Tuning hearts

Posted on: 18 April 2020, by :

An anthem regularly sung in Anglican services at Eastertime is this one in six parts by Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623), composed during the period from 1602 when he was employed as organist at Chichester Cathedral.

Its words, by an unknown author, are packed full of less-than-subtle references to good music-making: to finding the ideal register and the ideal key, to ensemble singing, and to instruments too where Weelkes’s harmony imitates the tuning of strings at the words ‘to tune thy heart’. In place of alleluias, the Latin acclamation Gloria in excelsis Deo (‘Glory to God in the highest’), familiar from ancient liturgy as the opening of the Gloria in the Mass, is both a framing device and the sung praise itself that is referred to in English.

Gloria in excelsis Deo.
Sing my soul to God thy Lord, 
all in glory’s highest key. 
Lay the angels’ choir abroad 
in their highest holy day.
Crave thy God to tune thy heart 
unto praise’s highest part.
Gloria in excelsis Deo.

Sung by Oxford Camerata, directed by Jeremy Summerly (CD recording, 1996).

Anglican church music of this kind traces its elaborate style in multi-part singing back to Catholic music of the period before the English Reformation was instigated in the 1540s by Henry VIII, and for this reason alone might never have survived the strict prescriptions of liturgy and practice in the Book of Common Prayer of the 1550s. The support of Elizabeth I, who, far more than Edward VI before her, tolerated ambiguity in religious observance and ‘did favour that excellente Science [music], Singinge men, and Choristers … together with their Maister the player on the Organes’ (John Bossewell, 1572), enabled the cathedrals of England like Chichester’s to resist the rising tide of condemnation by Puritans against ‘curious singing’ in ‘popish dens’. Suspicion of elaborate music in the Church of England grew even more marked in the reign of James I, the time of Weelkes’s tenure at Chichester. In the years after Weelkes’s death in 1623 it would worsen again with politicized opposition to Archbishop William Laud’s divisive reforms, when music like this was associated with the Laudian attributes that Puritans regarded as trappings of Rome (vestments, communion rails, the position of the altar, etc.). That bitter struggle for supremacy in religious control was one of the causes in England of the Civil War and would lead Parliamentary soldiers to desecrate and ransack many places of worship, including, in 1643, Chichester Cathedral and its library.

Since man-made music was a dangerous symptom, Puritans claimed, of wordliness, vanity and excess, only in heaven could music ever have its sweetest sound (a delight thus denied to us while we live). This anthem — in both its text and music — upholds the opposing view in no uncertain terms, endorsing the power, beauty, richness and appositeness of music in worship. Our souls do sing, it proclaims, and our hearts are capable of being tuned as God intends.

Sung in the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge.