For a long time, England was famous for having no concert-music tradition or English equivalent of Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, et al. “A capella” (literally, “chapel style”) or unaccompanied choral music seems to have been favoured, so even compositions for organ were not developed. This is often attributed to Puritanical influence (there were those who felt church organ etc music was “for Methodists”). The alternative view is that it was another instance of of the Church taking over entrenched pagan or Celtic-Church locations, a policy dictated by St Augustine c600 AD. Just as the Church re-branded, as Christian, seasonal rites like Easter (=1st Sunday after 1st full moon after spring equinox), they may also have taken over earlier choral traditions. For example, the May Day practice still maintained in certain towns of greeting the sunrise with a chorus seems eerily ancient - no more Christian than the Maypole, more likely a relic of the Celtic first week of May festival of Beltane or “Beautiful Flame.” (The most famous May-Morning chorus is in Oxford, atop Magdalen College Tower - downloadable large-scale Wiki image here]; you can also see it in the film of CS Lewis’s memoir, Shadowlands.)
I covered the first breakaway from this stranglehold in an earlier post, England's Little Green Book, on the centenary of the CoE’s 20th-C. replacement hymn-book The English Hymnal, which had hymns set to music mainly by its editor, Ralph Vaughan Williams.
This year is the 50th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’s death in 1958, and there have been complaints that Britain’s greatest composer since Purcell was not being properly celebrated (no portrait on stamp or bank-note etc), though he was famed for the “Englishness” of his music, and it still tops Classic-FM polls. Over the last holiday break, I did see ‘the first ever full-length film biography of the great man’, a New Year’s Day 3-hour tribute. Isolde Films’ O Thou Transcendent: The Life Of Ralph Vaughan Williams [now on DVD] looked at his influence on others, from the Archbishop of Canterbury to modern pop groups Fairport Convention and the Pet Shop Boys.
It told how RVW came into his own when he turned for inspiration to tradition folk-song melodies (such as Greensleeves). He collected notes on these in his famously crabbed handwriting (which has since plagued biographers). He also collected and adapted traditional verse and song, which was disappearing due to the growth of commercially printed sheet music. He set some verses to music, his first and most lucrative sheet music being his song from ‘Linden Lea,’ from the pastoral verse which Thomas Hardy’s mentor William Barnes had documented. Later he would work these traditional motifs into his pastoral symphonies, film scores and other works.
For fifty years, RVW, his sister, and his wife and lifelong collaborator Ursula also organised the still-ongoing springtime festival of song for local choirs held at Leith Hill in Surrey. Founded in 1905 when RVW lived nearby, the annual Leith Hill Musical Festival echoes the ancient Celtic or pre-Celtic massive choirs mentioned in the earliest accounts of Britain as being based in Wales (where choral traditions survived the English Reformation) and in England at Amesbury (near Stonehenge) and sometimes at Glastonbury. Leith Hill, the highest point in SE England, is somewhat reminiscent of Glastonbury, with a hill offering far-ranging views and topped by an unusual tower. (The eccentric 18th-C. owner had had himself buried under it, upside-down to face Judgement Day all the better.) The LHMF is reminiscent of a Welsh, Cornish, or Breton bardic Gorsedd recital competition-cum-festival [pictured], in this case with choral works rather than spoken-word ones, involving hundreds of singers.
The LHMF at one point had the banner title ‘Music Won The Cause', a slogan reminiscent of how the popular inspirational song ‘Jerusalem’ had come into being. This was on the heels of the 'Fight for Right' campaign pioneered by the soldier turned mystic Col. Sir Francis Younghusband in WWI. Along with other writers, he promoted this as a good cause - a moral war, a 'Fight For Right'. (The title is actually that of a William Morris poem.) One of these other writers, Poet Laureate Robert Bridges, convinced composer Sir Hubert Parry (who had tutored RVW) to set to music a short poem by William Blake.
Blake’s works had been kept out of the English Hymnal on the basis he was thoroughly unorthodox, despite RVW’s interest in his work. RVW would later write a pastoral ‘masque’ ballet based on Blake’s The Book Of Job. But Blake’s now-familiar short ‘prelude’ poem had suitably timely call-to-arms imperative refrains (“Bring me my Chariot of Fire!”). And “Jerusalem" evaded Church control when it was adopted by the Women’s Institutes and the Women’s Suffragette Movement. (It would also become a rallying point over the fact women continued to be excluded from Church ordination.) It soon became known by its current epithet of England’s alternate national anthem.
However despite its apparent tone of muscular Victorian Christianity, the poem seems more a call for England to become its own New Jerusalem, in the light of the apocryphal ‘holy legend” Blake had obviously heard of. This was that Jesus had visited England as a youth, leading to some of his disciples emigrating here and building the first above-ground church in Christendom, at Glastonbury. This was the foundation of the Celtic Church of Britain, just before the Roman Conquest. Younghusband had become interested in Tibetan mysticism after his 1904 military Mission to Lhasa, and wanted "Jerusalem" to be not just for Christians but a multi-cultural anthem. But Parry refused to allow the Fight For Right movement to use "Jerusalem" for such purposes – the start of the debate over its politicised use. (This debate continues to this day among the present political parties, from Conservatives to Labour to the British National Party, each of whom claim the hymn speaks of their own aims.)
Parry died at war's end, and in 1922, Sir Edward Elgar, who had specialised in large-scale choral performances pre-war, elaborated the orchestration into its present form. Elgar himself was unhappy about the glib, unrelenting celebration of his “Pomp ‘n Circumstance” marches, especially his 'Land of Hope and Glory' being turned into a patriotic singalong. He felt this jingoistic focus overshadowed his more complex works like the Enigma Variations - which comes with a code no-one yet has broken. (It is contained both in the musical notation and a supporting document called the Dorabella Cipher.)
Another such endeavour was the tune we now know as the Rugby World Cup theme "The World In Union". This was based on the poem ‘Urbs Dei’ [City Of God], by diplomat Cecil Spring-Rice, who as Ambassador to the US wanted to encourage America to enter the war. But it was not set to music till 1921, when RVW’s friend Gustav Holst used a theme from his wartime suite The Planets to turn the poem into the hymn “ I Vow To Thee, My Country,” which became a staple of Armistice ceremonies and later a school song, from where it became a favourite of Princess Diana and another Church - Charlotte.
The Church Of England seemingly continues to regard ’Jerusalem’ and the legend which inspired it as misguided, irreligious, perhaps even heretical, and it is often banned in local church services, including weddings and funerals.