Choirs and the Crown II

Choirs and the Crown: Anglican Choral Music and the British Monarchy
II: The Seventeenth Century

Elizabeth's reign and its relative stability made possible what we might call the first "Golden Age" of Anglican choral music. As we'll see tonight there are three really quite distinct golden ages, and this was the first. Another composer of this time period, who I'm not going to play but I couldn't resist including this anecdote, was Thomas Weelkes (1573-1623). We think of sacred choral music as this very angelic sort of thing, but Weelkes was not that kind of guy at all. In fact, he was dismissed from Chichester Cathedral for being drunk at the organ and using bad language during services.2

Elizabeth I died in 1603 without ever having left clear instructions as to who should succeed her. However, because there wasn't really anyone else, her distant relative the young King of Scotland James VI traveled south, promptly lost all interest in Scotland, and became King James I of England. Westminster Abbey has put out this wonderful companion to the previous CD, which just came out this year: Music from the Reign of King James I. A prominent composer of this time was the wonderful Thomas Tomkins. Tomkins lived for a very long time, 1572 to 1656, 84 years; as we'll see later he might have wished that he hadn't lived so long. As a young man Tomkins was organist at the Chapel Royal and one of his duties was to write music for royal occasions. I have from this James I CD examples of music for three very different kinds of royal occasions, spanning the complete spectrum of human emotion. The first piece, "Be strong and of a good courage," was written for the coronation of James I in 1603. We're going to talk about a lot of coronations tonight; this is the first one.

Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656)
Be strong and of a good courage

James O’Donnell/The Choir of Westminster Abbey
Music from the reign of King James I (Hyperion, 2011)

One thing you can notice in this piece is that while it's still in English, and clarity is still important, by this time in the early 17th century composers had a little more freedom to let different sections of the choir come in at different times; it wasn't so much everyone has to sing the same words at once; they were a little more relaxed about that. The Stuart monarchs were adherents of what would eventually become known as "High Church" Anglicanism, which means that they believed very much in the use of Beauty in worship. They believed that the Church of England was not a new religion, but the Catholic continuation of the ancient English Church--separated from Rome, they did not want to go back to Rome, but they also did not want to "throw the baby out with the bathwater," so to speak. That was the dominant tendency during the reigns of the first two Stuart kings, which as we'll see did not last.

Now that was an anthem for a happy occasion, but composers also had to write pieces for very sad occasions. In 1612, James's eldest son and heir, Prince Henry, died unexpectedly at the age of 18. Henry was probably one of the most popular heirs to the throne in English history. He was everything a prince was supposed to be: he was charming, athletic, good-looking, intelligent, spoke several languages--everyone loved him. So when he died, it was a real blow. As a response to that, Tomkins wrote this heartrending piece "When David Heard," using as his inspiration the story from the Bible of the death of King Solomon's son.3

Thomas Tomkins
When David Heard

Music from the reign of King James I

So, a very different mood here. You can see how the music reflects the pain that the King must have felt at the loss of his son, just like King Solomon so many centuries earlier. Fortunately, in 1619 when the King himself came down with an illness, he recovered, and another composer Orlando Gibbons had the task of celebrating his recovery. Now even for a diehard royalist like myself, the flattery in this text might be considered bit much. The piece is called "O all true faithful hearts," and it includes this wonderful line: “His life is worth ten thousand, therefore give / Each soul, ten thousand thanks that he doth live.”4

There's some wonderful solo writing in this piece. Since this is a recent recording, the boy treble soloist in this piece is the same soloist who we will hear at the end of a much more recent royal event.

Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625)
O all true faithful hearts

Music from the reign of King James I

That's Thomas Fetherstonhaugh, the treble soloist, wonderful English name there.

With the death of James I in 1625, we enter into the darkest era for both the monarchy and the choral tradition. James I was succeeded, his eldest son having died, by his second son Charles I. Charles had all of his father's belief in the Divine Right of Kings with none of his cleverness at negotiating with Parliament. Charles, even more so than his father, believed very much in this Catholic, High Church interpretation of Anglicanism that I mentioned earlier. He was aided in this by his Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud, one of my favourite archbishops, but many people in England at the time did not share that opinion. The English Church had to deal with an increasingly noisy and troublesome sect known as the Puritans. (You're getting a very objective and neutral history tonight.) The Puritans hated everything that they thought was reminiscent of Roman Catholicism. The word "puritanical" today is often used to refer to someone who disapproves of things like alcohol and tobacco. Actually that's kind of misleading, because the real Puritans had no problem with alcohol. What they had a problem with was man-made Beauty, especially in worship. Puritans wanted churches to be as plain as possible. They held fervently that Worship should appeal only to the intellect, and not at all to the senses. There were actually speeches in Parliament against what they called the "squawking" of choirs. They hated choirs in churches; they hated organ music in churches, believing as they did that the only music in churches should be a cappella congregational psalm singing.

Now I see that [Incarnation assistant organist and North Dallas High School history teacher] Keith Franks is here, and Keith always teaches his students to hiss at the name of Oliver that's a welcome contribution tonight. A Member of Parliament by the name of Oliver Cromwell became the military leader of the Puritans. It became a military conflict partly because of these religious issues. I think that modern secular historians like to see the Civil War as simply a conflict between the Divine Right of Kings on the one hand and Parliamentary Democracy and Liberty and all those other things that Modern People are supposed to love on the other hand. But it was more complicated than that because these religious disputes, which may baffle a lot of modern people, were extremely important to both sides at the time. One of the churches I visited in England last summer had an example of a beautiful ornately carved baptismal font that dated from the time of King Charles and Archbishop Laud. The Puritans were appalled by this. For his part, Archbishop Laud, not being a Modern Person believing in Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Religion, when people disagreed with him he tended to have them put in jail, which for some reason they didn't like very much.

Charles wanted one liturgy for all of Britain; he wanted Scotland to have the same liturgy as the Church of England, the Book of Common Prayer. When he tried to impose that on Scotland, and also a hierarchical structure of bishops, a war broke out, and Charles did not have the money for this war. In order to raise money, he needed to finally summon a Parliament after doing without one for 11 years. (Charles really didn't like parliaments very much.) The King and Parliament proved unable to resolve their differences, and the situation developed into a full-scale civil war, which raged off and on for seven years. The Puritans won, and in 1649, on what in my opinion is the very darkest day of British history, murdered their King, Charles I. This was unprecedented. Other kings had of course been assassinated by their enemies, but for the de facto government to attempt to bring the King to trial and execute him as King, had never happened before in the history of the world.

This had profound implications for church music as well, because with the Puritans in power, the churches fell silent: for eleven years, there was no organ music, no choral music, in the cathedrals and churches of England. They actually violently destroyed organs; for example at Worcester Cathedral where I'm going this summer, the organ was literally hacked to pieces with axes by the Puritans. Every cathedral in England where you go, they will tell you, such-and-such was damaged by the Puritans in the Civil War. It was a time of hatred of anything beautiful, and this went on for eleven years: a very strict regime which banned not only choral music but Christmas, Maypole dances, theatre/acting--pretty much anything fun, they were against.

Not surprisingly, most of the British people got tired of this; they thought eleven years was quite enough. Oliver Cromwell died in 1658; ironically for a great opponent of monarchy he was succeeded by his son, Richard. But Richard Cromwell wasn't really into this whole Lord Protector thing, so that kind of fizzled, and two years later, in 1660, a general who had supported Parliament, General Monck, changed his mind and invited the executed king's son and heir, Charles II, to be restored to the throne, which he was, entering London on his 30th birthday, May 29, 1660, one of the happiest days in English history. With Charles II, everything that had been prohibited under the Puritans came back; the theatre came back, and of course for our purposes tonight the choirs came back.

Now this was a monumental task. Think about it: normally in church music, whether you're dealing with adults or whether you're dealing with boys, there's a natural learning process in which the more experienced people pass on their knowledge to the less experienced people. But in 1660, there had been no choirs for eleven years, in some places more than that because there was quite a bit of England that the Puritans had controlled earlier. So the whole thing had to be reconstructed from scratch. Nevertheless, miraculously they were able to do this; in fact it's amazing that we have as much music from before then as we do. We have to be grateful to the people who preserved and resurrected it.

With the Restoration, we embark on what I think can be called the second "Golden Age" of Anglican choral music. The leading light of this time was Henry Purcell. Henry Purcell was born at just the right time, 1659, right at the end of that horrible period, so he had no recollection of the Civil War or any of that nonsense. He grew up in an England which was vibrantly celebrating everything that had been previously forbidden. Purcell was what we would now call a child prodigy. By the age of 14, he was already assistant to the Curator of the King's Instruments; at the age of 18, composer for the King's Violins, which was the royal orchestra, and at the mere age of 20, he attained the post for which he was most famous, that of organist at Westminster Abbey. Purcell was so impressive that his own teacher, John Blow, stepped aside to allow Purcell to take over.5

One of Purcell's responsibilities pretty soon was to write music for the next coronation. Charles II died in 1685. He had plenty of children; unfortunately, his wife was not the mother of any of them. So his younger brother James, who had already converted to Roman Catholicism, became monarch. James was never as popular as Charles was, in fact once when James asked Charles why he was so lax about security, Charles said to him, "no one is ever going to kill me to make you King." This was sort of a surreal moment, because it was the only time that a Roman Catholic monarch was crowned in an Anglican ceremony; he could not take Communion at his own coronation. Purcell wrote this anthem for the coronation, "I Was Glad." Now we're going to hear a slightly more familiar "I Was Glad" later on, but this is the one that Purcell composed for James II in 1685. It is being sung here by the finest exemplar of this tradition in this country, the Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys of New York.

Henry Purcell (1659-1695)
I Was Glad

John Scott/The Saint Thomas Choir of Men & Boys with Concert Royal
O Sing Unto the Lord: Sacred Music of Henry Purcell (Saint Thomas Recordings, 2010)

Unfortunately, this second "Golden Age" did not last very long, and that had a lot to do with the religious situation once again. James II, as I said, was a Catholic monarch crowned in an Anglican ceremony in a country which already saw itself for the most part as Protestant. While he irritated some people, most Protestants were inclined to let this slide because his two adult daughters had been raised as Protestants. The assumption was that James II's Catholic wife, who had already had several miscarriages, was not going to have any healthy children. However, in 1688 all that changed. The very Catholic Italian Maria of Modena gave birth to a healthy son, James. All of a sudden, England faced the prospect of a permanent Roman Catholic dynasty, and this was too much for the Protestant elite in London to tolerate. When James saw that his position was untenable, he simply left, petulantly flinging the Great Seal into the Thames. Parliament invited James's daughter Mary and her very Protestant husband William III of the Netherlands, who was a staunch Calvinist, to assume the throne, becoming the only joint monarchs in British history. Purcell remained prominent, composing among other things a "Funeral March for Queen Mary" when she died rather prematurely in 1694. However, Purcell himself followed her to the grave the following year, and there really wasn't anyone of his calibre for quite awhile.

2Alan Mould, The English Chorister (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2007), 99.
3Robert Quinney, liner notes, Music from the reign of King James I (Hyperion, 2011), 4.
4Ibid., 2.
5Malcolm Bruno, liner notes, O Sing Unto the Lord: Sacred Music of Henry Purcell (Saint Thomas Recordings, 2010), 5.

Choirs and the Crown III: The Eighteenth Century

Choirs and the Crown