The mutability of tradition

Recently I have been pondering how in the performance of church music a ‘new normal’ is quickly established, overturning previous traditions that are soon forgotten.

For example, the seminal 1906 “The English Hymnal”, whose music editor was Ralph Vaughan Williams (no musical slouch he), in/famously gave metronome markings at the head of each hymn. According to the book’s ‘Preface’ we read”

Speed.-The present custom in English churches is to sing hymns much too fast. It is distressing to hear ‘ Nun Danket’ or ‘ St. Anne’ racedthrough at about twice the proper speed. Metronome marks are added to each hymn, which, the editor believes, indicate the proper speed in a fairly large building with a congrega- tion of average size. (Preface, p. x1v)

The tune 'Adeste fideles from "The English Hymnal" (1906).
The tune ‘Adeste fideles from “The English Hymnal” (1906).

This would seem authoritatively to define performance tempi if one is seeking a proper ‘authenticity’ in the use of that repertoire. But who nowadays would countenance most of these (to contemporary ears) dreary tempi? It seems that within barely a couple of generations a ‘tradition’ has evolved contrary to the evidence. Even Vaughan Williams himself (writing c.1936) appeared ambivalent about what – at face value – seems absolute :

If I remember right the English Hymnal has metronome marks which will give you the tempo which I considered right 30 years ago – but it seems to me that these things depend entirely on circumstances e.g. the size of the building & the number of performers.” [17 May (1936?) : RVW Letters Online].

The historic recordings available through the online “Archive of Recorded Church Music” further demonstrates how, in matters of performance at least, ‘tradition’ – even in the hands of its direct inheritors – is mutable.

Have Mercy Upon Me O God (1611) by William Byrd (1539/40 or 1543–1623)performed 1927 by the choir of St John’s College, Cambridge and un-named instrumentalists, directed by Cyril Rootham; the first ever recording of the choir  (HMV B2448). Time 6′ 22″.

Have Mercy Upon Me O God (1611) by William Byrd (1539/40 or 1543–1623), performed c.2007 by the choir of Magdalen College Choir, Oxford and un-named instrumentalists and director. Time 4′ 03″.



One of the best furnished churches in London

St Augustine of Canterbury, Langdon Park Road, London N6 5QG

“One of the best furnished churches in London”, said the Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman (1906–84) about the north-London Anglican church of St. Augustine of Canterbury. The church is a Grade-II-listed building that faces the Archway Road, just north of the distinctive bridge spanning that road – created in 1813 by John Nash (1752-1835) – and from which the name of the road and the surrounding district is derived.

The church as we see it today was created in several stages during the late 19th and early 20th centuries by three architects: John Dando Sedding (1838–91), Henry Wilson (1864–1934), J. Harold Gibbons (1878-1958). It is a distinctive mix of late Victorian Gothic and early twentieth-century Arts and Craft styles.

The foundation stone of the new church was laid in 1887 and the part-finished buidling was consecrated in 1888, the next stage of work being undertaken by Henry Wilson, one of Sedding’s pupils. However, the west front was not completed until Easter 1914, the work of J. Harold Gibbons. The west front is adorned with a life-size stone Calvary, which led to a noisy Protestant demonstration seeking to stop the dedication of the church later that same year; 20 June 1914.

The church of St Augustine of Canterbury, a view of the nave detroyed by fire. (Source: Paul Bell, 2012).
The church of St Augustine of Canterbury, a view of the nave detroyed by fire. (Source: Paul Bell, 2012).

A disastrous fire on the night of 11 January 1924 entirely destroyed the nave and required a major programme of rebuilding, which was undettaken by J. Harold Gibbons. It was at this time he added the 2-bay  organ gallery on the south side of the chancel, and a new Sacristy.

The current pipe organ dates from 1925-6, and was built by the London firm of A. Hunter and Sons of Clapham (London UK). The atractive case – designed by J. H. Gibbons – dominates the south side of the chancel. Although the instrument has remained incomplete for lack of funds it serves well, and sounds impressive in the generous acoustic.

The church contains some fine fittings, artworks and stained glass by – among others – Henry Farmer (fl. early c20), Lawrence King (1907-81), J. Linthout & Co. (Bruges), Margaret A. Rope (1882–1953), Adrian Gilbert Scott (1882–1963), Christopher Whall (1849–1924),  Nathaniel Westlake (1833–1921).

In 1930 Gibbons completed the Lady Chapel, with a decorative scheme by Nathaniel Westlake, Henry Wilson, and Christopher Whall.

On 13 October 1957 St. Augustine’s was the venue for the first liturgical performance of the “Twentieth-century Folk Mass” by Rev. Geoffrey Beaumont CR (1904–71), a product of the once influential Twentieth-century Church Light Music Group. According to Beaumont, the composition was the result of a chance conversation with a priest-colleague in London’s then impoverished East End who was deeply concerned that church music was utterly foreign to the majority of people.

From the first litrgical performance of Geoffrey Beaumont's "A Twentieth-century Folk Mass" Celebrant: Rev. Gerald Fitzgerald. (Source: Church Times Archive).
From the first litrgical performance of Geoffrey Beaumont’s “A Twentieth-century Folk Mass” Celebrant: Rev. Gerald Fitzgerald. (Source: Church Times Archive).

That first liturgical performance of Beaumont’s mass-setting was broadcast live by the BBC and caused quite a stir at the time. The Daily Express declared that “this disturbing racket . . . was one of the most incongruous things ever seen on TV”, while the Musical Times  dismissed it as music suited to the fetid atmosphere of a night club or cabaret.

This recording (below) was made by the original performers in the run up to the performance at St. Augustine’s: Cantor, John Alldis;  Musicians/singers, The Peter Knight Orchestra and Singers; Conductor, Peter Knight;  Organist, William Davis.


You know that ‘Thing’ … ?

On music for the Mass

“Full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else”. Sacrosanctum concilium (1963) 1.II.14

You know that ‘Thing’ … ?

liturgy… when amateur church-musicians unaware of their own limitations (cannot keep time; cannot follow a simple melody line; cannot be heard) plan an ambitious musical offering for a parish liturgy, and arrive without any preparation of the music they have chosen, and then – with a visiting organist – expect to be fully in command after a 10 minute run-through, which also includes teaching the people-in-the-pew their part.

liturgyIt  was soon evident that this was new repertoire for everyone, including me, the visiting organist, except that I had spent a couple of hours in the past couple of days preparing my own copies and playing through to be thoroughly familiar and off-page when needed. Professional? C’est moi!

How is this type of ‘carry on’ in providing parish-church music meant to fulfil the Church’s fundamental principal of “full and active participation” in the liturgy? And ‘no’, under the circumstances, using a sound system makes no sense – even less in a small-chapel-of-a-building – only amplifying the shambles!

That Thing!