Build Bach Better

Opportunity from crisis in COVID-era Parish music-making

Jonathan Pease examines recent trends and developments in the Church of England’s choral tradition. Although COVID has produced many problems for church choirs in the immediate term, might it be that the pandemic prompts a renaissance in traditional church music and the life of parochial choirs in the long term?

The last traces of stained-glass moonlight vanish from the choir stalls. Sturdily designed for one row of trebles and two rows of adults on each side, they bear but eight piles of music, dutifully laid out for Thursday choir practice. With bitter nostalgia, the choirmaster examines a picture of himself in the vestry, proud behind thick, black glasses: The Choir of St Balthasar, 1976. It was Darke in F back then, you see, followed by Sumsion for Evensong; and Choral Mattins on the Queen’s Official Birthday.

But that was before the Beasants moved away, and Rosemary’s piles made the top C in Allegri’s Miserere too risky. And that trendy new vicar they sent in ’94 wasn’t much good, either. “Times are changing,” he said. “How can we make church music more… democratic?”

In scenes redolent of The Dream of Gerontius, the choirmaster drifts away and glimpses the afterlife: his hell of jangling guitars; his purgatory of the New People’s Mass and gender-neutral hymn lyrics; culminating in a glorious vision of his own personal heaven: a church where Government and Episcopy conspire to ban congregational singing and return musical duties solely to the choir.

Choral singing in church has, alas, just been outlawed again. But for a few months, our friend enjoyed an earthly foretaste of paradise. In fact, as COVID-19 conspiracy theories go, the involvement of a disgruntled choirmaster is scarcely the least plausible. Many feel that restrictions have hit the High Church hardest, compromising tangible, sacramental ministry, while the sermons of her Evangelical cousins transfer online in a flash: and with a pause button into the bargain. But aesthetically, should the reserve and introversion of the High Church – the tacit envelopment in scripture, ceremony, music – really fear a state-sanctioned still, small voice of calm? After a flash of monopoly status for our church choirs, I wonder: could the Coronavirus lead to a renewed interest in choral liturgy?

Our protagonist oversees what I’ll unkindly call a zombie choir. Once offering a 30-strong weekly Evensong, it is now painfully diminished, numerically and musically. Membership is, commendably, drawn mostly from the congregation, but recruitment is a desperate struggle. They don red outfits, bear tattered folders and process with varying degrees of precision, but are essentially prefects, leading congregational hymns and mass settings: perhaps stretching to a motet, if numbers allow. Such situations are common, and of noble provenance. Removing long-held status from devoted volunteers ain’t a good look for a Vicar. Besides, it’s helpful to have somebody leading the singing, and people like to know the choir is there. “Nice to see a robed choir on Christmas Morning!” somebody once exclaimed to me, with zero reference to any aural experience.

Through the most unforeseen of circumstances, such groups have just enjoyed a few months of genuine leadership. They remain permitted to record in church, and my money says that they’ll be back long before congregational singing. Maybe it’s time we took them for a test drive.

As a none-too-observant newcomer to a Chapel Choir, I pondered that the Magnificat settings we sang all had very similar words. Barely more informed, I took up my first Anglican organ post and noted, bemused, that everybody was saying the same words every week. Of course, the former is a counterpoint to the latter: the beauty of liturgy lies in repetition and rhythm, the kaleidoscope year bringing change only in appointed places. With choirs in the limelight, is now our chance to rediscover their potential to recolour and refresh the unchanging language of the liturgy? Is it any less mad to repeat the same mass setting every week than the same readings or prayers? As seasonal hymns elucidate and poeticise our scriptural diet, might we rediscover the choral repertoire written expressly for this purpose?

The Parish Choir was historically a source of free education, with particular significance to poorer areas. On my travels, I’ve encountered a man whose 1950s choristership at St Peter’s Bethnal Green equipped him to become choirmaster at a ‘big show’ in leafier Woodford. Free music lessons at St John the Baptist Hoxton changed the poverty-stricken childhood of a bass of mine. It’s considered good sport to decry the choral world as elitist. Maybe it is: but rather than moaning, couldn’t we replenish our churches’ now-barren musical landscapes by restoring these opportunities, and leaving aside snobbish assumptions (surely disproven, anyway, by the glorious work of St John the Divine Kennington) that poorer, more diverse parishes have nothing to gain?

Many churches bemoan the depletion of their choir, but struggle to scrutinise their offer to prospective singers. A weekly evening practice and five hymns on a Sunday may not attract the ex-choral scholar who rents in your parish for a few years; but a monthly ‘come-and-sing’ Evensong might. Can we reverse a vicious cycle of diminished responsibility, diminished satisfaction, diminished recruitment and diminished capability? Might we stop blaming others – “he moved away”, “there’s not the commitment there was” – and reach out again to newcomers, particularly at a time when church music-making is generally less restricted than secular activity?

It’s interesting to consider that much Anglican liturgy doesn’t specifically call for hymnody. John Betjeman’s Undenominational gleefully earmarks hymns as the definition of the non-conformist church. In contrast, many Victorian Eucharistic choral settings provide the Creed, Lord’s Prayer, Gospel responses and more, implying an absolute minimum of congregational singing – or even speaking. The assumption that engagement with a service comes down to ‘joining in’ rather than quiet appreciation has the paw-prints of an arch-extrovert all over it. Some consider choir-led services cliquey; but finding that nobody expects you to know anything or join in is, to some, a dream welcome. Might this time attract those whose preference is to imbibe rather than to star?

By now, I may have elicited protest. There is more to a successful choir than thinking it would be nice! Isn’t it sensible to cut your coat to fit your cloth? Don’t you know that our only tenor can’t come every week? Where do we find the money to spend on music? We’re not St Martin-in-the-Fields, you know!

Pragmatic is good. Pigeon steps can lead to organic growth. What if, during the new lockdown, an unloved choir somewhere recorded a simple online Evensong? What if it recorded some favourite hymns with clear harmony and renewed attention to phrasing and meaning? When it returns to services – doubtless before congregational singing – what if it sang a choral Agnus Dei once per month? What if it sang a motet at the Gradual, illustrating the day’s Gospel? What if starved singers from the local area could be enticed to join once a month? A church near mine now live-streams Compline, chanted by only the Priest and a Minister. I doubt they even know who’s watching.‘Slow’ doesn’t freak out congregations or volunteers, but introduces new rhythms and responsibilities gently. More rehearsal can be devoted to doing fewer things better: “more of less”, to quote W1A.

There is no worthier target of suspicion in church life than somebody with shiny, easy answers. I don’t presume to herald musical revolution in five easy steps. But as larger foundations face financial hardship and bog-standard parish choirs find themselves newly emboldened, a half-remembered phrase springs to mind about exalting the humble and meek. I merely ask whether, through the gloom and misery, a renaissance for the Parish Choir could just lie ahead.

Jonathan Pease is Director of Music at St Peter’s London Docks and founder of the East London Evensong Choir.

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