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To write comprehensively on the subject of English church music from the ninth century to 2015 within a single book is an impossible task. There are simply too many topics to address and too long a time span. Andrew Gant has made a brave attempt by focusing primarily on the political, religious, social and educational, through the people who prescribed, directed, composed, sang, listened and published. What emerges is a historical context in which the musical repertoire from plainsong, renaissance polyphony, Restoration, Victorian, Edwardian and 20th-century anthems, hymns, psalmody and contemporary worship songs, has evolved against a background of turbulent political and religious changes, fashions and attitudes.

Obviously the further back in history, the more sparse is the solid information, but Gant’s research into both primary and secondary sources is impressive, allowing his (subjective) imagination to take flight in the earlier chapters. Political and religious turmoil, and its consequences for music, is well presented in chapters devoted to the Reformation, with relevant compositions cited. There could have been more emphasis on Italian and French influences on Restoration church music, but the centrality of psalm-singing and the changing methods of singing psalms are very well explored and explained.

To my mind, the best writing is contained in the three chapters dealing with the period 1760 to 1934: ‘West Galleries and Wesleys, Methodists and Mendelssohn’, ‘Renewal’, and ‘Composers from S.S. Wesley to Elgar’. In this period, many more available sources enable the author to paint a vivid picture of musical life in parish churches, nonconformist chapels, hospitals and cathedrals. The development of hymnody is well explored, as is the current method of chanting psalms. The final chapter (‘The Splintering of the Tradition, 1914-2015’) captures the wide range of musical styles as well as the differing practices of religious observance. This chapter also serves as a dictionary of relevant composers and well-chosen pieces.

The only caveats I have concern the author’s habit of telling us what to think about certain composers (e.g. ‘Gibbons wrote some heart-stoppingly beautiful music’). He also cannot resist the temptation to sum up his arguments in colloquial terms, as if the message needed dumbing down with sound bites and witty asides. (Also, the word ‘stuff’ is overused). This threatens to undermine the noble ambition, scholarship and sound thinking that is evident from this book. Every church musician and clergyman would benefit from reading it.

DAVID PONSFORD Read the full review on Agora Classica

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