Australian church music -- then and now
The beginnings of the first colony, NSW, were not auspicius for church music. It was, of course. a penal colony, a military establishment.
The one chaplain who came with the First Fleet faced enormous difficulties without much encouragement. Convicts, obliged to come, formed by far the greatest part of early congregations, and the emphasis was on, moral improvement rather than on joyous worship. The Church of England had a monopoly for some years, but the musical models back in England were generally uninspiring. Music was at that time at a low point in both most cathedrals and parish churches.
But there was some, and a letter from Governor Macquarie to D'Arcy Wentworth gives us a clue.
Sir – please pay to the bearer, M. Francis Dietrich, Master of the band of the 73rd Regiment, the sum of 2 pound, 11 shillings, 0 pence in lieu of six pairs of shoes due to him as remuneration for conducting the band in performing sacred music at church at Sydney from October 1, 1812 to March 31 inclusive, charging the same to the Police Fund.
Military bands at Sydney
The earliest church music was provided by military bands – versatile players they were – they played at church, parades, concerts, balls, wherever music in the early colony was needed. We read of the reveille band (probably buglers) and the fife and drum I band playing 'Hark the Merry Christ Church Bells' early on Sunday mornings, than marching the troops to church. But what sort of music was played during service? Probably it was very limited, and even more so as churches first grew up away from Sydney, where there were no bands to help out.
Metrical psalms and lining-out
Probably there was some chanting or intoning of responses and psalms, though often they were only spoken. There may have been singing, as hymns, or metrical psalms. in the Tate and Brady version printed sometimes at the back of the prayer book. In one of the earliest churches, Samuel Marsden's at Parramatta, one old system of lining-out was used, at least for a time. The clerk would intone, or read, one line at a time, and the congregation would repeat it after him.
We do know that Marsden himself had a Methodist background in his youth and envied Methodists their freedom to sing their hymns. He tried to bring some greater freedom into his own church by introducing a different version of the psalms – the Goode version – but Governor Macquarie would not have it. There must be strict adherence to what was then in the Prayer Book. He wrote to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, back in London, that Marsden and his assistants were:
generally of low rank and not qualified by liberal education in the usual way ... and are also much tinctured with Methodistical and other sectarian principles, which dispose them to a hasty adoption of new systems ...
Religious observances were obviously controlled. There were no Anglican choirs for at least the first thirty years of the colony, no organs, almost certainly for hymns only the singing of metrical psalms.
Catherine Fitzpatrick – Australia's first choir-leader
The honour of getting it going belongs to a lay-woman, Catherine Fitzpatrick, an Irish school-teacher who came to NSW in 1811 with two infant sons to be near her convict husband. She was an ardent Catholic and longed for the time when an official priest would arrive. In the meantime she busied herself by organising a few people to sing as a choir. One of her sons later recalled Father Therry's pleasure when he arrived:
No man on earth loved music more than Father Therry did; he could not celebrate mass in comfort without singing ... when [he] came to the colony he was surprised and delighted to find a couple of boys able to serve at mass and a few good people who could sing the church services.
There was no church or chapel until 1830, and mass was celebrated first in a hotel and then in the courthouse, but Mrs Fitzpatrick kept the choir going. She used whatever resources were available. She sang herself and organised four sons into the choir.
At first the choir sang without accompaniment. Then in 1825 two regiments stationed in NSW happened to have Catholic bandmasters, and they were happy to lend the support of their bands to Mrs Fitzpatrick's choir. So the choir learned to sing to the accompaniment of 'five or six clarinets, two bassoons, a serpent, two French horns, two flutes, a violoncello, a first and tenor violin'. Apparently they produced plenty of volume. It travelled through the walls into the Anglican church recently built next door to the court house, to the dismay of the organist and choir recently established there.
Mrs Fitzpatrick's other record – she was the only choir director ever turned out during mass by a priest.
So it was a colourful, even an exciting beginning. The little choir by 1830 had a chapel, St Mary's, destined to become Sydney's Roman Catholic cathedral.
Organs and bishops
Then in 1835 music received a boost by the arrival of the first Bishop, John Polding. He was a Benedictine monk, who believed in music as a great civilising force, an essential part of the church's liturgy. He was surprised and delighted by the singing at the mass at which he was installed. The choir had enlisted the aid of a visiting professional and other good voices. Columbus Fitzpatrick later recalled: '(the Bishop) did not expect to hear Mozart's Mass sung in Botany Bay, and well sung too'. But he didn't like the seraphine used to accompany the choir and determined to have a good organ – in his own words: 'an instrument full of dulcet honey and loud as the ocean roars when the blasts from the east drive its waters into Bondi Bay'.
First performance of Handel in Australia
Raising funds for such an organ gave the choir a chance to shine. It had already, in January 1835, presented the first choral concert in Australia, in a hotel before the Governor and a select audience of 300. Now, in September 1836, in the cathedral itself, a musical concert, proclaimed as an oratorio (the first of its kind in the colony), performed selections from Handel's Messiah and Haydn's Creation, the first of countless performances of these two favourites in the colonies.
The organ arrives, but ...
The new organ was not in place for another five years. Another grand oratorio in June 1841 to inaugurate it drew a huge crowd, all agog at rumours that it would compare favourably with the organs in Westminster Abbey and St Paul's Cathedral. The cathedral was brilliantly lit for the first time with gas jets, and again the choir was augmented by the best soloists in the colony at the time. They sang works by Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Callcott and Isaac Nathan, then organist and choirmaster at the cathedral.
The big disappointment was that the organ itself was barely heard. There was apparently no musician in the colony able to do it justice, so there were no organ solos, a military band still played some of the accompaniments, and when it was played it could scarcely be heard above the singers. Nevertheless it was in place, a tremendous advantage.
Musicians at St Mary's, Sydney
By the 1840s, then, St Mary's had become a musical centre, able to enlist the services or the help of the best-known musicians of the time – William Vincent Wallace for instance, known as the Australian Paganini, and later composer of the opera 'Maritana'; Isaac Nathan, composer of the Hebrew Melodies (settings of poems specially composed by Lord Byron), performer, composer, teacher, musicologist (the first to seriously study aboriginal music); William Cordner, best-known musician in the Sydney of the 1850s and 1860s.
Debates and tensions
But there were dangers and tensions developed around three issues:
The choir: performance or worship?
The first was: what was the function of the choir, performance or worship? It was an issue that aroused strong differences of opinion, and there was chopping and changing.
Polding soon came to the conclusion that the choir of men and women, including professional singers, had been allowed too much to literally call the tune, to the detriment, among other things, of Gregorian chant. So in 1839 he set up the Choral Society of the Cathedral of St Mary to train 50 recruits at a time who would be bonded to the choir for 3 years. There was indignation and the danger of the older choir members leaving. Polding wrote to his cousin about it:
This cannot be helped. We never could have them behave properly in the choir, and their example would be most pernicious to the new choir, so that the loss of their voices – and some of them are magnificent – is counterbalanced by a great good.
But star singers were needed for the big performances, and back they came. Reform was attempted again in 1848 by the new Coadjutor-Bishop Davis when he took over the choir. He organised a choir of men and boys from the monastery then attached to St Mary's, and one observer noted at the time that there was some loss of skills, but the singing was simple, with less flourish and ornament. 'The great gain, however', he wrote, 'is that singers are now worshippers, whereas formerly they were, for the most part, performers'.
After Davis died, however, Cordner took over, nullified the reforms, and back came the professional singers and women's voices. And so the question remained: was the music used too much as a vehicle for performers rather than as an expression of worship?
The second issue: how did congregational singing fare? Polding wanted to encourage the congregational singing of hymns, and he seems to have feared that ordinary people felt that singing in church was not for the likes of them but only for specialists. He wrote in a sort of pastoral letter in 1856 that he hoped no-one would be held back by 'false pride or any shape of human respect'. No special knowledge is required, he wrote, 'we are not offering music to the criterion of the artist', but only an expression of the thankfulness, the hopes, the penitence that spring from the heart as it comes before the throne of God.
Music appropriate to worship?
The third issue was whether the music sung at St Mary's was appropriate to worship. The masses of Haydn, Mozart, Gounod and their 19th century imitators were immensely popular. But there was a growing conviction among those concerned with the church's liturgy that they weren't satisfactory vehicles for that liturgy. They were too dramatic, theatrical and showy, and appropriate music was that of Gregorian chant and the polyphonic music of the 16th century.
These ideas were actually circulated in an instruction of the Pope in 1903. But for a variety of reasons St Mary's took a long time to change. As late as 1922 it was claimed that the Haydn and Mozart masses still being performed in St Mary's would break the Pope's heart. The most significant change did not come until 1955, when a choir school was set up to train choristers. Gradually it was trained to master not only plainsong and classical polyphony but modern liturgical works and the changes in music required by the English mass introduced in the 1960s.
St Mary's stood in an ancient tradition that embraced complex and glorious music as an essential part of liturgy. St Stephen's stood in a vastly different tradition.
Up to 1875, that is 55 years after St Mary's choir was formed, the only music in services was unaccompanied singing of metrical psalms and paraphrases (that is, passages of the Bible) set to metre for singing. It was led by a precentor whose only instrument was a tuning-fork. The congregation sat to sing and stood to pray. The struggle to introduce a choir, then hymns, then instrumental accompaniment was long and hard-fought. It's all there in the church's records, and it makes fascinating reading.
Improving the singing
In 1871 the elders and deacons were concerned about the quality of psalm singing, so they allowed a few enthusiasts to form themselves into a choir – or more tactfully, the precentor's assistants.
The next step was to introduce hymns and possibly an organ. The Session in 1875 decided to take the plunge and start using the hymn-book authorised by the General Assembly. They had to have second thoughts. A minority was determined to resist vehemently.
Session at its meeting in June 1875 had before it two letters and one petition. In the first letter a Mr Gregg asked the elders if they knew there was a harmonium in the church hall, and if so had they given permission for it to be there. Yes, replied the minister, he had given permission for its use during weekly practices.
The second letter, from a Mr McDonald, stated that he objected to hymns and any proposal for instrumental music.
The petition, with 180 names, was in support of the use of an instrument in worship.
What was Session to do? Understandably they did nothing for a few months. Then they called a congregational meeting. Discussion was so lively and long that the meeting had to be adjourned. Three nights later three questions were put to the vote: should instrumental music be used? Should the congregation use the hymn book authorised by the General Assembly? Should the congregation stand to sing?
By a big majority, the use of hymns and standing to sing were approved, and introduced within a month. But the majority approving an instrument was smaller, and the minority was very vehement in its opposition. The Session, fearful of splitting the congregation, invited those opposed to an instrument to meet with them. Fifteen people did so, and so forceful were they in expressing their views that Session decided to do nothing more for another year.
One amazing thing is the size of the vote. Well over 400 people turned up to that meeting, on a winter's night in August – evidence of the strength of feelings aroused on both sides.
Those feelings continued to run high. The choir persisted in pressing for the use of the harmonium for practice (its use had apparently been withdrawn); 'not just for the moment,' replied Session.
An organ is purchased
When the twelve months had elapsed for further consideration of an organ, Session believed that a big majority wanted it and decided to arrange for a purchase. It was too much for Mr Gregg, he withdrew from the church with his family, and others left with them.
A harmonium was used during the long wait of four years before the organ was in place. Trouble brewed again at its first use. It has been introduced specifically for the accompaniment of singing – nothing more, but the organist had played voluntaries, to play the congregation in and out. This time the protest came from the long-serving and devoted Session Clerk, Mr Anderson. He believed this unauthorised playing 'a gross violation of the right of Christian people' and handed in his resignation.
Mr Anderson was calmed down and withdrew his resignation, and Session declared its intention of keeping a tight rein on musical developments.
What happened elsewhere
The St Stephen's experience was not unusual. The writer of the Presbyterian Church's Centenary History, published about 1900, wrote about the changes rather humorously, though organists may think him altogether too cavalier about the skills necessary for organ-playing:The hymn book has had to fight its way into general use among Presbyterians, in the face of formidable opposition. The same may be said of the organ. In the early days the praise was led by the Precentor with the aid of his tuning-fork. Sometimes the Precentor had no such instrument, or, if he had, knew not well how to use it. The consequence was that the pitching was a matter of much uncertainty. Sometimes it was too low and sometimes too high, and occasionally, so high that the precentor had to be left to scale the heights alone. Sometimes also congregations were treated to a display of amusing ingeniousity in adapting a common metre tune to a long metre psalm or vice versa. But there is an end of all that now. The organ has proved of great service in the matter of praise, especially in the country districts, where it is not difficult in general to find a young lady who, having learned to play the piano, can soon learn the organ. In most districts it would be far easier to find an organist than to find a competent precentor. The organ has proved a valuable acquisition to our congregations and a great comfort to the minister, who in the early days had oft-times to act as his own precentor, unless he happened to be blessed with a musical wife who would not be frightened at the sound of her own voice. It is not a little amusing in many cases to see how completely the ancient prejudices against hymns and organs has become transmitted into a warm appreciation of them by lapse of time and experience of their use.
That was the case at St Stephen's. Music continued to creep in. Anthems and voluntaries were allowed by 1895 and were approved and appreciated, and its choir became an important part of this church's life.
It's easy to scoff at the old Presbyterians as narrow-minded and puritanical. But they had strong reasons. They never underestimated the power of music and they loved the psalms and cared deeply about their being sung well. But the all-important thing was praise by congregational singing and no performance for display. The fear of hymns sprang directly from concern for the Bible as the centre of worship. Psalms, canticles and paraphrases came directly from the world of God – hymns were 'human' and could introduce a personal, emotional element into worship which could weaken its Biblical orientation. So resistance to change was a matter of conscience.
St George's Church, Perth
It would be entirely wrong to leave Anglican Church music to the few words I gave it at the beginning, but a few more words will have to suffice. The rather bleak start in NSW was happily not repeated in colonies settled later. In Perth, for instance, beginnings were quite different. The atmosphere had changed. For a start, when the first Anglican church was built, Western Australia was a colony of free settlers, with no convicts. Timing made a difference also. The colony was founded in 1829, and by the time it was beginning to get on its feet, music was coming more into its own in the Church of England. One doesn't know quite what to make of one of the earliest references to the singing at St. George's Church (later to be the cathedral). Fanny Bussell, in her diary, wrote of church in Perth: 'Mr. Wittenoon performs the service very impressively and the music is not infamous.' But by the time a new St George's was opened early in 1845, there was a choir of fifteen that sang 'Lift Up Your Heads!' and, inevitably then, the Hallelujah Chorus, as well as a Te Deum, a Jubilate, and two Psalm settings. In some ways the situation at St. George's resembled the early St. Mary's in Sydney. The choir seems to have been made up of a group of great enthusiasts, and they were enthusiastic and talented enough to give the first public concert in Perth – guess what for what for? – to raise money for an organ. For once we know the whole program – 17 items, Handel, Beethoven, Mozart, Sarti – solos, duets, trios, quartets, choruses, some of them demanding, like Zadok and the Priest and the Hallelujah Chorus – all performed 'with triumphant volume of tone' by a piano and 6 ladies and 7 gentlemen, three of them from the same family.
Fresh breezes were blowing in the Church of England in the nineteenth century particularly in its last decades. It was able to produce massed choirs of staggering numbers, given the size of the population. For the Centennial Exhibition in 1888, in Melbourne, there was a choir of 750 carefully chosen singers which, in six months, gave 30 grand choral concerts and 22 popular concerts. In the new atmosphere, Anglican church music left behind its bleak beginnings.
St Paul's Church, Melbourne
It wasn't, however, always plain sailing. For instance, at St. Paul's Church in Melbourne (the forerunner of the cathedral), George Allan (the first of the family associated with the music-sellers, Allan and Co.) trained a choir to sing harmonised responses and to chant psalms. This raised the strong opposition of the Bishop and the temporary resignation of the choir. There was quite an uproar and some public controversy. The problem seemed to be whether or not these practices compromised the Protestant character of the Church of England. So the Anglican Church had its own strains and tensions arising from questions of churchmanship -- in this case Low Church susceptibilities had been offended. It was another form of the question -- what was church music for, and what music was appropriate?
Leigh was the first Methodist minister.
The second Methodist minister to come to Australia was a young man, Walter Lawry. The diary he kept from his voyage out in 1818 on board a convict transport, captures his fears, his forebodings, his hopes, his feelings of inadequacy. Any hymns seem to flow from his pen as a natural and spontaneous expression of his feelings. On Good Friday he records that no notice was taken of the day on board ship. But he finds consolation in reading, and he writes: 'I here register to the praise of the Most High that in all my life I never enjoyed more strong consolations than now.' He wrote the words of this hymn:
O the goodness of God in employing a clod,
His tribute of glory to raise,
His standard to bear, and with triumph declare,
His unsearchable riches of grace.
Arriving in Sydney he found some tensions. Some Methodists who followed Calvinist teachings were as strict as Presbyterians about hymns. But Lawry linked up with people who shared his own brand of Methodism. In these early days they attended services at the Anglican churches, but in addition held their own class meetings and love-feasts, and here they loved to sing.
Lawry quickly organised the building of the first regular Methodist chapel in the southern hemisphere, at Windsor. At the laying of the foundation stone, he wrote:
We lifted up our voices and rejoiced with singing. My soul has had few more happy seasons. God was in the place.
This love of hymn singing the Methodists, of course, never lost. But here again, there was some tension and it created resistance to attempts to introduce more order into Methodist services and more music other than hymn-singing. As one writer in the Methodist magazine in 1887 summed it up: 'The strength of Methodism consists in a simple form of service, good and hearty congregational singing and in the power of the pulpit.'
I would like now to focus on another use of music – its place in evangelism, and that brings me first to a man who seems to me to be one of the most attractive and interesting people in Australian history – the Spaniard Bishop Rosendo Salvado, who will probably be well-known to people from Western Australia, less well-known to others.
Bishop Rosendo Salvado
Salvado was born into a well-to-do family in Spain and showed great musical talent when he was very young. He became a Benedictine monk, and, although he followed the rigorous life of the order, his musical talents were encouraged and he became widely known as a brilliant organist and a good singer. When he was 30, in 1845, he and a friend, Serra, came to Western Australia as missionaries to the aborigines.
It is an extraordinary story. These two Spanish monks, products of an ancient civilisation, devoted to the rich and colourful liturgy of the Spanish church, set out without delay, with a party of six all told, in the hottest part of summer, into the Australian bush, intent on losing no time in making contact with aboriginals. They did in fact for a while live the wandering life of one aboriginal tribe before they settled to start building a monastery which became the nucleus of the settlement of New Norcia, about 130 km north of Perth, which still exists today as a Benedictine monastery and a tiny settlement.
Salvado quickly became the leader of the group. For the rest of his life he was devoted to the aboriginal people. Many people at that time believed that they could not survive. Salvado believed passionately in their future and had a great respect for their civilisation. His great hope was that his Benedictine community would bring to the aboriginal people the best of European civilisation and win them to Christianity, and would provide a haven in which they, particularly the young ones, would learn to cope with their new situation among Europeans. He didn't look for anything dramatic, only for a slow and patient process of conversion and change.
Music – a link between two civilisations
The important thing for us at the moment is that music played an important part. It was a link between the two civilisations. Salvado found aboriginal children exceptionally quick to mimic sounds and pick up tunes, and amazingly adept at learning to play European musical instruments. He himself was keenly interested in aboriginal music and religion and its rituals. He listened to aborigines singing, noted down rhythms and tonal patterns, and he got children to sing hymns with him in their native tongue and adapted to their own rhythmic beat. And he came to believe that, with their own background of ritual, aborigines could respond easily to the colour and richness of Catholic liturgy. He drew some into singing in choirs, simplifying and adapting masses for their particular use. It was later said that 'music has been the portal through which the natives entered the Church.' Music remained central to the life of New Norcia for years, and as late as the 1940s aboriginal boys were joining monks in the chanting of the mass.
Salvado and his Benedictines of New Norcia were patient, not looking for quick results. I want to focus for a moment on the evangelists who wanted quick and obvious results – the popular revivalist preachers. Music was essential to their methods also.
From about the 1870s on, Australian churches were caught up in this world-wide movement and became familiar with its music. In 1877 Alexander Somerville, the famous evangelist from Scotland, introduced the Moody and Sankey hymn book which became widely known. One Methodist minister described a very impromptu service he held in 1906 in a shearing shed during the shearing season.I had hymn books to hand around and we sang. I say 'we' for I have never found yet a gathering that could not sing some of the best-known of Sankey's hymns. The concertina very ably led.
A visit in 1909 by the evangelist Chapman, with his musical leader Alexander points up how important music was. It was used deliberately to play on strong emotions – guilt, fear, hope.
Church papers printed graphic accounts of what went on in big meetings. Alexander would appear on stage, greeted with cries of 'The Glory Song' or 'Pray Through' from all sides. He would cajole everybody into singing, intersperse solos, teach new hymns. Wrote one enthusiast:He is like a living musical box, rendered vocal at will. With mind aglow, brain alert, eyes that hold command and appeal, a thorough knowledge of his audience, Charles Alexander, like a trained expert, sways the people till the right note is struck and men and women are sung into the Kingdom.
A special meeting for old people led up to 'Shall We Gather at the River', 'In the Sweet By and By', 'Safe in the Arms of Jesus'. Another meeting centred on home life, advice for parents and prayers for erring children, and the climax came with a soloist softly singing:
I have come home by sin beset,
For Jesus loves me even yet;
My mother's love brings home to me
The greater love of Calvary.
Another description likened him to an army engineer, full of strategy to win the citadel and sapping the foundations with his music: 'The preacher simply marches in with his battalions and bursts open the already rocking gates of the heart.'
The Salvation Army
The years which saw visiting evangelists and special missions also saw the Salvation Army. Their special mission was to the poor and outcast; they took to the streets and they didn't mind how much noise they made to attract attention and express their own particular experience of liberation and joy.
In our time, we are used to a highly organised, rather sedate and business-like Salvation Army, but in the 1880s and 1890s it was innovative, experimental, raucous. For the Army, music was all-important. You all know something of its hymns and brass bands. These were the days when the brass bands took to the streets in a big way to attract others along. Thus, a report of street meetings in Melbourne in 1886:Some nights this week we have had forty soldiers in the march. Away through the streets we go, singing and dancing, timbrels rattling, band playing, people following us to the barracks.
Or the bands would go out to try to draw people away from the pubs. In 1884, for instance, at La Trobe in Tasmania, Lieutenant Charlie Tyler organised a route march from pub to pub.The captain with cornet, the lieutenant with drum, and a few singing soldiers marched up the main street, processing very slowly past each hotel with appropriate songs, prayers and scripture and attracting a crowd.
A rival army
Some of the choruses were about converting the landlords and the barmaids. Little wonder that the larrikins of that time picked on the Salvationists, and in a few places were given money by the local hotel-keepers to organise rival armies, dubbed skeleton armies with their flags of skull and crossbones, and howling their own versions of Salvation Army songs. Hardly the music sung of RSCM singers. But it had a place in our history, and in its heyday brought colour and liveliness to many who were at the bottom of the social ladder.
Mainline churches take to the streets
Mainline churches also went out into the streets with music. The Central Methodist Mission in Sydney, for instance, had its brass band. Some church people looked askance, but the Rev. Taylor justified its use:If a brass band will draw a large crowd to hear the gospel in the streets that otherwise could scarcely be gathered together ... we may well thank God that in catching the spirit of the Psalmist in Psalm 150, we are but bringing glory to the name of our great Master (i.e. Praise God with trumpet, lute and harp, tambourine and dance, strings and pipe and clashing cymbal).
We shouldn't labour the tension and difficulties in the life of the church. But perhaps what history is trying to tell us is that church musicians are concerned with two states of harmony; the inner harmony of the music itself, and the harmony or fitting into the total life and needs of the church.
It is most beautiful and joyous and pleasant when it never loses sight of its main purpose, worship -- or of those people who can't enter the rather rarefied atmosphere of some church music, and who accordingly find their release and succour in music which, in comparison, may seem banal and trite.