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O Sing Unto the Lord: A History of English Church Music: A History of English Church Music

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Andrew Gant's compelling account traces English church music from Anglo-Saxon origins to the present. It is a history of the music and of the people who made, sang and listened to it. It shows the role church music has played in ordinary lives and how it reflects those lives back to us. The author considers why church music remains so popular and frequently tops the classi Andrew Gant's compelling account traces English church music from Anglo-Saxon origins to the present. It is a history of the music and of the people who made, sang and listened to it. It shows the role church music has played in ordinary lives and how it reflects those lives back to us. The author considers why church music remains so popular and frequently tops the classical charts and why the BBC's Choral Evensong remains the longest-running radio series ever. He shows how England's church music follows the contours of its history and is the soundtrack of its changing politics and culture, from the mysteries of the Mass to the elegant decorum of the Restoration anthem, from stern Puritanism to Victorian bombast, and thence to the fractured worlds of the twentieth century as heard in the music of Vaughan Williams and Britten. This is a book for everyone interested in the history of English music, culture and society.


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Andrew Gant's compelling account traces English church music from Anglo-Saxon origins to the present. It is a history of the music and of the people who made, sang and listened to it. It shows the role church music has played in ordinary lives and how it reflects those lives back to us. The author considers why church music remains so popular and frequently tops the classi Andrew Gant's compelling account traces English church music from Anglo-Saxon origins to the present. It is a history of the music and of the people who made, sang and listened to it. It shows the role church music has played in ordinary lives and how it reflects those lives back to us. The author considers why church music remains so popular and frequently tops the classical charts and why the BBC's Choral Evensong remains the longest-running radio series ever. He shows how England's church music follows the contours of its history and is the soundtrack of its changing politics and culture, from the mysteries of the Mass to the elegant decorum of the Restoration anthem, from stern Puritanism to Victorian bombast, and thence to the fractured worlds of the twentieth century as heard in the music of Vaughan Williams and Britten. This is a book for everyone interested in the history of English music, culture and society.

30 review for O Sing Unto the Lord: A History of English Church Music: A History of English Church Music

  1. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Marr

    This book is an elegantly written history of English religious music from the early Middle Ages up to the present day. The pace is just slow enough to give the reader a flavor of the music of each period along with its historical context without ever getting bogged down in the least. Major composers are given enough emphasis to give the reader insight into what the composer was like as a person and about the composer's music itself. There is a wealth of information in the ca. 370 pages of text p This book is an elegantly written history of English religious music from the early Middle Ages up to the present day. The pace is just slow enough to give the reader a flavor of the music of each period along with its historical context without ever getting bogged down in the least. Major composers are given enough emphasis to give the reader insight into what the composer was like as a person and about the composer's music itself. There is a wealth of information in the ca. 370 pages of text plus a discography to lead one to recordings of the music discussed. Highly recommended for anyone interested in English music in its historical development.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Tim Atkinson

    If you’re a fan of English church music, if you know the pieces and the people discussed then this book will be a joy. But it will take a long time to read. James Booth’s biography of Larkin had me constantly scurrying back to the collected poems. And it’s almost impossible to read ‘O Sing unto the Lord’ without stopping on almost every page to trawl your CD shelves or do a quick YouTube search. If Gant says (of the music of William Lloyd Webber among others) that it ‘compressed the sound-world If you’re a fan of English church music, if you know the pieces and the people discussed then this book will be a joy. But it will take a long time to read. James Booth’s biography of Larkin had me constantly scurrying back to the collected poems. And it’s almost impossible to read ‘O Sing unto the Lord’ without stopping on almost every page to trawl your CD shelves or do a quick YouTube search. If Gant says (of the music of William Lloyd Webber among others) that it ‘compressed the sound-world of the Palm Court orchestra and the romantic symphony into well-crafted music for choir and organ, like tinned Gounod’ you just have to hear it with your own ears! And If a survey of two thousand years of church music proves anything, it’s that there is nothing new under the sun. Certainly, disputes about music go back several centuries. The poor monks of Glastonbury found themselves quite literally on the sharp end of their Abbot’s sword, when they proved less than enthusiastic about Thurston’s new continental musical practices. And if you think discordant harmonies are modern, or practices like improvisation innovative, think again. Jamming (they may not have called it that) goes back almost a millennium. As Gant says, get someone to sing a song with another improvising a harmony line above and someone improvising a bass line below and ‘they will be doing something their medieval forebears did every day... your choir will be doing something if didn’t know it had forgotten how to do.’ (p42). The book is full of such rich details. Gant also has a vividly memorable and pithy way of summing up the broader historical picture. The English Reformation was ‘an insurrection by the government against its own people, a war… with the added complication that the government kept changing sides.’ Musically this was the time when ‘English church music hit puberty. Before this, you didn’t have to think about whether you accepted the Pope, or if the Virgin Mary answered your prayers: Mum and Dad were always right. Afterwards, there was a period of experimentation, and a series of associations with with partners of wildly varying character, none of which - perhaps fortunately - lasted very long.’ Sometimes you actually seem to get a better sense of history and a deeper understanding of an era from such small details, approached here from a very specific direction. Gant quotes the only eyewitness account of the dissolution written from the monastic side of the fence. A monk present when Henry's commissioners arrived a Evesham Abbey recalls that in the 'yere of our Lorde 1536 the monastery of Evesham was suppressed... At evesnonge tyme... at this verse 'Deposuet potentes' and would not suffer them to make an ende.' Deposuet potentes being the Latin phrase 'He hath put down the mighty from their seat' from the Magnificat. In other words the troops waited until the very moment in the service when the words being sung were most significant - and pounced! At other times Gant (a distinguished church musician himself) memorably sums up a situation that would in other hands require an entire dissertation. ‘Church music,’ he writes (p312) ‘has always had a place for those who are good at sucking up to the clergy and the pen-pusher, and has shown itself concomitantly intolerant of those who find such arts undignified.’ Enough said. That particular mot juste was inspired by Samuel Sebastian Wesley (grandson on the hymn-machine, Charles) - that slightly loveable but decidedly odd composer almost of the ‘he’s-so-bad-he’s-good’ variety. Explaining Wesley’s appeal to the English (while Europe was enjoying Wagner) ‘is like trying to explain cricket to the French,’ says Gant. ‘But it’s worth it... English church music needed Samuel Sebastian Wesley. Though, perhaps to our relief, we will not see his like again.’ (316). English church music is a rich and varied subject. Covering it comprehensively could have been a dull but worthy undertaking. In Gant’s hands it is anything but.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Nathan Albright

    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 An 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.

  4. 5 out of 5

    E.

    A delightfully witty and informative book on the history of English church music. Thanks to the book I've discovered some musical gems such as Wylkynson's 13 part harmony Jesus autem transiens https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2HyWo... And Tallis's Spem in alium, a 40 voice motet. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3FJx... I've been looking up the pieces he discusses on YouTube and creating a playlist, which I'm not finished with, but here's the link: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list... A delightfully witty and informative book on the history of English church music. Thanks to the book I've discovered some musical gems such as Wylkynson's 13 part harmony Jesus autem transiens https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2HyWo... And Tallis's Spem in alium, a 40 voice motet. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3FJx... I've been looking up the pieces he discusses on YouTube and creating a playlist, which I'm not finished with, but here's the link: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list...

  5. 4 out of 5

    Ginny

    Wow. I picked it up because of two very favorable NYT reviews. I grew up with this music on Sundays and never paid it much attention. This book brought me back. And it had great English history stories to boot. The writing was very fluid and engaging. Sometimes the author assumed i knew what the fifth movement of Handel's symphony in 5 blah blah blah actually sounded like. But, who cares. It was an enjoyable reading experience from beginning to end. I've now made choral music a background to muc Wow. I picked it up because of two very favorable NYT reviews. I grew up with this music on Sundays and never paid it much attention. This book brought me back. And it had great English history stories to boot. The writing was very fluid and engaging. Sometimes the author assumed i knew what the fifth movement of Handel's symphony in 5 blah blah blah actually sounded like. But, who cares. It was an enjoyable reading experience from beginning to end. I've now made choral music a background to much of my reading and love it. Thank you for writing this!

  6. 5 out of 5

    David Bisset

    Erudite and witty This is a magnificent survey of English choral music. It also provides a valuable insight into ecclesiastical history. But above all it deals with musicians and composers, with wit and authority. Choral music is one of the glories of Anglicanism. But under the influence of the Oxford Movement there has been the creation of a great harvest of hymns deriving from the early days of the Church, with superb music. Andrew Gangt's survey merits a wide readership. Erudite and witty This is a magnificent survey of English choral music. It also provides a valuable insight into ecclesiastical history. But above all it deals with musicians and composers, with wit and authority. Choral music is one of the glories of Anglicanism. But under the influence of the Oxford Movement there has been the creation of a great harvest of hymns deriving from the early days of the Church, with superb music. Andrew Gangt's survey merits a wide readership.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Richard Anderson

    Marvelous review of this subject with many musical illustrations.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Linda

    Extremely thorough, but unless you are an ancient music scholar...well, it did cure my Covid insomnia, let’s just say,

  9. 4 out of 5

    Liz Wager

    Fascinating and highly readable

  10. 5 out of 5

    Michael Cayley

    An enjoyable history of English church music, replete with anecdotes and pithy quotations from composers. The stand-out story is of the 17th century composer who is said to have urinated from the organ loft onto the Dean of his cathedral - alas, this incident is probably apocryphal. For me the most interesting chapters were on the 16th and 17th centuries, describing how composers negotiated the often deadly changing religious politics of the era. You don't need to have much musical knowledge to An enjoyable history of English church music, replete with anecdotes and pithy quotations from composers. The stand-out story is of the 17th century composer who is said to have urinated from the organ loft onto the Dean of his cathedral - alas, this incident is probably apocryphal. For me the most interesting chapters were on the 16th and 17th centuries, describing how composers negotiated the often deadly changing religious politics of the era. You don't need to have much musical knowledge to enjoy the book, though you will get added enjoyment if you do. There is a list of suggested recordings at the end. The occasional obvious slip - early on, the Vikings are presented as Welsh, and at one point Tennyson becomes a novelist - makes me wonder if other mistakes are lurking in the detail - hence 4 rather than 5 stars.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Thistledown

    No musical knowledge or experience of singing in a church choir renders this book to be largely a list of dead white men of whom the author approves or disapproves to varying degrees. (I'm possibly not the target audience.) Use of YouTube does help with bringing some of it to life, and Andrew Gant does have the occasional wonderfully pithy turn of phrase ("Even East Anglians deserve better than this" and "Ipswich, that hotbed of reactionary Puritanism" were two of my favourites). It was interest No musical knowledge or experience of singing in a church choir renders this book to be largely a list of dead white men of whom the author approves or disapproves to varying degrees. (I'm possibly not the target audience.) Use of YouTube does help with bringing some of it to life, and Andrew Gant does have the occasional wonderfully pithy turn of phrase ("Even East Anglians deserve better than this" and "Ipswich, that hotbed of reactionary Puritanism" were two of my favourites). It was interesting to note the consistency with which church leaders were/are suspicious of people enjoying themselves. And my own cultural forebears are here: Elizabeth I listens to a choirboy when visiting Norwich but "the rudeness of some ringers of bells did somewhat hinder the noise of the harmony".

  12. 5 out of 5

    Tony

    Such fun! Andrew Gant writes with knowledge and great love about his subject. And the writing is so entertaining too, with lots of sparkling asides about music, politics, history, as well as the state of the contemporary Church. Loved it.

  13. 5 out of 5

    David

  14. 5 out of 5

    Dave Taylor

  15. 4 out of 5

    Sandra

  16. 5 out of 5

    Thomas Ardrey

  17. 5 out of 5

    LW

  18. 4 out of 5

    Jenny Walker

  19. 5 out of 5

    Sam Anderson

  20. 5 out of 5

    John F. Bullough

  21. 4 out of 5

    Margaretprez

  22. 5 out of 5

    Josie

  23. 4 out of 5

    Simon

  24. 4 out of 5

    Dot

  25. 4 out of 5

    Cassie

  26. 5 out of 5

    Jerry C. Haggin

  27. 4 out of 5

    Emma

  28. 4 out of 5

    Nick

  29. 5 out of 5

    Rex

  30. 4 out of 5

    John Gillies

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