Magazine article The Christian Century

Sing Unto the Lord: A History of English Church Music

Magazine article The Christian Century

Sing Unto the Lord: A History of English Church Music

Article excerpt

Sing unto the Lord: A History of English Church Music

By Andrew Gant

University of Chicago Press, 464 pp., $35.00

Choral music is slow food for the soul," proclaimed contemporary American composer Nico Muhly in an effusive commentary on Andrew Gant's history of English sacred music (New York Times, April 2). The book's 400 pages should not deter readers: this is one of the wittiest and most whimsically irreverent works of scholarship in recent memory.

Gant, who teaches at Oxford's St. Peter's College, leavens the book's musicology and history with ironic commentary. No wonder the Enlightenment was bad for church music, he writes, because '"I believe in God' has a sturdy, declamatory idea behind it which can be realised in sound. 'I believe in rational thought and the evidence of the senses' doesn't have quite the same ring. Deism, still less atheism, produced no music." Gant recommends reviving the work of the 15th-century William Cornysh--it "will frighten neither clergy nor choir"--and notes that the key to Cornysh's productivity is "that he almost certainly had the advantage of being two different people." (Some evidence indicates that Cornysh's works were composed by a father and son team.)

Sitting down with this book feels less like reading a monograph than like encountering a friendly fellow in a pub. Gant can be flippant, as when he attributes the lasting influence of Elizabeth I to "her successful use of the policy of not dying," unlike her royal predecessors. Of a much later queen, Gant notes that Felix Mendelssohn's inescapable wedding march was popularized "at one of the many occasions when one of Queen Victoria's children married the pointy-bearded princeling of Somewhere-In-Germany." When he digresses into New World adaptations of English sacred music, Gant cites the "intriguing late flowering" of 18th-century hymnody under "a one-eyed snuff addict of untutored genius, William Billings."

Humor aside, Gant's first chapters provide an exceptionally insightful account of the musical and cultural life of pre-Reformation England. He evokes the solemnity of medieval monophony, the magnificence of Old Hall and Eton manuscripts ("no future age took such pains to make its music look good"), and the intertwined polyphony of English Renaissance masters. In this period, "religion and daily life ... were aspects of the same thing. Everything you did began and ended with an invocation to Saint or Virgin: greeting your neighbors, signing off your accounts, sitting down to a meal, sneezing, feeding your animals. Worship was like sex and farming: an instinct, and a necessity."

Gant continues with an analysis of the Reformation's influence on church music:

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. This idea is rooted in doctrine, and creates a divide which runs from before the Reformation and forward for the rest of this history, between music written for the trained professional, and music meant for anybody, anytime, anywhere.

But in its English form under Henry VIII, the Reformation wreaked havoc on musical traditions and on institutions. …

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