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12th March 2022 - The Land without Music – a Zoom talk by Philip Norman

16 members and 4 guests invited by Philip attended this on-line meeting. Philip took as his title the English translation of  the German Das Land ohne Musik, an epithet of Oscar Schmitz, suggesting that England is the only cultural nation not to have its own music but to borrow everyone else’s. Philip set out to de-bunk this oft-quoted statement.

Under the heading of The Church, from the beginning of St Augustine’s mission to England in 597, he brought clerks to sing the Mass. Organs were introduced in Saxon times, built locally and playing alongside a choir. The Catholic Liturgy continued after the break with Rome under Henry VIII with certain Psalms re-drawn into English metre, which became our metrical Psalms. Matthew Parker translated all the Psalms into English and Thomas Tallis provided a set of tunes, notably the Third Tone Melody, later used by Vaughan  Williams in his Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis. Then Oliver Cromwell destroyed all the organs in the country. In the following century the practice developed of “lining out” the Metrical psalms and such hymns as existed at that time, the Clerk intoning a line and the congregation repeating it. West gallery bands of instrumentalists and singers, described by Philip as “rough-hewn and jolly” gave way to the mid-Victorian Tractarian Movement which brought robed and surpliced choirs to the East end of parish churches with new organs to accompany the singing of canticles and a growing hymnody. More recently, in many churches these have now been replaced by worship bands and worship songs, but the point was made that the church has always had a means of keeping people singing.

Education brought the teaching of music to children, leading to school choirs and schools music festivals. The foundation of the Royal Academy of Music in 1822 led to other music conservatoires becoming established.

Audiences grew from the rich man’s pastime of the 18th and 19th centuries, into public entertainments in such venues as Ranelagh Gardens, Vauxhall Gardens and the Hanover Rooms. Victorian town halls were later  centres for major musical festivals such as the Birmingham Triennial Festival (1784-1912) which saw leading continental composers (not forgetting our own Edward Elgar) attending and performing.  The Three Choirs Festival was a major influence along with that of Henry Wood and his Promenade Concerts, all bringing music to the attention of the populace at large at this period.


Despite much home grown talent, there was a view that only foreigners could perform well, leading in some cases to native born performers Italianising their names to seek recognition.

Improvements in musical instrument technology meant that they were more easily playable, instance the valved brass instruments, leading in turn to the formation of colliery bands and further popularisation.

Composers. Philip went on to discuss influences in composition. During the Catholic persecutions, our composers moved to the Continent and were influenced by the keyboard facility of German composers such as Bach and his contemporaries. In the other direction the 18th century brought Handel and Haydn to these shores, and our native composers, such as Greene, Boyce, Stanley and Croft, imitated them, developing a so-called English tradition in the styles of Handel and Haydn.

Philip now brought us to the so-called English Renaissance with composers such as Mackenzie, Stanford, Parry and Elgar leading the way for Cecil Sharp to collect the folk tunes of the people before they were lost. Similarly Vaughan Williams saw folk song as the means to break from the German tradition which he and Holst felt to be stifling. RVW also looked back to the Tudor composers vide his Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis previously mentioned. As editor of the English Hymnal of 1906, he composed tunes either based on folk tunes or setting the folk tunes themselves to hymns which would then be sung by congregations (but for how much longer, I wonder.) Philip then led us via Britten and Tippett with their use of children’s choruses in their vocal works to a new name to me, Anne Dudley, born in 1956 who has composed many TV theme tunes including Poldark and Jeeves and Wooster. Finally Philip brought us to the Beatles and their Sergeant Pepper album which, with its multi-tracking, set a new standard for popular musical creation.

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