- Published: Tuesday, 07 September 2021 09:24
George Richford, Director of Music, Beaulieu Abbey Church. Sunday 5th September 2021.
Christianity was born in song. Christ’s incarnation was announced by Mary’s song to Elizabeth; the Angels heralded Christ’s birth by singing ‘Glory to God in the highest’ over the plains of Bethlehem and the crowds joined in joyful ‘Hosannas’ when Christ entered Jerusalem on the Donkey. Throughout the New Testament especially, Good News is repeatedly disseminated through the medium of music.
The history of church music can be traced back to the Jewish temple and the ritual chanting of psalms and responses. From this was born a parallel chant tradition in the early Christian church, sanctioned by Pope Gregory. These Gregorian melodies formed part of an aural tradition performed by those in Holy Orders. Well over 5,000 chants were memorised and recited throughout the church year. When new monasteries were formed, this aural chant tradition was implanted in each new community until eventually the music was committed to velum and distributed across Europe. This was true of our own Cistercian community.
Our original Abbey building was mathematically conceived with music at the core. The height, length and breadth of the Abbey was designed according to musical principles. The stone was chosen specifically for its acoustic (as well as weight-bearing) properties. The number of arches, the size of the windows, the floor pan and the position of the high altar were not just considerations according to aesthetic preferences- they were justified by Pythagorean, musical proportions. When the monks sang the office here, it was believed that the vibrations that permeated the air and penetrated the stone, vibrated in sympathy with the angels themselves; a conduit for direct communication with the Almighty. As Saint Augustine wrote ‘He who sings, prays twice’.
But what is so special about choirs and singing? The composer Vaughan Williams stated that ‘the simple equation that governs choirs is that 2+2 = 40’. This strange alchemy explains the potential for collective singing to be more than the sum of its parts – consider the amplifying effect of confidence within in a choral group, the potential for corporate expression or the exponential enrichment of worship. And of course there is the communal potential for goodness to come from singing– as the old Coca Cola advert proclaimed ‘I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony…’. Whether it be a congregation united in hymnody, a football stadium erupting in the chants of the home team or the moving scenes of Afghan civilians joining in song against the Taliban, there can be little doubt of the galvanising properties of song to bring humans and communities together.
But despite the seemingly universal good that comes from communal singing (1), the centrality that singing holds as a vehicle of the Gospel (2) and the architectural importance of music in ecclesiastical design (3) - church music has been beleaguered by difficulties, shrouded in controversy and beset by challenges throughout its history.
Firstly, creativity- artistry in sacred spaces elicits polar reactions; those who interpret beauty, excellence and ingenuity as a demonstration of God’s creation and those who are suspicious of such gestures, considering them a human intrusion on worship or even a distraction from God. Anapocryphaltale speaks of two monks walking in a cloister in the evening sun. They heard a nightingale singing so sweetly, so beautifully, so seductively that they concluded it must be the work of the Devil and so exorcised and killed it!
In the sixteenth Century, the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation played metaphorical tennis with church music. For Luther, this Catholic church music was too florid, too long, too indulgent and unintelligible. For the Catholics, Protestant music was irreverent, bawdy and too much of the ‘secular’ world.
In England too, the frenetic oscillations between the Roman and English Churches played havoc with the composers of the time. Decadent Latin music was outlawed and in its place came a new utilitarian, vernacular music that was constrained in melody and gesture. There were no more soaring soprano lines or elaborate intertwining of voices, but instead a more austere approach to church music. Congregational singing was just beginning to take hold with the advent of the printing press and an increase of literacy amongst the people. By the time of Cromwell and Puritanism, robed choirs had mostly disappeared in England, replaced by Gallery bands; it was now the people.
In the more recent past, Church Music in England has seen some of the most significant changes and has been buffered and battered by widespread secularisation, social and economic changes and priorities. The Victorian renaissance which brought back robed choirs from obscurity, set the tone for the next century. As vestry wall hangings across the country attest – choirs were packed full of boys and men – starched Eton collars, meticulously combed hair and an impressive array of moustaches. As many as four generations can be spotted from a single family. The World Wars had a huge and deleterious impact on these choirs. However, in the 1950s and 60s choirs broadened to include girls and women. Huge choir festivals packed our Cathedrals and the likes of Ernest Lough, Peter Auty and eventually Aled Jones were household names. Let us not forget the controversy of cathedral girl choristers, introduced in 1991 and I continued to receive anonymous hate mail for my support of female altos and promotion of girl choristers, as recently as 2018.
This general growth of church music continued through to the early 90s when a catalogue of social and technological changes began to collude against the tradition. In 1994 the Sunday Trading Act meant that more shops could now open on a Sunday. Children’s sports that were confined to Saturday morning began to straddle the weekends. Satellite TV arrived at the same time as the popularisation of home computers and Games consoles for children. Mobile phones became an essential commodity and the Internet flooded into our homes bringing the world closer together- pushing our communities further apart. What used to be a quiet day – a family day – a day for church and roast dinners, walks in the country and lazy afternoons has slowly become an extension of Saturday and a warm-up for Monday. Children, young people, families and those in work now juggle a continuous round of demand on time and money. Competing priorities now stretch the elastic of commitment to the snapping point, and what is left behind in church music is but the carcass of that Victorian aspiration.
Now I am not lamenting progress. But in order not to be left behind with the inexorable tide of change all around us, we must negotiate change ourselves and not become hostage to nostalgia or imprisoned by the past. Traditions, like the seasons, change and adapt and we stand still in this modern world at our peril. And on top of this - every church choir up and down the land has suffered and struggled as a result of the pandemic. Covid has proved a defining, watershed moment that has presented inescapable realities and home truths for us all.
There is hope. Pope John Paul II said of Christians: ‘We are the Easter people and halleluiah is our song’. So in that spirit of resurrection- what do we do now, here in Beaulieu Abbey in September 2021?
In order for church music to move, refresh and transform us, we need excellence to reinvigorate us (as a congregation) and the tradition (more widely)- to set the bar high and to afford us, our neighbours and those not yet known to us - a glimpse of heaven here on earth – of what church music really can be. Excellence should not be an anathema to us. We come to accept it in the fabric of this building, the stone work, the carving, the carpentry and the Words and Sermons we hear, the liturgy we experience, the excellent organ playing we have every week. Many of us have known it, or expected it in our working lives. Not a sort of flamboyant, noisy excellence that is as disruptive as it is brilliant – but that quiet, unassuming excellence that could almost go unnoticed if it were not so conspicuous by its absence.
But in order for church music to forge our community and bind us together, we also need a choir built from good local amateurs, bound by common purpose and fellowship. This is a place where everyone does their best and continues to grow in the positive community spirit.
And order for church music to be resurrected - to live and thrive again in the 21st century, we need to train, support and engage young people so that they in-turn might inspire, enliven and invigorate others by their talents. Most of all, they should have a positive experience of music and of church.
In this spirit, as we move forward to meet the challenges of church and music in a post-Covid world, we must combine the principles of excellence, community and the training and support of young people in this place – under the all-embracing commitment to ‘serve’. Just as the familiar Chorister Prayer goes.. ‘Bless O Lord, us thy servants who minister in thy temple’. Our primary object is to faithfully serve the ministry here. Once that robe goes around our shoulders, we must remind ourselves of that commitment; not to project, or impress or persuade or to impose but simply: serve.
But how do we recover, adapt and change to meet todays challenges?
We need to be flexible and adaptable. This is about reinventing (or at least adapting) the wheel for a different 21st century landscape. After all, it is not just church music in this building which has suffered – it is church music everywhere and without exception. With today’s commitments and distractions, no single choir will be able to sing all services. We will also need to enlarge our tents – receiving new people to serve the music and worship here whilst invigorating the core of community singing too.
I am not advocating for what John Donne referred to as ‘one equal music’ – I think that it is nye-on impossible for a single choir to satisfy every expectation placed upon it. So it might be that a Triptych of provision here will cater to those three principles best. A handful of excellent voices will endow us with the most sensitive, beautiful and prayerful music. A separate choir of tuneful voices from around us might build on the legacy and proud tradition of local, community musical involvement –the ‘jewel in the crown’ of British Music. And thirdly, perhaps a number of junior choral singers (aged in their teens) could supplement both choirs. We will also look forward to welcoming back the chorale next month too, as they join us for our Harvest celebration. This choir will also have a place amongst the choral provision here.
Nothing is yet set in stone but a plan is beginning to emerge. This indivisible, self-reliant trinity of music would be at the heart of who we are; each inseparable from the other. No comparisons, no ‘A’, ‘B’ or ‘C’ team, no false dichotomy of ‘locals’ or the ‘out of towners’, the ‘robed’ and the ‘unrobed’, or the ‘good, the bad and the ugly’ but three vital streams performing the same functions in different, manageable, flexible ways. And this is not an aspiration for Beaulieu Cathedral either, but a considered 21st century solution to Music provision in our Parish Church.
This is what I have done all my career. I have worked in parish churches, chapels, universities and cathedrals all over the country – employed with a specific mandate to turn things around, get things going again, and to reverse negative trends. So, I am no stranger to this sort of situation and you are not Guinea pigs! I have every faith that soon – very soon- we will have something here that we can all take pride in – something that will bring our neighbours in and draw us closer.
I invite you as Beaulieu Abbey to view 5th September 2021 as a pivotal moment; closing one chapter with thankfulness and praise but looking to the future with positivity and hope so that in the words of John Milton… ‘O may we soon again renew that song, and sing in tune with heaven’.