There are several significant anniversaries this year, but the big one is coming up next year: in 2017 it will be 500 years since the start of the Reformation, a circumstance I may mark by wearing black or purple for the duration. The Reformation in England happened much later, but 1517 is indeed the point at which the great European break with Catholicism began.
The truth is that the Reformation had any number of repercussions, cultural, political, social and theological. And one of the chief of them is so obvious and far-reaching that we normally forget about it. It’s the effect on church music: what it was composed for, who made it, who sung or played it, and how.
Most of us are dimly aware that the great Germanic tradition of hymn singing, which is only now withering, derived from Martin Luther. His hymn, Ein Fester Burg ist Unser Gott is pretty well the anthem of the Reformation. It symbolised the most critical aspects of Protestantism: it was sung in the vernacular, by the people, to a single tune: there was nothing in the music to distract from the words.
There’s a new book by Andrew Gant, former director of the Chapel Royal, about just this subject: English church music and, in particular, how the Reformation affected it. He’s not an historian, and it shows, but the book, O Sing Unto the Lord (Profile, £20), does make clear how far-reaching the effects of the Reformation were: under Henry, Edward, then Elizabeth and, indeed, under Mary.
What’s clear is that one of the most distinctive manifestations of Protestantism from the middle of the 16th century in music was psalm singing by the people in English, in the home as well as in church. And what we need reminding of now is that it was really popular. Of course, there had been English songs on religious themes prior to the Reformation – carols sung in the streets for Christmas and other festivals; or the songs in the cycles of the mystery plays; or the religious music sung in the home that featured in a couple of secular collections just before the Reformation. But singing in English in church by the whole parish congregation was a radical and decisive break with the past.
An early, perhaps the earliest, description of congregational singing in English was given in 1559 by Henry Machym: “the new morning prayers … after Geneva fashion – begin to ring at 5 in the morning; men and women all do sing, and boys”. Later he observed:
“the 17th day of March  … after the sermon done, they songe all, old and yong, a salme in myter, to the tune of Genevay ways.”
The reference to Geneva was apt: Calvinist exiles from Geneva helped drive the change. That was the beginning of a tradition that has lasted for most of the half millennium since. Psalm singing by the people was immensely popular, even though for many of us it has associations with the grimmest kind of Puritanism.
As Gant observes: “Psalm singing was part of a quiet, rather private, revolution. The Reformation had posed two questions: “Who sings? Where?” And those who put the psalms to music in English provided the answer: “We all do, wherever we like.” If you were a singer –
and moreover, if you were a woman and a singer – this must have been transformative.
The other great change, of course, was that the singing was in English: the psalms, the hymns, were in the language of the people. This was revolutionary. As Gant points out, this was not the first time vernacular psalm-singing had taken place in England: “Rhymed translations for singing date back to Henry II’s reign … But this was where psalm singing took hold … the emblem of the Reformers’ desire to hear the words.” Music was subordinate to the words – and the Catholic riposte to this was polyphony: literally, many voices. (Though it must be said, there were any number of instances of musical cross-dressing during the century, when Catholic musicians wrote like Protestants, and vice versa.)
This was compensation for the extent to which the Reformation diminished the quality and quantity of music produced in parish churches. There were far fewer choirs than before, both at parish and professional level, with less money than before and few organs. And then there was the catastrophic effect of the dissolution of the monasteries, the institutions that supported the training of musicians and the performance of music.
The Reformation diminished England’s musical tradition – it’s no accident that the English greats, Tallis, Byrd, Taverner, Sheppard, were almost all products of the Catholic dispensation, even though some embraced Protestantism – but it brought its own compensations. It’s hard to imagine now, but psalm singing was one of them.
Melanie McDonagh is comment editor of the London Evening Standard
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