Monday 20 July 2015

Wesley on Cathedral Music

To most people who have heard of him, Samuel Sebastian Wesley is probably best know for his various anthems; however, in 1849, just before he moved to his new post as Organist of Winchester Cathedral, he wrote A Few Words on Cathedral Music and the Musical System of the Church, with a Plan of Reform which considers the state of music in English cathedrals at the time and offers suggestions for its improvement. All of his observations must be read within the context of the great reforms of the century being carried out by the Cathedral Commission, a part of which including the dissolution of cathedrals' choral foundations with their funds and lands being transferred to their cathedrals.

A scanned copy of the original document has been digitised as part of Google's book scanning programme and can be viewed at, but I have transcribed, corrected and added a couple of explanatory footnotes to the text and this edition can be freely downloaded.

However, for anyone who does not wish to wade through the whole document, I have extracted some comments which illustrate the state of cathedral music in the nineteenth century, and Wesley's take on the issues faced by those involved in all aspects of cathedral life that he considers:
  • before you can accomplish even any moderately correct and impressive performance of the Choral Service of the Church, it is absolutely necessary that there should be, first, competent performers, (or Ministers); secondly, the guidance of an able conductor, (or Precentor); and thirdly, that the musical compositions performed should be the emanations of genius, or of the highest order of talent.
  • The least number of men which can constitute a Cathedral Choir capable of performing the service is twelve.
  • What, for instance, can any one who has visited the Opera Houses, the Theatres, Exeter Hall, or any well conducted musical performances, think of a chorus of one to a part? Ask the men working the mills of Yorkshire and Lancashire what they would think of it? And yet, this amount of chorus would be a vast improvement on the present state of things at Cathedrals; for there may be sometimes seen one man singing chorus!
  • The Clergy are the irresponsible directors of Cathedral music. The views of the highest order of musical professors are never brought to bear on the subject.
  • The mixture of the Choral and Parochial modes, now so common, is inconsistent with a just appreciation of the Choral Service [...] It was a very early law in the Church, that none but those qualified by previous study and preparation should be allowed to sing in the service; confusion being the inevitable result of a different course.
  • The beautiful Choral Service of the Church, like other sublime things, would necessarily render the auditor speechless, and produce a tone of feeling far different from that which results in utterance. Paley, in his sermon on the text: “Lest that, by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a cast-away”, describes the danger even to the Clergy themselves which attends the frequent and formal “intermixture with religious offices”; and it is surely one of the most beautiful attributes of Choral Service that the worshipper is not compelled at any time to utter anything to interrupt the prostration of mind which would ever attend a perfect performance of that service in our beautiful Cathedrals.
  • Since the destruction of monasteries, the Cathedrals had been the only nurseries of musical talent, and boys could not now be obtained, so the treble parts were performed by men singing in falsetto, or by a musical instrument called Cornet.
  • The pious founders of Cathedrals never contemplated the ludicrous and profane state of things we now witness. Their music, like their architecture, was the best they could give. Modern Chapters cannot be wholly free from blame, for the superiority of the secular performances of music over those of Cathedrals, and the Church generally, must strike every one.
  • To suit the reduced Choirs of Cathedrals composers have departed from the true school of composition. Their recent Anthems have not been Choral: they have been devised simply to exhibit particular singers. Solos, Duets, &c.; and the Te Deum, Jubilates, Magnificats, &c, commonly sung in Cathedral service, are more like glees than Church music; and these seem, moreover, to have been written simply for the amusement of their authors, no official demand having proceeded from the Church.
  • The illusive and fascinating effect of musical sound in a Cathedral unfortunately serves to blunt criticism, and cast a veil over defects otherwise unbearable. No coat of varnish can do for a picture what the exquisitely reverberating qualities of a Cathedral do for music. And then, the Organ! what a multitude of sins does that cover!
  • Multiplication of small uninteresting Churches in the outskirts of large towns, however good in intention, is far from an universal success. Numerous instances occur, in which such Churches are almost invariably empty, or the very next thing to it. One magnificent Cathedral or Church in a large town, with its musical services properly performed, would more surely attract a congregation of ten thousand, than ten small Churches of the ordinary kind, with a preacher as the sole attraction.
  • As Cathedral Service existed at the Reformation, the sermon formed no part of Divine worship. The preacher delivered his discourse in the open air, (as in the Green Yard at St Paul’s) or in the antechoir, (as is still the practice in some cathedrals) and the attendance of those who had joined the worship in the church was by no means general. A reference to the Canons of the Church of England will shew that so far from the sermon being considered an essential part of the service, no minister was allowed to preach unless he had received a licence from the Bishop; and, till a very recent period, the parochial minister invariably divested himself of the surplice, and preached in his gown; by way of shewing that he had ceased to administer the Word of God, and that what he then promulgated was to be viewed simply as his own commentary on the sacred writings, and to be received or rejected as it was in conformity with sound principles.
  • But public opinion, unfortunately, is rarely brought to bear on Cathedral music.  Persons who but seldom attend Cathedral Service, are much impressed with the beauty of the architecture, the effect of the organ, and the sound of the human voice chanting the prayers, (all of which together furnish some idea of the exquisite nature of a service properly performed.
  • The prospect of bringing the Clergy to a just sense of the claims of music in the Cathedral Service of this country seems all but hopelessly remote. They still, in the main, view their own labours as all-important, and disparage the art in its most important bearings; as did the Puritans of Elizabeth’s reign.
  • Music, assuredly, will ever form a leading feature in our public worship. This or that form of worship may be varied or set aside, for none can ever be worthy of its object; and hence all forms must ever be open to discussion; but, assuredly, music will ever have a place in the ceremonies of religion. If asked what species of music it is that will ever thus be honoured, can we point to any but the “Church School?” — the purest, the most impressive of all — at once the most simple and the most sublime; demanding the highest order of merit in its composer, and producing, beyond all comparison, the most irresistible effect on the auditor. If asked how the Church came to possess this as its own, the answer is, By the means it attained its other numerous excellencies, by having the best intellects of many centuries shut up in the religious and peaceful seclusion of Monastic Houses and properly given to its development.
  • Josquin displays a largeness of conception and breadth of effect quite annihilative of the claims to peculiar merit ostentatiously put forth in behalf of our Tallis, — a portion of whose writings, when performed at the present day, tends to bring anything but good will to the musical offices; being destitute, it really should be said, of almost every kind of merit, and constituting one interminable monotony which no one can, or ought to, put up with.
  • Some would reject all Music but the unisonous Chants of a period of absolute barbarism,—which they term “Gregorian”. All is “Gregorian” that is in the black, diamond, note! These men would look a Michael Angelo in the face and tell him Stonehenge was the perfection of architecture!
  • Antiquarian and Motet Societies, and some newly-formed Choirs, have lately disturbed something they consider valuable, by raking amongst the long-discarded specimens of an early date and of good for nothing authors. Such bodies bring odium on Church music.
  • At Birmingham it was contemplated to perform Divine service in the Town Hall, in order to make use of its organ and highly effective Choral Society. Our Cathedrals are the places for a fine performance of the choral service of the Church. Let attention be kept steadily on them till all hope has departed. 
  • How different a picture is presented in the sister arts! The highest order of talent in them is appreciated, and a source of fortune and honour secured to its possessor. The work of a few days produces for the artist a sum of money greater than the work of a life (of the lives of many) would to the Church musician. Mr Landseer, it is said, has in eight days painted the picture of a horse for which he has received a thousand guineas. Turn we to Cathedrals. Were the musician who should produce a work of the highest merit in eight days, to ask, not a thousand guineas, but a thousand shillings, pence, farthings, the reply would be, invariably, “NO!” Let him study hard in his art, from the age of eight to thirty-five, sacrificing every interest to this one sole pursuit, let him offer his work as a present to some Cathedrals, and they would not go to the expense of copying out the parts for the Choir!
  • [Musical professionals] feel, also, that the Clergy either systematically disparage music, or at best view it with a cold side glance, and have ever done so since the reign of Elizabeth; and this for no better reason than that the interests of religion were far above those of music. 
  • Painful and dangerous is the position of a young musician who, after acquiring great knowledge of his art in the Metropolis, joins a country Cathedral. At first he can scarcely believe that the mass of error and inferiority in which he has to participate is habitual and irremediable. He thinks he will reform matters, gently, and without giving offence; but he soon discovers that it is his approbation and not his advice that is needed. The Choir is “the best in England”, (such being the belief at most Cathedrals), and, if he give trouble in his attempts at improvement, he would be, by some Chapters, at once voted a person with whom they “cannot go on smoothly”, and “a bore”. The old man knows how to tolerate error, and even profit by it; but in youth, the love of truth is innate and absorbing.
  • The painter and the sculptor can choose their tools and the material on which they work, and great is the care they devote to the selection: but the musician of the Church has no power of this kind; nay more, he is compelled to work with tools which he knows to be inefficient and unworthy — incompetent singers and a wretched organ! He must learn to tolerate error, to sacrifice principle, and yet to indicate, by his outward demeanour, the most perfect satisfaction in his office, in which, if he fail, he will assuredly be worried and made miserable.
  • Music, as it is now performed in our Cathedrals, when compared with well-regulated performances elsewhere, bears to them about the proportion of life and order which an expiring rush-light does to a summer’s sun. The higher order of musical composition belonging to the Church is now lost sight of. No new efforts by men of commanding talent are perceptible. Nor is this to be wondered at, seeing that the Choirs have long been reduced below a state in which such compositions could be sung with effect.
  • That the Church has been the originator of all improvement in the art of music, and has, from the earliest periods availed herself of every excellence which the advance of time supplied, is demonstrably a fact.
  • The first instance of a departure from the “monotony” [from chanting] is at that burst with which the Choir, as the representatives of the people, break forth at “And our mouth shall shew forth Thy praise.” To a person used to Choral service, the impression he receives at this passage, in parochial service, from the ordinary tone of voice being preserved, is, “Well, where is the praise? why don't you shew forth the praise?” The reply may be anticipated. “It is a spiritual shewing forth of praise that is meant, not an outward and visible demonstration.” But how, let it be added, how is that effect on the part of a congregation best attained? By a mispronouncing, provincial clerk, and shrill discordant school children, making the hurried, half intelligible response? or by the beautiful arrangements of the Church Choral Service? 
  • In discussing Edward VI's time: “The race of voiceless and incompetent priests was not then known; everywhere the Choirs were filled with singers. Deans had not tasted the sweets of Choir plunder, nor Chapters learned to disregard the obligation of an oath.” - History of Cathedral Music. Simpkin and MarshallLondon.
  • The abject position in which we see the lay-clerk at present, in many instances, would have excited the indignation of Christian people four centuries ago; and this maintenance, it is believed, would be ample for all present purposes, did it exist; but, unfortunately, the authorities at Cathedrals, to whose care the musical funds were entrusted, have, in various instances, taken them away from the musical department, and applied them to their own uses.
  • Vocal and instrumental performers are to [the composer] the colour and canvass of the painter, the chisel and stone of the sculptor. Great artists of the latter kind will at once admit the inconvenience of having their materials chosen for them by the Clergy. They would hardly entrust a brother artist, however eminent, with the selection; and yet, under existing circumstances, composers for the Church, (should there be any) must content themselves with such singers and organs as the Chapters provide.
In response to his own observations, Wesley responds with his Plan which extends beyond the number, abilities and pay of the cathedral musicians to the reordering of cathedrals to allow the organ to best serve the choir. (Amongst this, however, he continues to find opportunity to highlight his concerns.)
  • The number of lay Choir-men in daily attendance should never be less than twelve, this being the least number by which the choral service can be properly performed.
  • To ensure the constant attendance of twelve it would be necessary to retain at least three additional voices (one of each kind) to meet the frequent deficiencies arising from illness or other unavoidable causes. The stipend of the former might be £85 per annum; of the latter £52These lay singers should be required to give the degree of attention to rehearsals and every other musical duty exacted of all such persons at ordinary performances of music, and, like others, they should be subject to an early removal in cases of wilful inattention. Should it not be deemed desirable for them to occupy themselves in trade, or other pursuits, (and that it is not desirable cannot be a question, their Cathedral duty, if properly followed, being the work of a life,) the salaries should be higher, and not less than from £100 to £150 per annum.
  • The election to the office of lay Choir men should rest with the organists or musical conductors of three Cathedrals, namely the one in which the vacancy occurs, and the two nearest to it, the Dean and Chapter of the former exercising their judgment as to the religious fitness of the candidate. In fixing, as is here proposed, the number of the lay singers at the minimum number, twelve, it may be added, that in any Cathedral town where the musical services of the Cathedral were conducted in a meritorious manner, they would undoubtedly enjoy great popularity, and enlist the voluntary aid of many competent persons. An addition of six such might probably be relied on; and this, although inadequate—the requirements of such large buildings as our Cathedrals being considered — would be a great advance upon present things.
  • A Musical College in connection with one of the Cathedrals, and under the government of its Dean and Chapter, seems indispensably necessary for the tuition of lay singers; and, what is more important, for the complete education of the higher order of musical officer employed as the Organist, Composer, or Director of the Choir. Lay singers for Cathedrals are not easily procured; and the above arrangement would greatly facilitate the object of providing every Cathedral with the required number for its Choir, and for imparting a thorough and complete musical education to the musical professors employed by the Church. A School of this kind might not be self-supporting, possibly; every Cathedral, therefore, should be required to contribute something to its maintenance.
  • The Cathedral Organist should, in every instance, be a professor of the highest ability, — a master in the most elevated departments of composition,— and efficient in the conducting and superintendance of a Choral body.
  • If salaries of from £500 to £800 a year be suggested for the Provincial Organists, or Musical Directors of Cathedrals, it will be said how many Curates there are in the Church at a salary of £60 or £80 per annum? But it is not here a question of men standing at the threshold of their profession. The artists pointed to are the bishops of their calling—men consecrated by their genius, and set apart for duties which only the best talent of the kind can adequately fulfil.
  • The organ is a difficult subject. It seems a pity that every Cathedral should not possess a noble specimen of this instrument; its effects are so glorious — worthy of its distinguished use in the services of religion and of our splendid Cathedrals. Architects greatly object to its ordinary position on the choir screen; and it must be confessed, that were the Choirs perfect in their work, and the true school of Church composition rigidly adhered to, a large organ for the accompaniment of the Choral service is unnecessary. A small beautifully voiced organ, as near the Choir at possible, is the desideratum. It should not be on one side; for then, the music being arranged antiphonally, error exists from the organ’s sounding on one side differently to what it does on the other. The best arrangement which has occurred to the writer, is that of making a choir screen of the organ itself, and bringing the singers close to the instrument. Or, if it were determined, as no doubt it soon would be in numerous cases, were the Choral Service rendered all that musicians could wish, to take a portion of the nave for public accommodation, the instrument might stand sideways on the floor, and the screen be entirely removed; preserving, however, a suitable shelter for the authorities from the great draught existing in these large buildings.
  • The boys received great care formerly in respect to their vocal tuition. A great portion of each day seems to have been devoted to exercises. Their voices, however, at the best, are a poor substitute for the vastly superior quality and power of those of women.
  • Music can never be rehearsed and made sufficiently accurate to brave public opinion unless superintended by a competent Conductor.
  • Once place the music on a sound foundation, and, no doubt, assistance would flow in from many quarters, in aid of what would be found in the Cathedral towns one of the greatest public advantages.
Despite the polemic nature of the entire document, towards the end Wesley's underlying commitment to improving the musical provision of cathedrals as part of the worship is shown as he concludes
Let us indulge a hope that the claims of this subject will find support, and that its merits will be better understood. Amongst the dignitaries of the Church are several distinguished persons who are fully alive to the high interests of music, and who do not forget that whatever is offered to God should be as faultless as man can make it. Music should not be compelled to bring her worst gift to the altar!