Book Review: O Sing Unto The Lord

O Sing Unto The Lord:  A History Of English Church Music, by Andrew Grant

This book was a look at the sort of history that I must admit that I am not very familiar with, the history of the music of the English church.  To be sure, there are some composers of English church music that even someone not very familiar with the tradition would well understand–Watts, Handel, and Percell among the most obvious names.  Still, in reading this book I must admit that I was a bit disappointed by one aspect of it, namely the fact that so much attention was spent looking at the Anglican church and its ups and downs when it comes to church music, rather than looking at the music that was popular outside of the high church tradition in the revivals.  Strikingly, the hymn music of Cowper and Newton is completely neglected in this volume, even though it gets very detailed about certain aspects of the English music tradition.  And while it mentions the popularity of hymn singing among the Welsh, the book sadly has little to say about their hymns either, and even less to say about American hymns relating to the English church traditions that spread in North America.

This book is about 400 pages long and is divided into fourteen sizable chapters.  The author begins with a preface to the American edition which fails to note how this book is not really aimed at Americans.  After that the author talks about the beginnings of English church music in the Middle Ages (1)  and then in the late Middle Ages (2) as well as the fifteen century (3).  After that the author talks about the difficulties English composers had in dealing with the frequent religious changes of the middle of the 16th century (4) before looking at the changes that resulted from reformation and counter-reformation (5) and the church music and its influence on society during the reign of Queen Elizabeth (6).  The author talks about the influence of politics on the church music of the early Stuart period (7), the absence of high church music during the period of Cromwell’s rule (8), and the music of the restoration period (9) that followed.  After that the chapters follow quickly, with a chapter looking at the music during the enlightenment period (10) where religion was no longer popular among the elites, the music of the Methodists as well as imitators of Mendelssohn (11), and the period of renewal during Victorian England (12).  Finally, the book closes with chapters about the composers of Victorian England and the 20th century (13) as well as the splintering of the Anglican tradition in the contemporary period (14), after which there is an epilogue, notes, suggestions for further investigation, acknowledgments, illustration credits, and an index.

While this book is certainly not a waste of time, it was clearly written by someone who thinks that English elite tradition is the most important aspect of English culture.  I would happen to disagree with that–and would tend to find the frequently corrupt aspects of Anglican church culture to blame for the lack of consistency when it comes to music.  When so much attention is spent to elites looking for comfortable positions and when church leaders have so little integrity as teachers and exemplars of the faith, how are ordinary musicians and singers supposed to be well-provided for?  England has long had a sharp divide between city and country culture when it comes to religious culture, and this book certainly highlights those divides, focusing of course on the cities where one had more paid musicians and where the prestigious composers tended to live, which is why the hymns from the country are forgotten here.  And that is a great shame, as this book could have done a lot more more to shine the light on the more obscure English church tradition but chooses to spend its time in court because the author is more comfortable there.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Christianity, History, Music History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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