Choirs and the Crown

Choirs and the Crown: Anglican Choral Music and the British Monarchy

Earlier this year (2011) I agreed to donate a lecture on the British Monarchy for the Church of the Incarnation Chancel Choir's February fundraising auction. My friend Ann Peak, also a member of the choir, bid on the item and won it; we agreed to narrow down the topic to the relationship between the Monarchy and the Anglican Choral Tradition. On May 23, she hosted my lecture at her mother's house for an appreciative group of friends. Here is a lightly edited (though still preserving the feel of a talk rather than an article) transcript of what I said, though I've had to reconstruct the final section covering the 20th century from memory and my notes, since it did not get recorded. Musical examples I used for the lecture are identified in boldface at the center of the page at the appropriate place. Wikipedia links, some of which I consulted, for further reading are provided for the composers of the musical examples; other links are to the websites of other online sources or institutions mentioned.

Thank you all for coming to what I hope will be an entertaining journey through 500 years of English royal and musical history. I promise that it will not actually take 500 years!

Any discussion of Anglicanism and the Monarchy is likely to begin with King Henry VIII, who while he might be a lot of fun to dress up as at Halloween, is perhaps not the most lovable character in the pantheon of English monarchs. I’m sure you all know how Henry separated the Church of England from Rome having failed to get an annulment from Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn, and how he subsequently beheaded two of his six wives, wielding probably more unchecked power than any other English monarch before or since. What is not as well known is his enthusiasm for music. As I wrote in a college music history paper:

The king’s interest in music was apparent from an early age. Indeed, one of the reasons the teenaged monarch cut such an impressive and popular figure at the beginning of his reign was his devotion to the art. He had received a thorough musical education and was accomplished at the lute, organ, and virginals; he could also sing well. ... One of Henry’s favorite activities was sight-reading songs with his courtiers. ... He would devote hours at a time to listening to the most accomplished musicians of his day, such as the Venetian organist Dionysus Memo. His staff included "Seykebuds and Shalmeys, The kyng’s trompytts, Chyldryn of the chapell, Mynstrells, Tabretts, and styll shalmes," whose names and wages were dutifully recorded. As a young man, Henry somehow found the time to compose a great deal of music...

...including this lovely motet “Quam Pulchra es,” with text from the Song of Songs, recorded by the Brabant Ensemble appropriately enough in Henry’s own Hampton Court Palace.

King Henry VIII (1491-1547)
Quam pulchra es

Stephen Rice/The Brabant Ensemble
Henry VIII: heads & hearts—Music at Hampton Court Palace (Historic Royal Palaces, 2009)

Not bad for someone whose main occupation was king, rather than composer.

Not only did the king participate in musical activities himself, he expected his wives to do the same. Anne Boleyn loved music...she played the lute, harp, flute, and rebec and was said to dance and sing well. In contrast, one of the reasons for Henry’s instant distaste for his fourth wife, Anna of Cleves, was her complete lack of cultural abilities. She could not sing or play any instrument and had no interest in others’ accomplishments in the art. Music was so basic to the king’s life that he found her ignorance unacceptable in a queen.
Now, Henry of course was the last monarch to reign in England before the Reformation. The English Church was a flourishing environment of musical composition in the period immediately before the Reformation. One of the leading composers of this time was John Taverner (1490-1545), and he was the first organist and choirmaster of the college founded by Henry's chief adviser Cardinal Wolsey, who when he wasn't busy trying to get the king his precious divorce, was also quite a generous benefactor of educational and cultural institution. So I wanted to play this John Taverner piece which of course is not, strictly speaking, "Anglican," just to give you a flavour of the kind of elaborate polyphonic writing that was flourishing in England just prior to the Reformation.

John Taverner (1490-1545)
Dum transisset Sabbatum

Carl Jackson/The Choir of the Chapel Royal, Hampton Court Palace
Henry VIII: heads & hearts

You can hear how dense the choral writing is and how the Latin polyphony creates this very thick texture; the emphasis is not so much on understanding every word of the text as it is on creating a beautiful colour. This performance, by the way, is by the Choir of the Chapel Royal, also recorded at Hampton Court Palace. If you watched a certain recent royal event, which we'll get to later, they are the boys standing in front with the very fancy red and gold uniforms that date from the reign of King Charles II. I find this to be a fascinating recording for this talk; all this is recorded at Henry's palace, so this is being sung in the same space where Henry would have heard it. That was John Taverner's Easter motet Dum transisset Sabbatum.

Now, things were about to change. As I said, Henry separated the English Church from Rome. Henry never intended to start a new Protestant Church; he went to his grave very much theologically a Catholic. However, what became known as the Reformation became hijacked by a much more radical faction than Henry ever intended. When Henry died, in 1547, his ten-year-old son Edward VI (if you can imagine being King at Joseph's age here) became king, and the Protestant faction at court took advantage of Edward's youth to take the Reformation in a much more radical direction. In 1549, two years later, the first English Book of Common Prayer was imposed, which had a drastic effect on music. Obviously for the first time texts in religion had to be in the vernacular, and set with maximum clarity. References to Mary and the saints, which had been a staple of English music previously, were prohibited.

Now this sounds like a terribly cruel thing to say, but for those of us who like sacred choral music, it's probably a good thing that Edward VI died at the age of 15. The reason for that is that if the Protestant clique that surrounded him had remained in power, they did not look with favour on all this elaborate choral music, and it was already coming under severe suspicion by the powers that were at the time. However, Edward died, and his very Catholic half-sister Mary took over. So we have, all of a sudden, a 180-degree turn; she basically says, "everything my father and brother did, just forget about that; we're going back to Rome now." And Mary loved choral music. In fact it's a great paradox of the Anglican Choral Tradition that it was in a sense saved and made possible by this zealously Roman Catholic queen. In fact devotion to music was one of the few things that Mary and her half-sister Elizabeth had in common. So during Mary's reign, once again Latin polyphony flourished. However, she didn't live very long either. In 1558 she died; Elizabeth, who was 25, reacted by quoting Scripture. Now that might seem like a very pious thing to do, but the Scripture that she quoted was, "This is the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes." [Psalm 118:23]

Now Elizabeth was never as zealously Protestant as her brother and his friends had been; Elizabeth wanted to steer a middle road. She would have been happy to go back to the first (1549) Book of Common Prayer, which was really apart from being in English a very Catholic liturgy; it was the Catholic Mass in English, for the most part. Fifteen-fifty-two, however, the new prayer book under Edward VI, had taken the liturgy in a much more Protestant direction, de-emphasising the Eucharist. We had a problem because Elizabeth wanted the 1549; the Protestants in Parliament wanted 1552. What they came up with instead was a compromise, a new prayer book of 1559, and this was what became known as the Elizabethan Settlement. This was a compromise (something that Anglicans have been known for being very good at over the centuries) that tried to steer a middle course.

Composers had to respond to this. And I wanted to play two very contrasting pieces of the same composer, to give an illustration of how composers had to adapt rather quickly. John Shepherd (1515-1558) was one of the composers who had to contend with this almost bewildering change in religious regime. I'll play two pieces one right after the other. The first is a Latin motet Libera nos, written when Mary was queen, and this illustrates once again the very elaborate Latin style of polyphony that briefly came back into vogue. However, in 1558, Mary died, Elizabeth became queen, and almost immediately Shepherd was asked to set the new Anglican service. You can hear the stark difference in what he did: the text is very clear, the whole choir is singing the same thing at the same time, the emphasis is on comprehension of the text and not so much on elaborate music. However, he still managed to create beautiful music no matter what. Not for much longer though, because shortly after having to set this Protestant service, he died. So first, Libera nos, and then the Nunc dimittis from his Evensong service.

John Shepherd (1515-1558)
Libera nos
First Service, Nunc dimittis

James O’Donnell/The Choir of Westminster Abbey
‘Sisters in hope of the Resurrection’: Mary and Elizabeth at Westminster Abbey (Hyperion, 2008)

Hard to believe that those two pieces are by the same composer. You notice how in the second piece, again, the emphasis is on clarity of the text; the choir's singing the same thing at the same time so that the congregation can understand the words. This was of course before xerox machines made it quite easy to give everyone in the congregation a translation or text of the music.

Now from a slightly younger generation of English composers and probably the greatest of his generation was William Byrd. William Byrd was in a difficult position as someone whose private religious loyalties were always with Roman Catholicism, but who had to work as a professional musician for the Protestant Elizabeth. As Robert Quinney writes in the notes to this wonderful CD (which seems almost to have been made with tonight's talk in mind, Mary and Elizabeth at Westminster Abbey; this is of course the Westminster Abbey choir singing):

He was both courtier and conspirator, a pillar of the establishment and an illegal…seems to have regarded the provision of music for the Church of England as a challenge to be relished. In the mellifluous full anthem "O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth" it is tempting to hear actual personal warmth in the music—or is that Elizabethan propaganda, still working after four centuries?1
So here we have a Catholic composer writing an overt tribute to a Protestant queen.

William Byrd (1540-1623)
O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth

Mary and Elizabeth at Westminster Abbey

1Robert Quinney, liner notes, ‘Sisters in hope of the Resurrection’: Mary and Elizabeth at Westminster Abbey (Hyperion, 2008), 6.

Choirs and the Crown II: The Seventeenth Century
Choirs and the Crown III: The Eighteenth Century
Choirs and the Crown IV: The Nineteenth Century
Choirs and the Crown V: The Twentieth Century and Beyond