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This is a massive and largely successful undertaking. I’ve already used the book several times as a refer- ence work, and have also enjoyed letting it take me on an enlightened, erudite, and enthusiastic journey through the history of choral music. The project’s scope is from Gregorian Chant to the choral music of the present day. Volume 1 finishes at Stainer’s 1887 oratorio Crucifixion; vol.2 will be published in the autumn. The canon is the western European one. In the first volume there is no discussion of eastern European music, for instance, and none of American music either – the latter is particularly surprising from an American author. By page 25 we are comfortably in the 15th century. This is a good thing, because Alwes is at his best when dealing with specific pieces and genres rather than offering an all- encompassing holistic survey.

Inevitably with such a broad span, there are oddities, which are more often than not associated with early polyphony. Why, for instance, is a 15th-century manuscript used to demonstrate choir-book format in a discussion of 13th-century music? The quoted ‘Gloria tibi Trinitas’ chant doesn’t quite match the one used by John Taverner in his Mass of that name. William Byrd’s given birthdate does not accord with modern scholarship. Gibbons’s O clap your hands is not deemed to be one of his most often performed full anthems. And on one half-page Thomas Tomkins is spelt that way three times and Tompkins another three. I was also unconvinced by the analysis of Handel’s use of plainchant in Dixit Dominus, of the explanation of Brahms’s homage to Palestrina’s style, and of Bruckner’s ‘fixation’ with certain texts.

But it is easy to pick holes in a project of this size. And while I don’t think Alwes quite stands comparison to the greats of tertiary literature (Grout, Seaton, Taruskin et al.), A History of Western Choral Music is nevertheless a text that will be useful to music students and choral enthusiasts alike. Crucially, it is extremely easy to read. The writing style is direct and unfussy, and the author’s adoration of the choral medium shines through on every page. It is, above all, a humble work that gives the impression of a musician who wants to share his love of choral music with a large audience, rather than pontificating about it from a height.

JEREMY SUMMERLY Read the full review on Agora Classica

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