Lest Music Perish Utterly: Church Music and the Pandemic

Margaret Attwood invited Richard Holloway to present ‘Thought for the Day’ on Radio 4 this morning. Starting with the image of children dancing to school in Morningside, he presented a powerful plea for the arts in this current crisis: ‘this horrid year which is grinding to a close has put our creativity, our art and those who make it our under threat – it should be the first, not the last thing to be restored’. The pandemic attacks the soul and the mind as well as the body.

Richard Holloway

This struck a chord with me. One of the things most missed by my congregation has been church music and so this Advent, instead of carol services, I organised a couple of ‘Meditations’ with poetry, readings and music by professional singers and accompanists. This was done within the rigour of our church coronavirus plan. One service was for Advent, with Advent hymns and arias sung by a young opera singer, and the other for Christmas, with carols and folk songs sung by the BBC Radio Scotland young traditional musician of the year. Barbara Cole Walton and Hannah Rarity sung to rapt and full, albeit socially distanced, congregations. These services went down very well and raised good sums for Scottish charities helping people at home and abroad, the Pilton Youth and Children’s Project and Mary’s Meals. The singers had been arranged through the excellent organisation Live Music Now Scotland which supports young professional musicians to work with a very diverse range of people that rarely, if ever, have the opportunity to experience live music.

Advent Meditation at Holy Cross, Edinburgh, 2020

These two services were emotional occasions. Both performers had not sung before a live audience since March – nine months unable to do that to which they have dedicated their lives. Hannah had been in the middle of a tour in Germany when the restrictions came in and she had to come home. It is only because Church and State in Scotland have allowed a single singer at religious services that they were able to sing this time. We have had a few other single singers from church choirs helping us worship at Holy Cross and the general impression is that, like professional musicians, church choirs are feeling the pain of the restrictions on music.

In happier times : the choir of Old St Paul’s, Edinburgh

This got me thinking of the last time the government silenced the choirs of Scotland. It is a partisan myth that the Protestant Reformation brought popular education to Scotland. The researches of John Durkan and others have shown that there was a highly developed network of elementary and grammar schools before 1559. There were also many song schools attached to the larger churches which taught a developed musical curriculum and whose boys sung at the liturgy. The compositions of Robert Carver show that the quality of church music in Scotland was as high as anywhere else in Europe. These choirs and this music were silenced with the abolition of Catholic worship. The Earl of Moray wished to retain part-singing in the Reformed Church and commissioned Thomas Wode, a former monk of Lindores, to put together settings for the vernacular psalter used in Church. He did this and a few of the manuscript part books survive. In one of them, Wode wrote in the margin, ‘notwithstanding all this work I have undertaken, I fear that music shall perish in this land utterly’ (‘Notwithstanding of this travel I have taken, I can understand not but Musike sall pereishe in this land alutterlye’). Richard Holloway’s words reminded me of this sad note by Thomas Wode.

From the Wode Part Books

Simple metrical psalms did become popular, so music did not utterly depart the Kingdom, but attempts to restore the song schools such as that by James VI in 1579 and those by the Crown and Bishops in the early seventeenth century ultimately failed. It was not until the late nineteenth century that Scotland began to develop a rich culture of Church music like that fostered by the cathedrals and colleges of the Church of England. This has remained fragile.

Not Friends : John Knox and Choristers from a Song School

This is not to say that the Scottish Government and the leaders of the Scottish Churches have inherited the dark fanaticism of John Knox or the Covenanters. We are in a pandemic which the news today shows is getting worse. Like most clergy I am happy to follow laws and guidance designed to keep us safe. I do, however, wonder whether the absolute ban on more than one voice in Church is more scientifically based than the situation in England where some limited choral singing has been allowed – does the shadow of past religious conflict subconsciously inform policy here?  

In happier times : the choir of St John’s, Edinburgh singing at the Cathedral of The Isles, Cumbrae

What I am really concerned about is the pain and lasting damage caused by this necessary restriction of singing. Musicians and choirs need our support now and, when things improve, there needs to be concerted effort by Church leaders to help musicians restore song to our worship. The greatest act of worship on earth is the Eucharist where we stand in the Spirit before God, offering the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and join ‘with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven singing the hymn of your unending glory’. Echoing Richard Holloway I would argue that choirs and church music, together with the livelihood of all professional musicians, ‘should be the first, not the last thing to be restored’.

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