Campaign for the Traditional Cathedral Choir 


Ichabod: The Glory Is Departed

The launching of a new quarterly in which church music has a place makes a review of the current scene timely. The cathedrals and college chapels apart, such a survey of the fruits of more than a generation of well intentioned meddling, misguided altruism, nervousness about 'elitism', and the consequent shelving of hitherto acknowledged standards, presents a landscape largely strewn with ruins and cinders. How was this allowed to happen and what are we to do about it?

Controversy about Anglican church music has long been a source of discord. More than 40 years ago, C S Lewis wrote of the need to resolve the conflict found in parish churches between supporters of what he called 'enthusiastic bellowing of familiar tunes from the pews', and advocates of the performance of a trained choir. He went on to warn against arguing that the musical efforts of either faction could 'please' God; or that the adoption of democratic attitudes could resolve such perplexities. 'Democracy,' he wrote, 'is all very well as a political device. It must not intrude into the spiritual, or even the aesthetic world.'

In most churches today circumstances have long eradicated musical rivalry between pew and choirstall. Nowadays the bawling of familiar tunes seems to take place only at football matches - where its shortcomings as a religious exercise are exposed. Meanwhile the dwindling church attendance has emptied many pews and choirstalls and so removed the source of conflict.

Instead, today's keenest problem has been revealing described by one trendy though elevated churchman as 'getting bottoms on pews' and efforts to achieve this result have led equally trendy parsons to try boosting attendance by distracting attention as far as possible from the fact that the event in question is to take place in a church.

Thus we have found ourselves offered guitars to replace organs, jiggy nursery hymn tunes as remote as possible from the dignified chorale, organised outbursts of 'spontaneous' hand clapping, and pantomimic forms of service drawn from any source but the Book of Common Prayer.

This reversal first got under way in the 1950s when ersatz popular hymn tunes (written by wistful amateurs in outdated styles) began to be introduced for congregational use. Under the leadership of Geoffrey Beaumont and Patrick Appleford a so-called 'Twentieth Century Church Light Music Group' was now formed; a sequence of new hymnals embracing what had lately become known as pop tunes followed and - much more hazardously experimental forms of church service were authorised by the Church Assembly itself in 1965.

There was no shortage of dissentient voices raised to condemn these changes. Indeed I was frequently aroused to contribute a few bitter paragraphs to the pages of The Musical Times myself:

The image of a church musician current during my early years in the organ loft made him the guardian of a heritage too precious to be left undefended. He had been taught - by Walford Davies, Nicholson and the rest - to assess the music used in church by reference to normal musical standards of excellence; to distinguish between a good and a bad hymn tune; and generally to regard the patently inferior as automatically less than suitable for use in divine service. As a result one learned to brace oneself to reason with the couple who wanted Bless this house sung at their wedding; even to argue with the parson who preferred the old tune for Fight the Good Fight. All this, however, was before the days when cathedrals began to serve coffee from the font, and to arrange parachute descents by the vergers...

Sardonic observations of this kind buried in the pages of a musical paper found a ready response only among fellow organists; elsewhere they had very little impact. Particularly disappointing was the absence of any supporting authoritative voice from the Royal School of Church Music - where Sidney Nicholson's successor evidently lacked the founder's missionary zeal and human touch; as a result the institution, snug in its luxurious headquarters at Addington Palace, seemed to have sunk into prolonged contemplation of its own navel.

And yet, by the time in question the recruitment of boy choristers was proving increasingly difficult. Except in churches where a strong musical tradition was being actively defended by a vigorous partnership between clergy and organist, the attraction of family outings at weekends combined with the absence of any real respect or affection for the liturgy on the part of parents, and the increasing demands of home-work on weekday evenings, made membership of a painstakingly rehearsed church choir too demanding an undertaking for all but the most assiduous of boys.

The easy way out, of course, was to replace trebles with sopranos: women and girls were found to be more tractable, less difficult to control, and had voices that did not distressingly break just as they reached their best. Admittedly girls looked odd decked out in cassocks and surplices - where that unlikely transvestite practice was introduced - and to discerning listeners the quality of their voices proved disturbingly different. But in churches where the repertory was limited to hymns, anglican chants, and a very occasional short anthem it was possible to overlook that shortcoming.

Before long, the difficulty of recruiting boy choristers was to become evident even in cathedrals. Advertisements in the more dignified newspapers of vacancies in choir schools began to assume a note of entreaty and eventually to appear more widely and frequently than hitherto. But our wildest imaginings in the 1960s did not suggest that by 1992 a set of surpliced girls would be authorised to occupy the choirstalls at Salisbury cathedral. Yet such is now the sorry case!

No doubt some of our readers are already exclaiming, 'we live in a different world now; and we cannot just wish away what we don't like'. As to that very reasonable objection, let us turn aside for a moment to compare our own situation with conditions across the Channel - where a different melancholy fate had long overtaken choral music in French churches.

On a first visit to Paris early in the 1950s, a thrilling experience for an inquisitive English church organist was provided by attending High Mass at Notre-Dame on Easter Day. The dramatic interplay of organs and choirs seemed stupendous. As the Mass proceeded it was a surprise to see the surpliced choristers leave their stalls to form a circle about the director for each motet and choral setting; and to find the plainsong sung by a host of ordinands in albs seated in the north transept.

Anxious to repeat that enlivening experience some years later it was disappointing to find the cathedral choirstalls empty, with a tiny sad group of umbrella-carrying elderly men and women standing between them to sing the service. On another visit, after a few further years and following Pope John's aggiornamento, even that pathetic choral contingent was found to be missing. The service was now conducted in French, and such singing as took place was undertaken very tentatively by the congregation led by a solitary soprano armed with a microphone.

On a still later visit, rather than attending Notre Dame it seemed more fruitful to visit St Sulpice, where Marcel Dupré's celebrated extemporisations then still heightened the atmosphere for an aristocratic and fashionable congregation. There was nothing disappointing about the maitre's performance - but once again there was no choir, the people murmuring their way through Missa de Angelis led by a priest's somewhat desperate conducting from the altar steps.

On another trip to Paris some years later, a visit was planned to High Mass at St Eustache - a church that rivals Notre-Dame in its dimensions and architectural splendour and was long made a centre for musical endeavour. Berlioz premiered his Te Deum here in 1855, and Liszt's mammoth Mass was first given here a few years later. A celebrated boys' choir was now known to be based at this great church and the prospect was inviting.

Yet at High Mass on Sunday the singing was undertaken by a small male and female group of less than a dozen students who sat in their street clothes, hidden out of sight in the south aisle.

There was no sign of the celebrated boy choristers - who seemed, rather like the Vienna Boys' Choir, to fulfil largely secular commitments - until midway through the service they were ushered in single file to stand with their backs to the altar and sing a series of undistinguished melodies before immediately filing out again as they had come.

Very early in the course of this long series of illuminating explorations we had come to realise that the English tradition of establishing a robed choir of men and boys in every church began only as recently as the first decades of the 19th century. In France, on the other hand, a nation-wide system of more than 500 medieval choir schools (maitrises) attached to cathedrals and major churches had been suppressed in 1793 during the early years of the revolution, their former revenue being diverted to support a popular school of music which developed into the present National Conservatoire.

Attempts to repair something of this destruction were made later by Alexandre Choron, who was appointed to reorganise music in the French cathedrals and royal chapels upon the Bourbon restoration in 1814, and Louis Niedermeyer, who succeeded him and in 1853 obtained state support for an Ecole de musique religieuse where students were trained both in Gregorian chant and vocal polyphony.

The choir we had seen at Notre Dame in the early 1950s had its origins under the Choron-Niedermeyer regime. Its regrettable abandonment in favour of congregational song was part of the post-war movement that fostered the Gelineau psalm-settings. But on our last visit to Paris three or four years ago we spotted a modest poster displayed on the west door of the cathedral inviting boys to apply for admission to a revived choir.

Only very recently was the sequel revealed. Twenty-five years after the introduction of services in the vernacular following Vatican II, French congregations are demanding more inspiring music. Choir schools are being established all over the country, and a Notre Dame Sacred Music Society has been set up in Paris. As a first step, since September at Notre-Dame itself daily services are being sung in the choir by a newly-formed boys' choir under the musical direction of Michel-Marc Gervais. At the same time the west-end organ has been rebuilt. It was heard once again in December, the opening being attended by a choir formed jointly by Notre Dame, St Paul's, and Westminster Cathedrals.

News of this determined (and successful ) venture across the Channel should surely embolden those of us who have begun to despair about the state of church music in this country. We may perhaps not look to Whitehall for the state subvention that the Sacred Music at Notre-Dame project has obtained from the French government; we can at least learn that the crackpots and levellers who have done their best to ruin a prized English musical tradition can be overwhelmed if French example is anything to go by.

It is surely a source of immense encouragement to suppose that we, too, can look forward to demonstrating that people are sick of the banal music being offered to them in churches: sick enough, in some cases, to stop going to church at all. The French congregations, we note, 'are beginning to demand more inspiring music'. And that is the crux of the matter. For it is no small part of music's role in church to prepare the mind for the act of worship. And just as the banalities of some modern alternative versions of the liturgy interrupt, or even destroy, the mood of worship, trite music that smacks so obviously of thoughtless vacuity can do the same.

The point has been splendidly demonstrated in a Daily Telegraph article (Sept.30, 1992) which speaks for itself:

Evangelical Pop Parody Is A Hit In Church

A rock singer who mercilessly sends up 'Happy Clappy' Christian music is proving an unexpected hit in churches.

Marc Catley's songs parody the hearty choruses favoured by evangelicals and trend-conscious Anglican bishops, and also the so-called heavenly metal rock.

Well, I don't think there's much more to be said after that!

Choir & Organ: February 1993


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