God’s Own Music

Scala/Art Resource
Luca della Robbia the Elder: detail from the Cantoria (choir loft), in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence, Italy, 1431–1438

The Anglican choral tradition is one of the great successes of English cultural diffusion, to rank with Association Football (soccer), cricket, and the works of William Shakespeare. It has a cultural heft way beyond its parochial and very specific origins, and it turns up in the oddest places. The most incongruous example must surely be the upmarket gloss that Thomas Tallis’s forty-part motet Spem in Alium lends to a down-and-dirty scene in the film Fifty Shades of Grey.

I’m often surprised by how far this music travels. The transposition of the Anglican sound world into the urban jungle of New York seemed rather miraculous the first time I walked into Saint Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue to bathe in the glories of stained glass–inflected light and English-inflected harmonies. On another occasion, I was in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, for a concert, arriving just after a school shooting in next-door Jacksonville that had made me preternaturally alert to the cultural differences between the Old and the New Worlds. But it turned out that the concert was in St. Paul’s by-the-Sea Episcopal Church. Our greenroom was the church vestry, and I felt strangely at home among the cassocks and surplices, The Oxford Book of Tudor Anthems (some nice Tallis there), and the familiar hardcovers of Hymns Ancient and Modern and The English Hymnal, the red and the green.

I grew up on the fringes of this Anglican culture, and I remain at one and the same time drawn to it and stoutly resistant. Resistant because in the mainstream classical world of opera and song in which I work, a church sound is often frowned upon whenever a hint of it (the withdrawal of vibrato from the voice, for example) is detected or imagined. Drawn, because from the ages of seven to twelve or thirteen I sang, una voce bianca as the Italians call it, in the humble precincts of St. Leonard’s, a parish church in Streatham, South London. Its glory days had been in the eighteenth century, the days of the so-called Streatham worthies, when the likes of Sir Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick, Edmund Burke, and Oliver Goldsmith—all friends of the wealthy brewer Henry Thrale—hung out in what was then a mere village. Samuel Johnson was a regular worshiper.

By the 1970s St. Leonard’s was part of the anonymous London sprawl, on the way down, and yet the church choir, under the leadership of an inspiring organist and choirmaster, Tom McLelland-Young, kept alive the flame of a musical tradition that—as Andrew Gant, in his history of English church music, O Sing unto the Lord, makes clear—can trace its roots back to late antiquity. With limited resources we performed the Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach (in truncated form)…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.