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.

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