In England’s Green and Pleasant Land

Every so often I feel obliged to try loving something that, through long neglect, prejudice or the unthinking incorporation of someone else’s poor opinion, I’ve come to believe I don’t, can’t or shouldn’t love. Twenty-five years ago I did this with the novels of Jane Austen, which I knew mostly from English television adaptations, generally distinguished by their wanton disregard for good lighting design. And of course after a few pages of Pride and Prejudice I was hooked. Now the old spinster’s novels are on a perpetual agricultural rotation system, each one lying fallow for two to three years until I’ve forgotten enough of the plot to give it another whirl.

          Today, it’s the late Victorian and Edwardian Anglican choral masters of England—the men who wrote music for the grandchildren of Austen’s characters. A new disk, by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen (Decca) has softened my initial resistance. The Sixteen are one of the finest choral groups out there, and if you think of them (as I too often do) as an early music group, then you’ve missed their frequent forays into later repertoire. “A New Heaven” includes music of Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, Charles Wood, Charles Villiers Stanford, John Stainer, Herbert Howells, among others, and concludes with John Rutter, who is known to almost anyone who has sung in a Christmas pageant or service.

          I dislike the grandeur of the music and its smugness, and I don’t trust the piety. There is a difference between simple, direct expression of religious belief, and expressions that aim at coaxing simple or lazy minds into passive reception of religious ideology. I think this music very often falls into the latter category. This is not religious afflatus naturally expressed in a grand, collective way, it is the soundtrack for a religious pageant, meant to wow the senses, dull skepticism and leave the listener feeling good about something: The Church? The State? Both, perhaps, in some disturbing confusion of God and England.

          Americans know the sentiment that pervades most of these pieces from the slow, stately trio from Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, the obligatory processional for every high school graduation ceremony. It isn’t a particularly military march, more of an old man’s march, old men carrying too much regalia and feeling good about their accomplishments. This is the essential mood of so many of the works on this disk.

          But they are addictive. The recording includes two works by Parry which rise above the others in their seductive pomposity: “I was glad,” a coronation anthem originally for Edward VII, and “Jerusalem,” a crowd-pleasing paean to England that is de rigueur at the Proms festival, music so sumptuously certain in its equation of England with God’s Own Chosen Land that old ladies hyperventilate when it’s played. I can make you wet yourself in three notes, Parry seems to say with his admittedly infectious melody.

          Both pieces are more familiar from grander settings, including Elgar’s 1922 recasting of “Jerusalem” from a choral bonbon to something that compares well with the best passages of John Williams’s score to “Star Wars.” I like both works in their smaller settings and the  larger versions would be out of place on this recording, which is often remarkably intimate in scale.

          Consider, for instance, Howard Goodall’s setting of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd.” It floats along and rocks its gentle head from side to side like some mildly sozzled occupants of a rowboat after finishing a picnic of wine and cucumber sandwiches. Granted, Goodall first wrote this tune as the theme music to the BBC hit sitcom, “The Vicar of Dibley,” but never mind. Why not add television to the Church-State nexus of good feelings?

          So why have I played this damn fool disk twenty times over the weekend? It is beautifully sung, especially the soprano solos of Elin Manahan Thomas. And for every quibble above, there is a quibble with the quibble. The origins of a good tune have never disqualified it from religious use. The medieval song L’homme armé was secular in origin, before it colonized Renaissance settings of the mass. And as for the general equation of Church and State, well, that’s problematic, but the State in these pieces is very often imagined as landscape, or a beautiful place. The general sentiment that pervades the poem of Jerusalem (based on Blake) is clear from the first verse:

 And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the Holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark satanic mills?

 Dark satanic mills? That’s for another essay. The point is, the poem (as appropriated by Parry)  is self-satisfied, but not aggressive. Even the stately marches heard in so many of these pieces are at least not bloody-minded, forward-driving, off-to-war marches. I’d rather see a slow procession of “Bald heads, forgetful of their sins,/ Old, learned, respectable bald heads,” than an animated parade of idle young men put to sinister uses.

          It’s also important to give the disk its due as an historical statement. I found this from the program notes very interesting:

           Modernity and the intellectual challenges of modernism were not the chief concerns of men such as Hubert Parry, Stanford and Howells, at least in their sacred choral works and other music for church use. The same can be said for John Rutter and Howard Goodall. Rather, they have all combined eloquent musical invention with a level of craftsmanship analogous to the skills that helped to build and decorate Britain’s great cathedrals, parish churches and college chapels.

          So this is backward looking, decorative music, a remarkable admission in the booklet of a CD. But it’s also music that does indeed grow out of a tradition, a garden separate from the more general course of music history, and not an unpleasant garden to linger in. I can’t seem to leave it, perhaps because it seems to me if you can figure out this music, its appeal and its danger, you have penetrated to something very important about the very best and worst of living a civilized life.

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