I once saw a claim that most people only cook one or two recipes from each cookery book that they own, and I think often the same is true of music, whether we are performing or listening. It’s certainly true that hard-working church choirs, with limited rehearsal time and resources, tend to settle on a core repertoire of liturgical music, returning regularly to the old favourites that everyone can sing in their sleep (which can be useful on a Sunday morning…), so when the Bachtrack editors asked me to write a piece about “hidden gems of choral music”, I thought it would be fun to explore some alternatives to the classics of English church music.

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Tudor anthems: Amner & Ramsey

English choral music had its first great flowering under the Tudors, and Elizabeth I was particularly supportive of church musicians, even tolerating unswerving Catholics such as William Byrd. One of the most famous pieces in the Tudor repertoire is Thomas Tallis’s monumental 40-part motet Spem in alium whilst at the simpler end of the scale, his English anthems such as If ye love me and Byrd’s Ave Verum can regularly be heard in parish churches around Britain. These are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Tudor music, and thanks to sites such as CPDL more of these treasures are readily available to everyone.

Try, for example, the music of John Amner, who I discovered thanks to the group Stile Antico, who included several of his works on their album Tune thy Musicke to thy Hart. Here is his Caesar's Service, performed here, appropriately, by the choir of Ely Cathedral, where Amner was organist.


One name that cropped up several times when I asked my friends for their “hidden gems” was Robert Ramsey. He was organist at Trinity College Cambridge, and although he’s technically not Tudor, as he flourished in the early 17th century, his style is similar, although with a lighter touch. In How are the mighty fallen, David mourns the death of his friend Jonathan, with a similar outpouring of musical grief as Tomkins and Weelkes give us in their more well-known treatments of David’s later loss of his son, When David heard.

Score: http://www0.cpdl.org/wiki/index.php/How_are_the_mighty_fallen_(Robert_Ramsey)

Early Baroque: John Blow

The development of English church music was interrupted in the 17th century by enforced silence from Cromwell’s puritan government: after the Tudor giants, the next composer, chronologically, who features in the standard church repertoire is Henry Purcell. But have a listen to this beautiful setting of the Salvator mundi by Purcell’s teacher and predecessor at Westminster Abbey, John Blow. The fervent intensity of the opening bars reflects the resurgent Catholicism of James II’s court:

score: www.cpdl.org/wiki/index.php/Salvator_mundi_(John_Blow)

Choral Evensong

One of the greatest contributions of English cathedrals and college choirs to the world of music must surely be the service of choral evensong. The service consists of two sung canticles – the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, sung responses, and an anthem. There are numerous settings of the “Mag and Nunc”, with those by Charles Villiers Stanford and Herbert Howells among the best known: my own favourite is Stanford in C, and the first chords of the Gloria of Howells’ Collegium Regale setting are simply choral heaven. There are plenty of other settings though, and I’ve picked a setting by Howells’ near contemporary, Edmund Rubbra, in A-flat, for its delicious harmonies and meaty organ part.


Nunc Dimittis:

Edwardian anthems: Arthur Sullivan

The next great burst of English liturgical choral writing came in the early 20th century. I’ve already mentioned Stanford’s service settings, and he also wrote lots of lovely anthems. The other really famous name from this period is Charles Hubert Hastings Parry – composer of that royal favourite I was Glad, as well as Jerusalem and several other popular hymn tunes. Say the name of Arthur Sullivan, and most people will name (or hum) tunes from one of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. Those who pay close attention to their hymn books will also know Sullivan as the composer of a number of hymn tunes, including those used for Onward Christian soldiers and It came upon a midnight clear. Sullivan also wrote a lot of religious music, that deserves more performances; it’s good solid Edwardian fare, full of warmth and soaring melody.

Here is Sullivan’s Lead Kindly Light, an alternative to Stainer’s well known setting of this lovely poem by John Henry Newman:



Contemporary choral music

Happily, English choral composition is still thriving today. There’s a vast choice of contemporary liturgical music ranging from the fiendishly challenging pieces by composers such as Julian Anderson, Jonathan Dove, Tarik O’Regan and Judith Weir, to the enduringly popular and singable works by John Rutter that are within the reach of parish church choirs. Scottish composer James MacMillan has a foot in both camps, writing challenging music for professional choirs (often with dizzyingly high soprano lines) as well as service music for the choir of his own church in Glasgow.

His setting of Psalm 96, A New Song, written for St Bride’s Episcopal Church, Glasgow falls into the latter category – listen out for MacMillan’s signature Scottish folksong “snap” rhythm:


Thank you to everyone who contributed suggestions for this article, particularly Philip Lawton and David Butler. I couldn’t include everything, but I enjoyed following up all the ideas I was given and they were much appreciated.