onsdag 15 maj 2013

What should church choirs be singing?

The purpose of a church choir is to sing the music of the church to which it is attached. When people join they expect to sing that music - not, for instance, Irish folk songs. The limitations are part of the deal. If they want to sing Irish folk songs as well then they can join, or set up, another choir that specialises in that.

If you join an Anglican church choir you can expect to spend most of your time singing the characteristic Anglican repertoire - Tallis, Byrd, Gibbons, Purcell, Blow, S S Wesley, Goss, Walmisley, Stainer, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Howells and probably something unpleasant and difficult to sing, by the current resident organist who fancies himself as another Bach. The main services being Matins and Evensong, an Anglican chorister will have to master the technique of Anglican chant. Put that all together in a large vaulted stone building with timber choir stalls and an organ with a solid diapason and you have the authentic Anglican sound which you can hear at a couple of dozen cathedrals from Truro in the south to Durham in the north.

Until the late 1970s in England at least, there was also a characteristic Roman Catholic sound consisting of Gregorian chant with background organ harmonisation, from, eg the Solemnes accompaniments, some polyphony eg Victoria, Palestrina, etc, and the odd more recent piece by, eg Bruckner, Elgar or Duruffle. From a reading of Sacrocanctum Conciilium it is clear that there was never any intention of obliterating this tradition but that is what happened, so that it is only preserved at establishments such as the London Oratory and, more recently, those few parishes where the "Extraordinary Form" has become the main Sunday celebration.

An independent choir can of course sing whatever it likes, though people would naturally want to have a fair idea of the scope of its repertoire before they thought about joining. A choir set up to concentrate on English Tudor church music would be unhappy if it suddenly found itself having to cope with new pieces with continual key changes, accidentals and sour discords.

The BBC Radio 3 programme "Choral Evensong", available on BBC iPlayer, is an excellent coverage of the range of contemporary church music. It is broadcast every Wednesday at around 15.30 and repeated on Sunday afternoons.

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