Britten’s country vicar

Compared to the number of clergy characters in British fiction of the last century, there are very few indeed in opera. One, however, appears in Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring (1947). And, given the various attempts both to stress and downplay the strength of Britten’s attachment to the Anglicanism of his youth, the vicar of the fictional Suffolk village of Loxford is a useful point from which to view Britten’s treatment of the established Church of England.

I don’t propose here to analyse Britten’s religion in any depth, since there are several such accounts already. I would note only the creative tension between Britten’s friendships with figures such as Walter Hussey (and the small but important corpus of religious music) with readings of Britten that stress his status as outsider, a gay man in a country in which homosexuality was illegal until he had reached near old age. I would argue that Mr Gedge is at once a character with which Britten and his librettist Eric Crozier have some sympathy, but who by virtue of his office is integral to the repressive society in which Albert has been trapped.

Loxford is of course a lighter, more comic sketch of the same social forces in lockstep that appear with such terrifying effect in Peter Grimes; the Borough has its own vicar, the Reverend Horace Adams. This is the Protestant England of 1900, in which poppies are too Roman Catholic to be used to decorate the church; Albert is presented with a copy of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, as Gedge exclaims:

The Bible, Shakespeare, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs…
Three cornerstones of our national heritage!

Gedge is obsequious to the formidable Lady Billows, a relationship with overtones of that between Austen’s Mr Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourg. He, as vicar, is part of the committee, along with the mayor, the schoolmistress and the superintendent, that meets to assess the virtue of the young people of the village: aristocracy, church, school and town together as monitors and enforcers of what we are supposed to read as a stifling conformity. To be sure, this is the dominant note of the opera as a whole.

But there are signs that Britten does not regard the vicar wholly negatively, such as the shimmering, luminous music to which Britten sets the vicar’s musing on the nature of virtue, which, ‘says Holy Writ’, is:

Grace abounding whensoever, wheresoever, howsoever it exists.
Rarer than pearls… rubies… amethyst,
Richer than wealth… wisdom… righteousness! (Act One, Scene One)

Although it is obscured by productions that cast Gedge as an very elderly man, there is also the moment in which he and the schoolmistress Miss Wordsworth, inspired by the signs of spring around them, duet with lines from the Song of Songs, that most spring-like and indeed erotic book of the Bible. Here is a glimpse of an idealised Christian world in which virtue is no deadening renunciation of the world; Christian relationships need not entail a denial of the flesh.

‘And lo! the winter is past…
‘The rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth… (Act One, Scene One).

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English cathedral music and liturgy in the 20th century: a short review

[A short book notice, destined for the Journal of Ecclesiastical History]

Martin Thomas
English Cathedral Music and Liturgy in the Twentieth Century
Ashgate 2015, xvii +265
978-1-4724-2630-7

The musical history of the English cathedrals has long wanted for a single treatment, being hitherto treated only briefly in histories of individual cathedrals, or as part of the history of religious music as a whole. Martin Thomas’ welcome new study fills that gap in the literature. Based on extensive research both in printed primary sources and in cathedral archives, it documents in detail the shifts in cathedral musical practice and repertoire between 1900 and 2005. Its principal argument, which is effectively made, is that the period saw a divorce between church music composition and the wider musical world. This led to the emergence and indeed ossification of a ‘cathedral style’: consciously archaic in compositional technique and conforming to extraneous criteria of ‘fittingness’ with the work of the liturgy.

Speaking theologically, Thomas is very clear that this was a wrong turn for the cathedrals to have taken. However, the study does not engage to any great extent with the now voluminous literature on secularisation and culture in the UK. As such, opportunities are missed to engage historically with many of the arguments that the study seeks to refute. What was it in the changing understandings of the relationship of cathedrals with their dioceses, city communities and (crucially) with the tourist that disposed them towards the preservation of a particular style? Thomas is sure that the argument that sacred music should be consciously archaic is false, but why was it put forward, at the times in which it was put forward? What view of the relationship between culture and theology did such arguments embody, and whose interests were they designed to serve? Why should critics have tended to value utility in church music over compositional innovation?

There are many such questions of motivation and context that are left unasked. The book provides much welcome material for historians, but there remains much to be done in integrating cathedral music into the story of twentieth century English Christianity as a whole.

Britten in Northampton, 1943

While writing my study of Walter Hussey, Anglican patron of the arts, I came across a source relating to Benjamin Britten which seems not to have been noticed by scholars to date. The connection with Britten is the anthem Rejoice in the Lamb, which Hussey commissioned in 1943 for his church, of St Matthew, Northampton. The correspondence between Britten and Hussey in relation to the commission has been integrated into the standard edition of Britten’s Letters, and copies lodged at the Britten-Pears Library. The making of the anthem is documented at length in chapter 3 of my book, which should be published in 2017.

The source in question is among the Hussey Papers, held at the West Sussex Record Office in Chichester (MS336). A small notebook, it is a record, made soon after the event, of Britten’s visit to Northampton on Sunday 1st August, bringing with him manuscript copies of the anthem. Hussey and Britten lunched together, heard the choir, and settled down for some conversation over tea in the Vicarage. The notes Hussey made, much of which are in the form of verbatim quotation, shed light on some matters of interest in relation to Britten more widely.

The first is Britten’s views on Christianity. The degree to which Britten had any personal faith has occupied his several biographers over the years, with different results. The man of faith that appears in the work of Eric Walter White was replaced by both Humphrey Carpenter and Paul Kildea with a rather more mixed picture: for Kildea, he was at most ‘a deist in a theists’ world, a bar-room brawl he would never win.’ (Benjamin Britten, p.207). Whatever his own faith, Britten let Hussey know that he was glad to be working for the Church, and that, apart from a single piece – the Te Deum, for St Mark’s North Audley Street – he had never been asked to do so; not by any cathedral organist or anyone else. Hussey recorded Britten as saying:

Every real artist must really have some work in him to do for the Ch[urch]. He may not be a regular churchgoer but he must have a religion; more than that he must realise what art owes to the Ch[urch] & that much of the best has been done for the Ch[urch]. Their separation has been such a tremendous loss for both.

This generalised sense that the making of art was religious in some way was common amongst those Hussey patronised, Henry Moore among them. This seems to be the most explicit recorded statement of the idea that Britten made.

The other most extended comments from Britten that Hussey recorded relate to William Walton. Hussey had in fact approached Walton first, earlier in 1943, to write for St Matthew’s, but he had refused. The relationship between Britten and Walton has been written up as personally cordial, not to say friendly, but with an element of professional rivalry. ‘Entre nous’, Britten remarked:

I think he’s going through rather a bad patch now. [Having had] tremendous success, more than any other British composer, there looms a point after some success when a composer has to decide whether he will exploit that success in [the] same sort of way, or go on developing & not trouble about the success. I wish W.W. would do a little more serious music & not so much for films, wireless & the like.

Had Hussey got something from Walton, Britten thought, he might ‘have got something rather by rote – unless perhaps if you gave him a free hand to do just what he liked & not mind [something] shocking etc.’ Hussey was to bide his time, but as dean of Chichester cathedral succeeded in obtaining from Walton his Chichester Service in 1975.

The arts in evangelical history

I’m very pleased to be able to say that I have agreed to contribute a chapter to a forthcoming Ashgate Research Companion to the History of Evangelicalism. This is to be one of the first volumes in a new series, Ashgate Studies in Evangelicalism, edited by Andrew Atherstone and David Ceri Jones.

Some of my publications in the past have touched on evangelicals and the arts in twentieth century Britain, most directly in relation to worship music, but also in relation to the theatre and the visual arts. This project will require a much wider perspective, taking in the whole of evangelical history from the early eighteenth century onwards, and across the world.

I’d thus be very pleased to hear of particular issues that readers think I should be addressing, and secondary literature I should be reading, within these broad themes:

(i) evangelical use (or disuse) of the various arts in public, private and domestic worship;

(ii) the use of the arts as means of evangelism;

(iii) evangelical theologies of the created work of art itself, and its right performance, realisation and reception;

(iv) evangelical involvement in the creation, performance and consumption of the arts in situations not associated with worship or evangelism, such as the secular theatre;

(v) evangelical challenge to works of art and/or their performance, on grounds of either their content (subject matter), or their style, or on grounds of their likely effects on performer and/or viewer or listener.

(vi) more generally, all of these matters are intimately connected with evangelical theologies of culture, and the relationship of the church, the individual Christian and “the world”, however defined.

I’m particularly keen to hear of particular matters of note before c.1850, or from outside Europe and North America at any point between about 1730 and the almost-present.

Britten at the BL

I have an ambivalent relationship with exhibitions. Not so much with art exhibitions, since all I ever expect to do with a painting is look at it. But exhibitions of books and manuscripts, like this excellent (and free) exhibition on Benjamin Britten by my British Library colleagues, feel fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. There is a fascination in the object, made sacred, as it were, by the touch of the great man’s hand; and I had not realised how many of Britten’s autograph scores the Library holds. There are also recordings here, of Britten himself in conversation with broadcasters, and also of Peter Pears.

The frustration comes from what one instinctively expects (as a scholar) to be able to do with a source, but cannot due to the inevitable clear glass box that separates viewer from viewed. I’ve seen and handled a good few of Britten’s letters in relation to his Rejoice in the Lamb (1943) in amongst the Walter Hussey papers, and so one instinctively wants to begin work on these manuscripts and other artefacts straight away; to turn the pages, and follow the thoughts that present themselves as one views.

That aside, there are many rewarding things on display. There are films, such as the Crown Film Unit production Instruments of the Orchestra (1946), for which the piece known as the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra was written. Malcolm Sargent had a deserved reputation as a showman and populariser, but after nearly 70 years of media history he appears as from a quite different age, so stiff and didactic is his delivery. Also showing is Night Mail (1936), Britten’s collaboration with W.H. Auden for the GPO Film Unit.

There are items related to Britten’s sacred music as well, including the autograph short scores for both the War Requiem (Add. MS 60609) and the Hymn to St Cecilia, another collaboration with Auden. (Add. MS 60598).

I was also reminded of the connection between Britten and the Peace Pledge Union, set up before the war by Dick Sheppard, rector of St Martin-in-the-Fields. Britten signed the pledge, and was accompanied by Canon Stuart Morris, general secretary of the Union when he appeared before a tribunal as a conscientious objector in 1942, at which his Pacifist March was offered as evidence of his pacifism before the war. Shown here is a printed chorus part of Pacifist March, written for the PPU in 1936-7 with words by Ronnie Duncan. The Union disliked it (and a quick sing through it, sotto voce, shows why) and so it was withdrawn, and this is one of the few surviving copies. Britten’s Canticle I was later given its first performance at a memorial service for Sheppard in November 1947.

The exhibition continues at the Library’s St Pancras site until 15 September. If you’re in London and have a spare hour, I would heartily recommend it.

[Additional information from Humphrey Carpenter, Benjamin Britten. A biography (Faber, 1992)]

Walter Hussey, patron of art

[I first starting investigating the career of Walter Hussey some nine years ago. He has appeared in several of my articles so far, but the book I always intended has been put back. Now, though, a proposal for that book has been accepted is currently under consideration by a publisher. Here’s what it is about.]

Walter Hussey is known for an extraordinary sequence of commissions of contemporary art and music, for the church of St Matthew Northampton from 1943 and, from 1955 to 1977, for Chichester Cathedral. The names read as a roll-call of post-war artistic and musical life: Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Marc Chagall in the visual arts; Leonard Bernstein, Benjamin Britten, Gerald Finzi, Michael Tippett, William Walton in music.

Hussey became something of a grandee: an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, an honorary Doctor of Letters of the young University of Sussex. Kenneth Lord Clark, critic, broadcaster, and sometime director of the National Gallery, described Hussey as ‘aesthete, impressario and indomitable persuader’. As interest in the relations between theology and the arts has grown, so has Hussey’s reputation as the most significant patron of art for the English church of the twentieth century. Countless recording sleeve notes and exhibition catalogues record Hussey’s role in glowing terms, and the art historical literature has accorded him a corner niche in the pantheon of the great individual patrons. For one commentator, Hussey single-handedly ‘turned the tide against Anglican neglect of modern art’.

Missing in all this is any extended critical study of Hussey’s life and work as a whole. The musicological and art-historical literature confines him to a walk-on part, while church historians have paid greater attention to the other major figure in Anglican artistic patronage, George Bell, bishop of Chichester.

Why, then, study Walter Hussey ? Most obviously, the Hussey Papers are a rich source for studying the commissioning of the contemporary arts, giving a vivid picture of the relationship between one exceptional clergyman and his commissionees. Almost none of this material has ever been integrated into the existing literature.

Within the contemporary Church of England with its cathedrals now crammed with contemporary art, Hussey has been seen as a voice in the wilderness, preparing the way for a rediscovery of a contemporary language for the Church’s message. This story of dogged effort in the face of philistinism and ignorance is the nearest we have to a meta-narrative of the churches and the arts. But it is a story established by dint of omission, since the integration of the religious arts into the study of recent British religious history is in its infancy. To document Hussey’s patronage is to provide key signposts in this terra incognita.

Hussey is also a case-study in the unspoken assumptions of catholic Anglicans about the arts, the church, and the place of creativity in national life.  The social and economic crises of the 1930s, 1940s and 1960s prompted intense debate over the nature of ‘national religion’, and its connection with the mainstream in national culture. The church could not hope to regain the attention of ‘Modern Man’ without speaking through the art in which he was already expressing himself. Hussey stands as one of the most active and well self-documented case studies of this theological current in action.

Hussey’s career saw revolutionary change between the churches and the people. Church attendance and affiliation collapsed dramatically, as did the church’s confidence in its own ability to communicate and minister effectively. Part of the crisis was of religious language, and its ability to communicate in a manner meaningful to Modern Man.  Some sought new means of mission, and the contemporary arts were seized upon as a means to that end. If words were no longer securely meaningful, then perhaps the arts provided an alternative language. If the 1960s saw the discursive death of Christian Britain, as Callum Brown has suggested, then Hussey made an attempt at resuscitation.

The means by which taste was shaped and determined also changed in the ‘long 1960s’. The vision of a beneficent establishment raising the horizons of the people through the BBC and other channels was overturned by a quite new emphasis on the entitlement to ‘do one’s own thing’. Hussey’s mode of patronage depended on a discerning patron, authoritative critic and notable artist working in tandem, disseminating new art downwards to a grateful if uncomprehending public. This way of working, successful in the 1940s, was by the 1970s no longer fit for purpose.

The period was also one of general cultural fracture, during which the classical in all the arts was shifted further and further from the centre of artistic life; a movement which posed difficulties for those in the churches and outside who wished to place Anglican patronage in the centre of the mainstream of national cultural life. By the end of Hussey’s career it was less than clear where that centre might be.

The career of Walter Hussey thus affords the historian a unique opportunity to examine one sphere in which the church met, resisted, negotiated with or capitulated to forces of change in the society in which it was located.

Church music and evangelical identity

I’m very pleased to be able to say that Ian Jones’ and my article on ‘pop’ church music and Anglican evangelical identity since 1958 is now live in SAS-Space. It was first published in Mark Smith’s edited volume British Evangelical Identities: volume 1 (Paternoster, 2008), which also includes a splendid piece from John Harvey on evangelical material culture.