Neil McEwan explores English Church Music

Taverner to Taverner
Wendy Johnson / Alamy Stock Photo

The history of English church music began well before the Reformation – Gregorian chant and sacred texts in Latin dominated choral music. Composer John Taverner was appointed Organist and Master of the Choristers at Christ Church Oxford by Cardinal Wolsey in 1526. Taverner’s Western Wynde Mass, one of his few surviving works, is still sung liturgically to this day.

In the 16th century, under the reign of Henry
VIII, there was conflict between Catholics and
Protestants, and monasteries and abbeys were dissolved. The period produced a number of Tudor composers such as Thomas Tallis and William Byrd who wrote magnificent music which spanned these turbulent times, including If ye love me, by the former and Sing joyfully, by the latter.

During the reigns of James I and Charles I in the
first half of the 17th century, Orlando Gibbons set
English texts for choir, often with the addition of
instruments. This is the record of John is one of his famous anthems. One of his contemporaries, Robert Ramsey, is probably best-known for his anthem How are the mighty fallen.

The use of instrumental forces popular in Continental church music did not take hold in England in the same way. English anthems and settings for Evensong were usually sung a cappella, or with organ accompaniment with occasional instrumental ensembles used from time to time. One of the foremost composers of the time was William Boyce, who wrote the coronation anthem Praise the Lord O Jerusalem.

After the moribund situation of English cathedrals, the influence of the Oxford Movement in the 1840s began to see the rise in status of liturgy and music. Composer and organist Samuel Sebastian Wesley was ‘a lifelong fighter for better conditions’ for church music. Wesley aside, composers such as Thomas Attwood Walmisley, Sir John Stainer and Charles Wood wrote mostly fine music for church liturgies. Continued reforms at the end of the 19th century inspired works by Parry, Stanford, and Elgar, among others.

Perhaps one of the most revered musicians during the 20th century is Herbert Howells, whose settings for the canticles at Evensong are greatly loved and sung by many choirs. His Magnificat from Collegium Regale is worth seeking out. Among a number of composers of this period, John Tavener contributed much to church music.

One of his most moving choral pieces is Song for
Athene, which was sung at the funeral of Princess Diana in Westminster Abbey in 1997.

Explore sacred music from Taverner to Tavener in Musica Sacra, Sunday 12 September at 9am.