The Primrose Hill Tradition – Vol 1 | The Primrose Hill Tradition – Vol 1

The church of St Mary-the-Virgin, Primrose Hill in North London was opened in 1872. From the beginning, the style of services followed the then recently established Anglo-Catholic tradition within the Church of England. London was one of many English cities where the effects of the Oxford Movement of the 1830s were strongly felt and the Gothic revival of the time meant that practically every new church building was designed and used for newly rediscovered ornate styles of worship. This included elaborate ceremonial and music, but in English rather than the Latin that was still used in the Roman Catholic tradition.

The music at the services during the early years of St Mary’s history was predominantly the newly re-introduced plainsong, or Gregorian Chant. This, the most ancient of church music, had been banished from the Church of England at the Reformation (though the composer John Merbecke had used it as a basis for his simplified setting for the Holy Communion of the Book of Common Prayer). Its revival in the 19th century was led by those religious communities for whom much of it had originally been written in medieval Latin. Nowadays the simple beauty and rhythms of plainsong attract crowds of visitors (and record producers) to the monasteries where it is still sung.

St Mary’s Primrose Hill was one of the first parishes to sing plainsong in English. It was therefore not surprising that, in 1900, two leading figures in the Gregorian movement, Rev GH Palmer and Francis Burgess, were appointed as Choirmaster and Organist respectively. Palmer was a prolific scholar and restorer of plainsong to the Church of England, and published numerous volumes of this traditional music set out for its appropriate liturgical use. His books Offices, Grails and Alleluias (1900) and Introits, edited from the Sarum Graduale are still in use, and many of these settings were first used at St Mary’s. Palmer’s English versions of Gregorian Chant are set out in original notation, with the neums and quilismas of the medieval scribes, on a four-line music stave. Burgess, who went on to become President of the Gregorian Association from 1910 until 1948, also published extensively. His editions, however, were in modern notation, more accessible to 20th century church musicians, and generally included organ accompaniments. An important set of Liturgical Choir Books was published under Burgess’s direction containing in English and in modern musical notation the traditional music for the elaborate ceremonies of Holy Week. These books remain an essential resource, presenting versions of the Passions and other liturgical texts in plainsong and in settings by renaissance composers such as Victoria.

But changes were about to take place at St Mary’s that were to make it one of the most influential parishes in the Church of England and beyond. The key figure, though not by any means the only one, was the Rev Percy Dearmer, D.D. In 1899 he had written a book called The Parson’s Handbook in which he attempted to set out good liturgical practice in a way which was entirely in accordance with the principles of Cranmer’s Prayer Book, and was so beyond the possibility of attack by the many Protestant fundamentalists in the Church of England who opposed Anglo-Catholic practices. Dr Dearmer became Vicar of St Mary’s in 1901 and used the church as a sort of shop-window for these principles, to show that they could indeed work in a real parish and, he hoped, be adapted according to local circumstances and used elsewhere.

So what were these principles? The first was that worship should be both beautiful and dignified in the English tradition. He was unhappy with much of the Anglo-Catholic copying of complicated Roman Catholic ceremonial, since he felt it was not in keeping with English character and temperament. Secondly he was keen to raise the standard of preaching in the Church of England. Thirdly he insisted on the need for good music as a means of good worship. Just as, he claimed, people with sensitive eyes had been driven away from churches full of ugliness, so people with sensitive ears were driven away by bad music. The Parson’s Handbook was revised several times during Dearmer’s incumbency at Primrose Hill, no doubt reflecting the practical consequences of the implementation of those three principles.

With those principles in mind Dearmer created a new hymnbook, The English Hymnal, first published in 1906. He persuaded Ralph Vaughan Williams to be its musical editor, and selected or commissioned for the book writing from the whole repertoire of English poetry. Never had, or has since, a great living composer been associated with such a thing as a church hymnbook, and the result has been the world-wide influence of this book and its tradition. In researching the music for the book, Vaughan Williams discovered and re-introduced much ancient and traditional music; the influence of this work spread far beyond The English Hymnal itself. In addition to numerous plainsong hymns there are no fewer than seven tunes by the Tudor composer Thomas Tallis, one of which was the inspiration for Vaughan Williams’s famous Fantasia on a Theme of Tallis for string orchestra. He introduced a number of traditional English folk tunes and many French church melodies, one of which forms the basis for Gustav Holst’s setting of Psalm 86. Many new tunes by Vaughan Williams and others were also introduced.

Martin Shaw, who had assisted Vaughan Williams in his research for The English Hymnal, became Organist of St Mary’s in 1909, and was succeeded by his brother Geoffrey (who had been a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral and organ scholar under both Stanford and Charles Wood) from 1920 until 1930. With Dearmer, the Shaw brothers had a significant influence on the course of 20th century church music. Both were composers of fine congregational hymn tunes, several of which are still widely sung. During this period leading figures of English church music such as John Ireland, Gustav Holst and Vaughan Williams himself were to be seen in the congregation from time to time.

Dearmer, Martin Shaw and Vaughan Williams went on to produce the hymnbook Songs of Praise (1925) and The Oxford Book of Carols (1928), to which Geoffrey Shaw also made an important contribution. Like The English Hymnal, this latter book is a remarkable undertaking. Its 200 carols include traditional English carols for all seasons of the year together with modern settings commissioned by the editors. Martin and Geoffrey Shaw’s harmonisations of the traditional carols are in perfect accord with the old modal character of the tunes, and retain a simplicity and good taste that few subsequent arrangers of carols have matched.

Martin Shaw’s An Anglican Folk Mass was written at St Mary’s and is dedicated to Arthur Duncan-Jones, Dearmer’s successor as Vicar of St Mary’s, who eventually became Dean of Chichester. The Anglican Folk Mass is the only alternative to Merbecke that we can say was widely known everywhere in the Church of England.

The vigorous modern hymns, anthems and the folksong influence introduced by the Shaw brothers did not end the plainsong tradition at St Mary’s (which remains unbroken to this day). Geoffrey Shaw’s sensitive motets on plainsong hymn themes illustrate the continued influence, and JH (Jack) Arnold, assistant organist at St Mary’s during the 1920s was another key figure in the plainsong movement. He became plainsong editor of the 1933 revision of The English Hymnal, he revised and enlarged Briggs and Frere’s psalter A Manual of Plainsong, and taught future generations the practice of plainsong accompaniment.

Subsequent Organists included Arthur Clarke, Cyril Knight, EH Warrell (formerly Assistant Organist of Southwark Cathedral), David Gedge (who is now Organist of Brecon Cathedral), Anthony Greening (editor of much Tudor Church Music) and Christopher Herrick (now a distinguished organ recitalist). Subsequent Vicars include the hymn-writer George Timms, under whose leadership the New English Hymnal was published in 1986.

The choir of men and boys at St Mary’s survived into the 1960s, but in common with what happened in so many other parishes, it declined during that decade. A fresh start was made in 1975, when Ivan Fowler was appointed Organist during the incumbency of Rev Howard Hollis (himself a fine organist) and formed a new adult choir. He was succeeded in 1977 by Michael Fleming, who was at that time Staff Tutor at The Royal School of Church Music and formerly Organist at All Saint’s Margaret Street and then Croydon Parish Church. Michael Willford, who had been a member of St Mary’s choir since 1976, took over as Organist 1981 and was joined by Bryan Almond as Assistant in 1990. Together they have continued to maintain the St Mary’s tradition through the changing liturgies of recent years.

The Choir sings each week at the Sunday Morning Choral Eucharist, at Choral Evensong once a month and at evening celebrations of the Eucharist on Saints’ Days and other festivals. They have an eclectic repertoire ranging from plainsong to contemporary compositions. In addition to leading the principal services of the Church the choir regularly gives concerts and has made a number of recordings.

This disc, made in the Centenary year of Percy Dearmer’s appointment to St Mary’s, is the first in a series that will place on record a body of music written by composers associated with St Mary’s and those influenced by the tradition that grew at St Mary’s. It is intended that each disc will place into context music from different periods in the development of that tradition, some well-known, some little-known, and illustrate how wide the influence was.

© Martin Draper and Michael Willford (2001)

Martin Draper, Chaplain of St George’s Anglican Church, Paris, and Chairman of The English Hymnal Company Ltd, was Curate at St Mary’s from 1975-78.

1  With a voice of singing (click to listen) Martin Shaw
2 For the beauty of the earth (Tune: England’s Lane EH 309) Geoffrey Shaw
3 Motet on the hymn Adoramus te Geoffrey Shaw
4 Hills of the north rejoice (Tune: Little Cornard) Martin Shaw
5 Introit: Gaudeamus (for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary) Plainsong (GH Palmer)
6 He who would valiant be (Tune: Monks Gate EH 402) English trad (arr Vaughan Williams)
7 Psalm 86 (Based on melody Mon Dieu, Prête-moi EH 640)
[soloists: Mark Denza and Geraldine Willford]
Gustav Holst
8 The Reproaches (from the Good Friday Liturgy) T L da Victoria – (arr Francis Burgess)
9 For all the Saints (Tune: Sine Nomine EH 641) Vaughan Williams
10 When rising from (Tune: Third mode melody EH 92) Thomas Tallis
11 Make we joy now (OBC 23) C15 (arr Martin Shaw)
12 Song of the Nuns of Chester (OBC 67) C15 (arr JH Arnold)
13 The snow lies thick (OBC 192)
[soloists: Keith Hill and Anita Probert]
Geoffrey Shaw
14 Prelude on an Irish Hymn Tune Geoffrey Shaw
15-19 An Anglican Folk Mass (Dedicated to Revd AS Duncan Jones, 1919) Martin Shaw
20-21 Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (Fauxbourdon setting written for the Choir of St Mary’s, 1939) Arthur Clarke
22 O glorious Maid (Commissioned by Revd G Timms for David Gedge and the Choir of St Mary’s, 1962)
[soloist: Geraldine Willford]
Alan Ridout
Plainsong Cantor : Keith Hill
Abbreviations EH : English Hymnal
OBC : Oxford Book of Carols