O sing unto the Lord with thanksgiving: Sing praises upon the harp unto our God.

Young men and maidens, old men and children: Praise the name of the Lord.

Let them praise His name in the dance: 

Let them sing praises unto Him with tabret and harp.

Praise Him upon the well-tuned cymbals: Praise Him upon the loud cymbals.

Let everything that hath breath: Praise the Lord.

Verses from Psalms 147, 148, 149, 150

Christian Choral Music

The composition of sacred Christian music, mostly for the purpose of worship, is an exercise which has been undertaken by almost every composer of any significance from the western world since the emergence in Paris of the Ars Antiqua style during the twelfth century. Even composers such as Vaughan Williams, a self-professed atheist, made significant contributions to the genre. A great deal of this music has been written with a specific purpose and function in mind, and is therefore linked, by its text, to a particular time of year, when the Christian church is remembering, or celebrating, in an annual cyclical pattern, a particular event or a specific feature of its beliefs and traditions. 

The texts for much of this music are drawn directly from biblical scripture, in one or other of its many translations. However, composers have also been inspired by texts from other sources, such as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (the main devotional tool of the English Protestant Reformation and first written by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in 1549), by sacred and devotional poetry and hymnody, and by the more general writings of other spiritual men and women. In addition to the main Christian seasons there are many particular annually recurring events and rituals within the Christian year. These include specific Saints’ Days or times of remembrance, as well as the recurring routine services, which constitute the daily and weekly structure of regular Christian worship, such as the Eucharist, Matins, Vespers, Evensong and Compline, at which familiar canticles and texts are routinely set to music and used. 


The Anglican Musical Tradition

With the death of Purcell in 1695, there concluded a golden age in British music, an era which had witnessed some of the finest sacred, secular and instrumental music of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, composed by master-musicians such as Byrd, Tallis, Tomkins, Weelkes, Gibbons, Tye and Morley. These composers had wrestled against the English Reformation and the parting from Roman Catholicism in their writing, and yet had still been able to find favour with monarchs, patrons and the public, producing excellent and enduring music.   

Following Purcell’s death (notwithstanding the work of the German-born George Frideric Handel, who continued living and working in London until 1759, and a handful of minor works by eighteenth-century English cathedral organists such as William Boyce, John Stanley, Thomas Attwood, and Maurice Greene), British music was to enter a period of relative hibernation lasting for almost two centuries. 

The creative musical focus throughout the eighteenth and the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century settled firmly in continental Europe, firstly (after the death of Bach in 1750) in Vienna, and then spreading outwards through France, Germany, Italy and Russia. Whilst Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Tchaikovsky were all prolifically establishing themselves, developing new forms and structures, and forging ahead with an ever-evolving musical language throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the British were largely silent. In mid-nineteenth-century France, Berlioz, Chopin and Bizet were at work. In Scandinavia, Greig was paving the way for Sibelius, whilst in Eastern Europe and Russia, Dvorak, Smetana, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov were preparing to lead a new romantic revolution, and still the British slept on. Simultaneously, in Italy, the great, through-composed, operatic style of Verdi was being perfected – a legacy from Pergolesi and Donizetti – before being handed down to Puccini, a chronological contemporary of the English-born Frederick Delius, but with the advantage of a recent, national musical language on which to draw. Back in Germany, Liszt (b1811), Wagner (b1813) and Bruckner (b1824) had taken the mature romantic musical language to its furthest harmonic and melodic frontiers to date, a language which was to be inherited, enhanced and stretched yet further by Mahler and Richard Strauss. From Britain scarcely a note was heard.