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Thomas E. MUIR
Roman Catholic Church Music in England, 1791 - 1914: A Handmaid of the Liturgy
Ashgate ISBN 978-0-7546-6105-4
288 pages
hardback only
Amazon: £52.25
Experience Classicsonline


If you go to a Roman Catholic church in the UK offering a solemn mass with a choir, then the expectation is that the music on offer is likely to include a hefty amount of plainchant and polyphony. My own church in Chelsea (St. Mary's Cadogan Street) offers High Mass in Latin with an amateur choir providing polyphony and plainchant. The same is true of many churches with amateur or professional choirs. The tendency is to assume that this has always been the case. The Roman Catholic Church likes to present itself as uniform and unchanging and our view of music in the church reflects this.

But this new book from Thomas Muir gives the lie to this. Muir examines the role of music in the liturgy in the UK from 1791 to 1914.

Why 1791? Well that was the date of the second Catholic Relief Act, which allowed Catholics to build chapels - providing they did not have a steeple. In fact Muir's book also covers the earlier period in his historical introduction, because an understanding of 19th century history of the English Roman Catholic Church requires the reader to be familiar with events of the previous 200 years.

Though the book covers Roman Catholicism in the whole of the UK, Muir's narrative is heavily based in the North of England, notable the Catholic stronghold of Lancashire. Muir read Music at York and Durham, and this might partly account for the book's slant. But also it happens that a number of significant collections of church music have survived in Northern centres. It is these important historical collections which enable Muir to give us a snapshot of the sort of music sung by typical Roman Catholic establishments in the 19th century.

Another interesting point about London is that the Roman Catholic worship here was for many years dominated by the Embassy Chapels and their successors. Until the Catholic Relief Acts in the late 18th century, the only legal way to hear mass was to go to one of the Embassy Chapels: Spanish, Bavarian, Sardinian, Portuguese. After the Catholic Relief Acts the Embassies continued to have unofficial or quasi-official links with their successor parishes; the Spanish Embassy severed official links with St. James, Spanish Place in 1827, but unofficial links continued.

Outside London, churches were very much in the control of the aristocratic families. The 19th century history of the Roman Catholic Church in England is very much the history of the transfer of power from local aristocratic control to central church control. A repeated theme is the tussle between local forces and the centralising Ultramontane tendency of the greater Roman Catholic Church. All this had an effect on the types of music performed.

To gain full benefit from Muir's book you do rather need a good understanding of the church and its liturgy and its history. Muir starts off with admirable summaries of the historical background and the liturgical framework - again not quite as unchanging as the church would have you believe. This is followed by a series of chapters covering the development of church music in the 19th century.

This development was not a simple one, as the pull between local and centralising forces complicated it; as did the movement away from aristocratic control. The Church rather favoured an increase in the use of plainchant and polyphony whilst the early 19th century establishments in the UK seemed to favour 19th century Viennese classical music.

Yet another complicating factor is that plainchant itself had changed. The plainchant sung by the church from Renaissance times was a simplification of the medieval plainchant. To someone in the 18th or 19th century church plainchant was something that was relatively simple and sung slowly and steadily. It was only in the later 19th century that scholarship, and the influence of Solesmes Abbey, brought about a return to medieval plainchant. But even then there were disputes about stressing etc.

All this Muir covers admirably. His book is full of illuminating tables and lists, providing concise overviews of how music adapted and changed. The book has a generous selection of musical examples, very necessary when so many composers are not well known. Muir rarely expresses an opinion as to whether the music performed was any good! This is, perhaps, of importance as when we come to the tussles between those parties wanting to return to polyphony and those wanting to continue to use contemporary music. In fact, from my own limited experience and from Muir's examples, you begin to suspect that much of the material written for use in the 19th century English church wasn't really much good! My own choir preserves music by Webbe and Turner in their library. These are pieces which are part of Roman Catholic liturgical history, but as music they tend to bring out sniggers of amusement in the choristers - myself included.

The book's culmination could be seen as the discussion of the role of Richard Terry, his Downside music and Westminster Cathedral choir. Muir makes a wonderfully clear explanation of how Terry's achievements (and limitations) are very much the product of the colourful history of liturgical music in the Roman Catholic Church in England.

But there are many fascinating things to be learned along the way, for example, why English Roman Catholics have no tradition of congregational hymn singing comparable to that of the Anglicans. How the idea of men-only choirs was something that only came to be enforced later in the 19th century.

This book is by no means an easy read. But for anyone with an interest in the role of music in the Liturgy in the Roman Catholic Church in England, this is essential reading. Only by following the complicated history of music and the church can you begin to understand the present situation.

Robert Hugill

Essential reading for anyone with interest in music in the RC Church in England ... see Full Review


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