Tuesday, 30 August 2016

England and Music

England is not usually thought of as a particularly musical country (disregarding pop and rock which in all honesty don't really count, though folk music is another matter), with only Purcell, Handel (who, of course, wasn't English), Elgar and maybe one or two others belonging to the major league. However if you go back to the 16th century you find that many of the greatest composers of the time were, in fact, English. This period was a Golden Age for English art in general but I am focussing on music here because that is probably the most spiritual of all the art forms in that its effects, for good or ill, can be the most profound in the sense of inwardly awakening or morally corrupting.

Although its roots lie in earlier times, and are represented by people like John Dunstaple, the really great period of English music might be said to start with the Eton Choirbook which dates back to the late 15th century. This was a collection of sacred pieces for unaccompanied choir copied down for performance at Vespers in Eton College. They are all, I believe, in praise of the Virgin Mary who was very important in pre-Reformation England, almost like a feminine deity perhaps thought of as more approachable and closer to common human concerns than the Father who might be regarded by ordinary people as rather too transcendent and remote. One of the great losses caused by the Protestant revolution was precisely this; that the English, and those that descended from them, lost touch with feminine grace and mercy as expressed in a spiritual form.

The music in the Eton Choirbook was drawn from the greatest composers of the day, musicians such as John Browne whose Stabat Mater is one of the pillars of the collection. This, like all the pieces in the book, is florid polyphony whose elaborate lines echo the architectural glories of King's College Chapel at Cambridge, great soaring arches of sound in which the top lines (sung originally by boys but now more usually and very effectively taken by female voices) float above the tenors and basses like high flying birds above the waves. The Browne Stabat Mater is for six voices, which sometimes break down into a smaller number of parts, and alternates between expressive sections for solo voices juxtaposed with more powerful ones for full choir. In a normal performance it lasts about 15 minutes and the cumulative effect is quite breathtaking.

A slightly later composer is John Taverner who wrote masses and motets as well as the votive antiphons which was the most common musical form in the Eton Choirbook. The Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas is probably his best known work today but pieces like Dum Transisset Sabbatum and O Splendor Gloriae are works of overwhelming beauty whose spiritual intensity is unmatched in music of any period in my opinion. Was Taverner a particularly spiritual person or just a talented musician working in a language that lent itself especially well to spiritual expression? Perhaps a bit of both, but the greatness of Renaissance vocal polyphony is that even composers not necessarily of the first rank could write music that touches on the sublime when working in that style.

From the generation following we have Thomas Tallis and then William Byrd, both of whom were Catholics writing at a time of religious change and even persecution. This produced heartfelt works of longing and anguish by both men, generally shorter in length and perhaps more human in their emotional content than earlier composers though no less spiritual in effect. But perhaps Tallis's greatest work is one that harks back to the style of the Eton Choirbook. His Gaude Gloriosa is an immense piece consisting of nine invocations to the Virgin Mary and builds up to a shattering climax that is surely the closest thing we can get on this Earth to the choirs of cherubim and seraphim praising God in the highest. Whatever the greater development of later music in the Baroque and Romantic periods there is nothing that approaches this for sheer spiritual power and transcendent beauty. I write as a listener not a musician but while Bach, Beethoven and Wagner are doubtless greater composers with more technical ability and greater harmonic understanding they do not, possibly because of the nature of the times in which they were working, reach such spiritual heights in which the soul is raised above its earthly station to a purer condition of heavenly beauty.

The tail end of this period of English sacred music, in which it touched a spirituality rarely known before (even, in my opinion by the Palestrinas and Josquins on the Continent, great composers though they were), is represented by Orlando Gibbons, Thomas Tomkins and Thomas Weelkes, all fine composers but not so capable of expressing divine glories as their earlier compatriots, perhaps because they were setting English words rather than Latin, perhaps because of the artistic depredations of the Reformation or perhaps just because time moves on. Then we had Purcell (whose lovely hymn to Albion, 'Fairest Isle' from the semi-opera King Arthur, is worth drawing attention to in the context of this blog) and a few other minor composers, and then, after Handel, not really much at all until Elgar and Vaughan Williams. But there is an interesting 20th century footnote to add.

Two English composers of the early 20th century, quite well known at the time, then forgotten but more recently rediscovered, were John Foulds (1880-1939) and Cyril Scott (1879-1970). With the best will in the world neither can be called great but they are both interesting, and that is not just to damn them with faint praise. Their music may not be great but it is good. They were not Christians in the ordinary sense but they were both influenced by Theosophy, which is probably the major source of much New Age spirituality, and they both, intriguingly from my point of view, claimed to be in touch with Masters; that is, spiritual beings belonging to the hierarchy of saints that is supposed to guide and watch over humanity on this Earth. In fact, John Foulds was married to Maud MacCarthy who was the Swami Omananda who wrote about the Masters in Towards the Mysteries. And Cyril Scott wrote a trilogy of books (The Initiate etc) about encountering a Master in London and America which I believe to be fictional but which were presented as fact. It may be that Scott thought he was promoting a true idea in a way that was more palatable to the general public as the books are written in a somewhat journalistic style. I have to say that I think presenting fiction as truth is the wrong way to go about things, even if your intentions are good, but I'm sure his intentions were to enlighten not to deceive and he may well have had the contact he claims though probably in a different form. Anyway, the point is that there was a revival of the connection between spirituality and music in this country in the first half of the 20th century. Even Vaughan Williams can be seen as part of that, and, in the context of Albion, two other  composers worth a mention are Arnold Bax, especially with his symphonic poem Tintagel, and Rutland Boughton whose music drama entitled The Immortal Hour was first performed at the Glastonbury Festival in 1914. It's a sort of fairy opera that somehow seems to call to mind prehistoric Britain though filtered through an Edwardian sensibility.

What I think all these composers had in common was a sensitivity to the theme of this blog, a certain sort of English spirituality. They expressed this in different ways and according to their own time and culture, but they all were responding to an inner world of light and truth that constantly bubbles up from the depths of England only to be suppressed again by materialistic forces. It can never really be suppressed because it is true but it needs to be brought forth anew with every generation, and the hope is that it will become stronger in people's minds until eventually it can really blossom forth and shine out clearly in the world.


Bruce Charlton said...

I know quite a few of these composers, but not all - so thanks for the suggestions.

Special favourites of mine are O nata lux by Tallis, When David heard by Tomkins, and Music for a while by Purcell.

Certainly the English genius is for vocal music - Dowland and the other lute song composers of the Tudor era are a sheer delight - Dowland's Flow my tears, for instance.

William Wildblood said...

I love Purcell and Handel but only mentioned them in passing because I don't think they are particularly relevant to the subject here. Also Baroque music, wonderful as it is, is quite this worldly in its appeal. I left out Dowland, who is also one of my favourites, only because his music is practically all secular.

I didn't mention any recordings in the post but can do so here. For the Eton Choirbook the 5 CD recordings by The 16 conducted by Harry Christophers are usually regarded as the benchmark and they are very good indeed, but I prefer the more robust singing by The Taverner Choir under Andrew Parrott on a CD called Masterworks from late Medieval England and Scotland. This has the John Browne piece. Parrott's recording of Thomas Tallis are also superb. Of course, The Tallis Scholars excel in this repertoire even if their tone, especially in their more recent recordings, is a little too 'perfect' for me.But their Tallis Cds were recorded early in their career and the one with Spem in Alium on is tremendous. All these ensembles have also recorded John Taverner with predictably excellent results. There are recordings with boys voices too but I prefer sopranos generally. A Tudor composer I didn't mention is John Sheppard who wrote a piece called Media Vita which in the recording by the Tallis Scholars is over 20 minutes long! It's a sensational piece of music which should be much more famous than it is.

There are recent(ish) recordings of John Foulds and Cyril Scott which a search on Amazon will turn up. Scott's 3rd Symphony is good and so is Foulds' Dynamic Triptych.

Anonymous said...

What an encouragemernt to look up and listen to recordings of unfamiliar composers, new and old!

I love what I've heard of Peter Philips (c. 1560-1628), too. Of 20th-c. composers, another with esoteric interests was Gustav Holst. Of younger composers, Robin Milford is receiving more attention and performances and recordings in recent years, though, alas, not yet his setting of parts of Charles Williams's late Arthurian poetry - how I would love to hear that (I'm not enough of a sight reader to have gotten a sense of it from the MSS. in the Bodleian). Another young fan and friend of Williams, Bruce Montgomery, has also been getting more attention, though, again, not the choral work he published as In Memoriam of C.W. (which I would also love to hear).

David Llewellyn Dodds

William Wildblood said...

Yes, I can't think why I forgot Holst especially since we share a birthday and I used to live near where he did in Barnes in west London! Perhaps because his music does not seem quite so English to me. But then the music of Scott and Foulds is not specifically English either.

Other Tudor composers worth exploring are Robert Fayrfax, William Cornish, Nicholas Ludford and William Mundy, all of whom have had good recordings made of their music. There are probably more. It was an extraordinary time for music in England.

Sally said...

Dont really count ? Have you ever really explored the music of Bruce Dickenson and wondered why the establishment hates him so ? Also, you muse in an ealier post that England / Albion is on the second ray for love/wisdom and how nice that is. What if i told you England anchors the first ray and that this planet belongs to Michael. England does not hold that honour of course, but it's not on the second ray either. Albion is in fact the keeper of the grail, which the involves interplay of two rays and is all about the great love affair between heaven and earth. That's why is strange to dismiss the raw upwelling of sexuality unleashed in the past 50 years and that the uk created the lion's share of the best music that came along with it. True the tricky process disciplining the energy hasnt really yet started, but the country is not likely make the old mistake of confusing morality with purity lol.

William Wildblood said...

You make some interesting points Sally but I think we are going to disagree on most of them. I like some pop and rock music but I don't really care for the English variety which was the subject of the post. Give me (for example) the Byrds, the Beach Boys, and the Grateful Dead over anything produced here. But that's just personal preference and reflects my generation. The point is that pop and rock, even when it is enjoyable, has nothing spiritual about it. In fact, it usually directs spiritual energy or light downwards to the physical level and this is especially the case when there is a reliance on excessive beat or volume. There is no drawing up to spiritual levels which is why most traditional societies regarded this kind of music as damaging. Even when the words are about brotherhood, love etc, as in so called Christian rock, that doesn’t do much to improve things. It's the music that matters. Some forms of pop and rock are good music, and folk music often has qualities which take it beyond the mundane, but neither can really be compared in their spiritual effects to classical music.

You say England is on the first ray and the planet belongs to Michael. This can only be speculation. You can't possibly know it. Maybe it comes from a book or a channelling or whatever but, as far as anyone in this world is concerned, it can only be theory. As a matter of fact, if we're talking about the idea of rays or divine qualities, isn’t the usual idea that the first ray relates to England on a personality or material level (Empire, Churchill and so on) while on the soul level, which would be Albion, it is the second ray that is operative? But who knows? Again this is speculative.

What you call the raw upwelling of sexuality, which has certainly been aided and abetted by pop and rock, others might think of as the over stimulation of physical desire so that energy flows downwards into sex rather than upwards into spirituality. What is sex in this sense? It's basically the pursuit of physical pleasure. If this arises spontaneously it needn't conflict with spiritual growth, but if pursued for its own sake it will only increase attachment to and identification with the body and the ego with its desires. The body is part of the human being but the more to the forefront of consciousness it is, the more its concerns are sought, the less you will be able to make the connection to the spiritual self.

I don't know what you mean by confusing morality with purity. Purity is not puritanism. The only way you can advance spiritually is through purity of heart and mind, and that does, of course, include the body as a projection of the mind. You mention the Grail. In the Christianised version of this story, which basically takes a fairly ordinary fertility myth to a higher level, the reason that Lancelot fails is because of his sexual infidelity with the Queen. Galahad succeeds because of his purity and dedication to the Grail above all else. Perhaps because he alone is able to transmute sexual energy to its higher spiritual counterpart. But anyway don’t take the idea of the Grail too seriously as it’s only a literary myth grafted onto the idea of the cup used by Christ at the last supper. Think of it as a metaphor but don’t take it literally. It’s a medieval poet’s invention assembled from a variety of sources, Celtic and Christian.