.

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