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Change AND decay?

An Address to Leeds Organists' Association at Leeds Town Hall

Saturday 23rd November, 2002

To follow in the footsteps of my great friend and long-time colleague, Donald Webster, is a formidable experience. The title Change and decay had been chosen by Donald himself as the theme for an address to Leeds Organists' Association – an address from which we have been deprived by his death, and it is this emotive subject on which the Association has requested that I write and speak.

An emphasis on the word "AND" between the two commodities of change and decay is, perhaps, not misplaced – nor, possibly, is the rhetorical question mark following a phrase which trips so easily off the tongue.

For the organist of today and tomorrow, there exists a whole tranche of challenges as well as chances. However, a number of high-profile disruptions within the profession have done nothing to relieve a general feeling of unease, even disquiet, sadly now strongly prevalent in English speaking communities.

Notwithstanding the installations of some magnificent new instruments in British public venues sacred and secular (most of them imported from the continent rather than the work of UK based craftsmen), the sad state of much of the country's instrumental infrastructure in terms of organs is widely discernible.

Far more disturbing is the great dearth of individuals capable or willing to play them. Though the profession and duties of an organist demand a thoroughly unfashionable degree of commitment, there are, thankfully, still substantive examples – and often shining examples – of those whose devotion to duty remains an inspiration to others. For most of us, such paragons of virtue, such inspirational figures, form a model to which we can only strive to attain to a very modest degree.

The fact that most organs are situated in ecclesiastical surroundings makes the position of the churches towards music in general and organists in particular of special significance. The replacement of many smaller instruments by electronic or other substitutes is as alarming as it is, perhaps, economically inevitable. In general,  no instrument gives better value than a well-built pipe organ deploying mechanical action. To be sure, the instrument doesn't increase in value to the prodigious and sometimes remarkable extent that a violin or cello of good pedigree does, but one only has to visit the older London churches, especially those in the City, and a number of the Collegiate chapels of Oxbridge type to see, hear and play numerous historic instruments continuing in full use today. Significantly, visits to rural locations unsullied by central heating of a building to the exotic heights of the sub-tropical often yield to the questing visitor an organ of historic importance in excellent working order.

To be honest, most organists are by nature traditional animals. Just as Henry Lyte in his wonderful evening hymn saw change as the bedfellow of decay, so often organists seem to equate alteration with agitation, to assess adjustment to be synonymous with anxiety.

In terms of music as well as verbiage, the Church never stands still. Musically, the Catholic Church witnessed in the 50s an emergence towards what might be described as a period of liturgical flux, while for the Church of England and for Nonconformity it can be traced back perhaps to the mid 1960s.

Despite what numerous authorities have perceived as a universal "downsizing" in terms of choral music, there remains for many a hunger for high quality music. Today, the best cathedral and collegiate choirs sustain standards of excellence now sadly beyond the reach of most within a parochial or educational context.

There can be no doubt that directness of approach in verbal and musical utterance has done much to remove a sense of the numinous from our weekly and daily experience. The gradual relaxation of the legal requirement for a daily act of worship in an educational environment - especially within the state sector - has combined with the development of musical pedagogy in terms of individual instrumental attainment to produce at least two generations almost entirely lacking any real experience of hymn-singing.  And yet, despite the deprivation of regular corporate singing, the non-churchgoing public shows itself still significantly moved by the magical fusion of words and music rendered daily in quires and places where they sing.

Notwithstanding the fact that singing among junior members of the community flourishes exceedingly in urban centres such as Halifax, Huddersfield, Oldham and Sheffield, even these glorious regional and local exceptions to the rule are in the main secular in management and ambience. Each of the authorities just named makes provision within schools for specialist singing teaching and coaching in the same way that other boroughs and cities do with regard to tutoring in the playing of orchestral instruments. The comparative rarity of a specialist music teacher in inner city primary schools presents many challenges. Experience proves for us beyond doubt that it is, of course, precisely in such areas where corporate activities such as music and drama are so integrally capable of enhancing the quality of life for hundreds of youngsters.

The musical arguments pro and con girls singing in ecclesiastical choirs occupy many in the expense of much energy. There is a campaign for the preservation of the traditional Cathedral Choir –indeed, it is a ghastly indictment on the cultural and spiritual well-being of Britain that there should be a need for such an organisation.

Sadly for those who value the traditional status quo, and one suspects for many another musician, some elements of the argument simply do not stand up to scrutiny. It is, of course, abundantly possible to make boys sound like girls (or even mature women) and the same applies to a considerable extent vice versa.

What the girl does not, and perhaps cannot, have to the same extent between the ages of, say, eleven and thirteen years is the ability often to focus in their singing on that indefinable sense of imminent loss brought by the substantive process of adolescence and the inevitable voice-change normally consequent upon it. Pathos is often powerfully presented under these circumstances. It is increasingly the case that equality of opportunity now provided by many cathedrals for girls as well as boys has been found to stretch to the full resources of finance and personnel - sometimes to an unacceptable level.

Educationalists are themselves only now coming to grips with many of the social aspects of co-education - especially during the early teenage years. A high-octane choir capable of real gender collaboration day in day out is, still, a comparative rarity. By far the greatest of the challenges in such operations are those associated with the social aspects of coexistence rather than as a consequence of any serious artistic or aesthetic misgiving. Not for nothing do many in the profession studiously keep to a minimum the amount of time allotted to combined rehearsal between girls and boys, preferring to prepare the units separately and then combining only for full rehearsals with altos, tenors and basses.

It is strange that folk have got so exercised over the issue of gender in music-making within the Anglican choral tradition. The unique sonority, of course, is not a matter for the top line. It is the male alto, falsettist or counter-tenor, without which at least the English repertoire cannot satisfactorily be achieved in terms of internal balance within the choir. There are, needless to say, immensely superior female mezzo sopranos and contraltos (especially those skilled within the field of so-called "early" music) who are capable of the degree of nuance required to avoid overbalancing a junior treble line of whatever gender but, despite the difficulties of recruitment, the balance of probability for full success has got to be found in favour of the male alto.

The problem with a substantive emphasis on congregational participation is the "know what we like" and "like what we know" factor, together with the tendency for popular taste to involve music almost entirely centred upon what the psychologist might refer to as a feel-good factor. Repetitious texts and frankly weak harmonies combine to yield a law of diminishing returns. This, coupled with a sadly applied and almost universal assumption (at best misplaced and occasionally bordering on the pernicious) that music sung by a choir or choral group is somehow less worthy than that offered by everyone together is as dangerous a falsehood as that which sustains the argument that "traditional" church music is a "turn-off" for the young and, as such, an impediment to mission.

Though a serious study of the power of music is long overdue, any self-respecting recording company executive could tell you exactly what appeals to the young, and the dance-band like techniques of the 30s and 40s so beloved of the trendy parish of yesteryear would be a long way down the list. Chant, folksong, folk dance, unaccompanied polyphony, the infectious rhythm of the baroque - all these claim a special priority, a priority to which many choral foundations and musical ensembles are all too pleased to ally themselves. It was on such firm groundings that Vaughan Williams, Martin Shaw and their fellow pioneers re-wrote the congregational game-plan in church music almost exactly a century ago. In general terms, the emphasis on simplicity has never done anyone any harm and it is precisely the sincere rendering of simple concepts musically which is capable of moving the hardest of hearts.

Like the Book of Common Prayer, traditional hymnody provides some of life's most memorable verbal snippets - and provides them to such an extent that one is left to wonder quite where the average dictionary of quotations would be without both these veritable treasure troves of the English language.

For the writer, the joys of existence are enhanced by a practised attuning of eye and ear towards an abiding fascination for the riches of philology  - an interest actually kindled in early youth by a remarkably charismatic English master and one sustained by the need to provide background and source material for young choristers in moments of respite as well as application.

Popular music within the Church of today is, of course, very big business and in some traditions the choral and organ provision or ambience has been entirely supplanted. In terms of cost effectiveness alone (to say nothing of the educational bonuses) a choir produces a very favourable assessment on a "pound for pound" basis as opposed to a music group. Happy indeed is the flourishing parish that sustains a commitment to both traditional and contemporary musical provision.

Use and positioning of repertoire at the service of the liturgy in this kind of situation is, of course, especially valuable. And yet this thesaurus approach week by week within a worshipping community can be a wearisome thing. The use of sung material, especially of congregational song, willy-nilly in this way can produce what a colleague was once wont to refer to as "musical overload". In general terms, we sing far too many hymns within the Anglican tradition and attach to them at times sadly insufficient prominence. No self-respecting nonconformist would countenance the taking of a collection during a hymn - regarded rightly, as an act of intensely personal devotion as well as a wholesome corporate activity. Sadly, too, the evident lack of priority afforded to hymn-singing by the best choirs is sometimes all too obvious. The Royal School of Church Music has for decades held out - with only partial success North of the Trent it seems - against the use of hymns sung in procession at the start of a non-festal service and only in recent years has the Office Hymn at Evensong begun to be found atop the psalmody rather than preceding Magnificat.

The weeks prior to the feast of Christmas are often crowded with so much singing that even the greatest advocate of traditional music can begin to weary of it. But it is precisely at this season of the year that those of us charged with the making of music enjoy our most significant interaction with folk who might never interact with liturgical or sacred music at any other time: such music even manages to survive, and survive triumphantly, its transplantation from sanctuary to concert hall. The opportunities for ministry and mission through music can prove to be greater during the course of November (with its emphasis on remembrance and commemoration as well as thanksgiving) and , of course, in December than at any other time of the year.

The congruence of contact with liturgical music experienced in recent broadcast services of  national importance has produced major flurries of public interest in a diversity of utterance from a great variety of traditions. The electrifying singing in Westminster Abbey of William Croft's Burial Sentences at the obsequies for Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother proved a notable example. Another instance occurred with regard to the magical inflexions of Father Gélineau's chant for that most personal of psalms, the 23rd, at the service of thanksgiving for her life at St Paul's Cathedral.

Many of the splendours of another St Paul's occasion - the Thanksgiving Service for the Golden Jubilee in June - were musical, from the infectious joy of John Rutter's evocative setting of Psalm 150 to the intense yet restrained fervour of John Scott's deeply felt motet, Behold, O God our defender. Yet amid all this, with musical textures from organ and brass as well as superbly uplifting hymns, the breathtaking beginning Bishop Cosin's versification of Veni, Creator produced from the capacity congregation absolute, complete and utter stillness. It was a familiarity of recognition for many, certainly - but, one suspects for a good number it was the glorious novelty of discovering something timeless and experiencing its visionary placement (without harmonised accompaniment) as part of an act of prayer.

Shakespeare seemed fairly certain about the fate of one without music:

    The man that hath no music in himself,
    Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
    Is fit for treason, stratagems, and spoils.

Similarly, the dire penalties promised to those who failed to be moved to worship by the rich variety of instrumentation depicted in the third chapter of the Book of Daniel need not be rehearsed here. Worse, perhaps, than the burning fiery furnace of olden time is the possibility that we in our day may find ourselves weighed in the balance by later generations. Failure to have provided for our young people at the start of the twenty first century the experience of the transforming power of music as a right rather than as the result of commercial interplay between consumer and recording company may be far more serious in the end than any short-term challenges of financial provision or political correctness associated with issues of gender balance.

Those who sing were reputed by St Augustine to pray twice over. Far too many of the young people of today do not seem to be given the chance. It is our duty to stem this tide of inactivity, and to do so now.

We need, each of us, to sustain that striving of which Lyte spoke with such emotive power – the shining through the gloom and the pointing to the skies...….

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