Evensong

Years ago at an interview for a Head of Department post in a school run by a big academy chain I had a conversation which has stayed with me as a challenge to my ideas about education. The crux was around the place of religious music in secular comprehensives. Does it have a role? Should it be left out to avoid offending pupils of other religions and none? Or make an appearance at Christmas and then take a back seat for the rest of the year? It was made quite clear to me that religious music would not be playing a role in the department and so I withdrew but I’ve held the exchange in my mind ever since.

After being at the West London Free School for three years we decided to take it on tour to Germany for a few days. We had a lovely time and whole enterprise achieved its goal of giving our ensembles a focus and lifting their performance. Compared to other tours I’ve done though, mostly with my youth choir Inner Voices, there was something missing. We had decided to avoid religious repertoire and, therefore, the churches in which that music lives. The problem with this, however, is that choral music in Britain has its roots in Christianity. More than that really, the choral tradition is best understood though its religious origins, influenced by the gentle rituals of the Anglican Church, its harmony underpinned by the voice leading of Bach Chorales and its leaders products of our churches and cathedrals (something as true of the gospel tradition which increasingly informs British choral practice). Many of the great works written for choirs have their truest realisation in the beautiful buildings of European Christianity. If an education in choral music is something that we want for our pupils then who are we to deprive them of the full picture by assuming that non-Christians cannot appreciate or participate in many of greatest expressions of the genre?

If some of the great repertoire of the choral tradition finds its most beautiful physical expression in the expansive architecture of our churches then the rituals of the Anglican liturgy give some choral music a temporal home, none more so than Evensong. Created in Tudor England by Archbishop Cranmer the service sits alongside the King James Bible and the works of Shakespeare at the start of the process of codifying standard English. Since the mid 16th Century it has been sung daily across the country and is unrivalled in its importance and impact as a musical ritual. Countless musicians have found their musical lives through participating in this ritual and still do. Evensong is a living tradition and the contrast between the new music written for Evensong in the 20th Century and the musical dead ends down which much of the rest of European Art Music travelled pays tribute to the creative power of its formal architecture.

For students engaging in learning about choral music Evensong has much to offer. It sits at one of the key moments of cultural change in English History, offers a language that can widen the linguistic scope and understanding of our students and, above all else, is simply a cultural gem. At the non-denominational Tiffin Boys School in Kingston the school choir sings weekly Evensongs, requiring them weekly to pick up new music and sing it to a high standard which in turn breeds the sort of independence allowing miracles such as this astounding ensemble – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bvNzDcMDDoA (yes they’re a grammar school but why shouldn’t we all aim high?).

Music teachers come into schools with a whole range of starting points and, as a believer in the importance of expertise in teaching, I think the musical strengths of each school are best drawn from the strengths and interests of the teachers in the department. For me, and many other teachers, that means great choral singing and I’ve come round to thinking that this should, sometimes, include religious music. I’m not sure whether I’ve been self-censoring or whether many people genuinely think religious music has no place in secular schools but I’m increasingly convinced that this way of thinking needs to be tackled head on before we are left in a cultural void where pupils only listen to the transient music of youth culture.

As the Western world becomes less and less religious I hope that our schools will be free to engage pupils from all different backgrounds with this part of our cultural inheritance and enable the religious roots of the choral tradition to be part of a great music education. In March a group of Christian, Muslim and non-religious pupils from WLFS will sing in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris and every one of them sees it for what it is, an opportunity to experience and treasure one of the great cultural legacies of our musical world.

 

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6 thoughts on “Evensong

  1. Ed, your blog deserves a reply from somebody as the issue you raise is important.

    Your encounter with a school rejecting religious music reminded me of the religious school rejecting popular music traditions. In both cases the value positions held by the schools saw music as having fixed ethos rather in the way Plato did. Musical meanings are fixed and determined – tritone = devil, the phrygian mode is uncouth like the Phrygian people etc.

    It is a fundamentalist position. But in my view musical meanings arise from context and the uses to which music is put in particular circumstances.

    On the day I sang Jerusalem accompanied by a brass band in Durham Cathedral as part of the Durham Miner’s Rally, Jerusalem was played through a loud speaker at Trent Bridge as the England cricket team ran on to the field. And Jerusalem was composed for a woman’s peace group. So Jerusalem can mean different things. Jerusalem travels and gains its delineated meaning in context. And it is free to travel unless social mores or laws prevent it from doing so.

    In Western Europe religious music is free to travel. And in a post-secular society, where on the one hand religion is in decline and on the other is of great social and political significance in the world, we might argue that it is important that it travels freely. While it can be used for authentic religious purposes, clearly it can be used for secular concert purposes and other purposes.

    You have reminded me of Issac Newton Academy in East London where all pupils learn a big band instrument. Most pupils are muslim and while there is some resistance to playing instruments from within the muslim community, the school strongly supports the big band policy. Islamic attitudes towards music in that community are changing. Islam like music travels.

    Having said all this, and if it makes any kind of sense, all schools have ethos and value positions which may or may not impinge on music, and in some cases significantly so as you have experienced in the case of your interview.

    So clearly it is thought that some music can be bad for you. Perhaps Plato was right.

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    • Hi John, thanks for taking the time to read it. You saying ‘in my view musical meanings arise from context and the uses to which music is put’ does ring true of me. At Christmas we put on Saint Nicolas and I’m so pleased we did, the pupils loved it and it was a real step us for us. My worry was/is that there’s no getting away from how evangelical the text is – more so than a lot of biblical readings really. As it happened everyone took in as it was meant, a wonderful piece of music that tells a great story.

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  2. Gorgeous writing and absolutely right, Ed.

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  3. Another issue which is strictly educational is that young people leave school without the repertoire of music previous generations have used for events such as weddings and funerals – so intergenerational resources for such occasions are impoverished, and young people leave education ill prepared to participate in significant life events.

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