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