Anglican church music

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A parish church choir at All Saints' Church, Northampton; singers wear traditional cassock, surplice and ruff and stand in facing rows of Decani and Cantoris in the choir stalls B Boys 03.jpg
A parish church choir at All Saints' Church, Northampton; singers wear traditional cassock, surplice and ruff and stand in facing rows of Decani and Cantoris in the choir stalls

Anglican church music is music that is written for Christian worship in Anglican religious services, forming part of the liturgy. It mostly consists of pieces written to be sung by a church choir, which may sing a cappella or accompanied by an organ.

Christian worship

In Christianity, worship is the act of attributing reverent honor and homage to God. In the New Testament, various words are used to refer to the term worship. One is proskuneo which means to bow down to God or kings.

Anglicanism The practices, liturgy and identity of the Church of England

Anglicanism is a Western Christian tradition which has developed from the practices, liturgy, and identity of the Church of England following the English Reformation.

Liturgy is the customary public worship performed by a religious group. As a religious phenomenon, liturgy represents a communal response to and participation in the sacred through activity reflecting praise, thanksgiving, supplication or repentance. It forms a basis for establishing a relationship with a divine agency, as well as with other participants in the liturgy.


Anglican music forms an important part of traditional worship not only in the Church of England, but also in the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Church in Wales, the Church of Ireland, the Episcopal Church in America, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Anglican Church of Australia and other Christian denominations which identify as Anglican. It can also be used at the Personal Ordinariates of the Roman Catholic Church.

Church of England Anglican state church of England

The Church of England is the established church of England. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the most senior cleric, although the monarch is the supreme governor. The Church of England is also the mother church of the international Anglican Communion. It traces its history to the Christian church recorded as existing in the Roman province of Britain by the third century, and to the 6th-century Gregorian mission to Kent led by Augustine of Canterbury.

The seven dioceses of the Scottish Episcopal Church make up the ecclesiastical province of the Anglican Communion in Scotland. The church has, since the 18th century, held an identity distinct from that of the Presbyterian-aligned Church of Scotland.

Church in Wales Anglican church in Wales

The Church in Wales is the Anglican church in Wales, composed of six dioceses. It defines itself as "the ancient Church of this land, catholic and reformed. It proclaims and holds fast the doctrine and ministry of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church". In 2017, the Church in Wales reported 210,000 attendees in its membership statistics. The Anglican church is the largest denomination in Wales.


The chief musical forms in Anglican church music are centred around the forms of worship defined in the liturgy. [1] [2]

Service settings

Service settings are choral settings of the words of the liturgy. These include:

In Anglican church music, a service is a musical setting of certain parts of the liturgy, generally for choir with or without organ accompaniment.

The Ordinary of the Eucharist
Sung Eucharist is a musical setting of the service of Holy Communion. Naming conventions may vary according to the churchmanship of the place of worship; in churches that tend towards a low church or broad church style of worship, the terms Eucharist or Communion are common, while in high church worship, the more Catholic term Mass may be used. [3] Musical pieces corresponding to the liturgical pattern of the Ordinary of the Mass ( Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus & Benedictus, Agnus Dei ) may be sung by the choir or congregation. Many English-language settings of the communion service have been written, such as those by Herbert Howells and Harold Darke; simpler settings suitable for congregational singing are also used, such as the services by John Merbecke or Martin Shaw. In high church worship, Latin Mass settings are often preferred, such as those by William Byrd. [4]
Morning Service
The Anglican service of morning prayer, known as Mattins, is a peculiarly Anglican service which originated in 1552 as an amalgam of the monastic offices of Matins, Lauds and Prime in Thomas Cranmer’s Second Prayer Book of Edward VI. Choral settings of the Morning Service may include the opening preces and responses (see below), the Venite , and the morning canticles of Te Deum, Benedicite, Benedictus, Jubilate and a Kyrie.
Evening Service
Evening Prayer, also known as Evensong, consists of preces and responses, Psalms, canticles, hymns and an anthem (see below). The evening canticles are the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis , and these texts have been set to music by many composers. Herbert Howells alone composed 20 settings of the canticles, including Magnificat and Nunc dimittis for St Paul's Cathedral. Like Mattins, Evensong is a service that is a distinctively Anglican service, originating in the Book of Common Prayer of 1549 as a combination of the offices of Vespers and Compline. [5] Choral Evensong is sung daily in most Church of England cathedrals, as well as in churches and cathedrals throughout the Anglican Communion. It is noted for its particular appeal to worshippers and visitors, attracting both believers and atheists with its meditative quality and cultural value. [6] A service of Choral Evensong is broadcast weekly on BBC Radio 3, a tradition begun in 1926. [7]

Preces and responses

The Preces (or versicles) and responses are a set of prayers from the Book of Common Prayer for both Morning and Evening Prayer. They may be sung antiphonally by the priest (or a lay cantor) and choir. There are a number of popular choral settings by composers such as William Smith or Bernard Rose; alternatively, they may be sung as plainsong with a congregation.

Preces are, in liturgical worship, short petitions that are said or sung as versicle and response by the officiant and congregation respectively. This form of prayer is one of the oldest in Christianity, finding its source in both the pre-Christian Hebrew prayers of the Psalms in Temple Worship,

<i>Book of Common Prayer</i> Prayer book used in most Anglican churches

Book of Common Prayer (BCP) is the short title of a number of related prayer books used in the Anglican Communion, as well as by other Christian churches historically related to Anglicanism. The original book, published in 1549 in the reign of Edward VI, was a product of the English Reformation following the break with Rome. The work of 1549 was the first prayer book to include the complete forms of service for daily and Sunday worship in English. It contained Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, the Litany, and Holy Communion and also the occasional services in full: the orders for Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage, "prayers to be said with the sick", and a funeral service. It also set out in full the "propers" : the introits, collects, and epistle and gospel readings for the Sunday service of Holy Communion. Old Testament and New Testament readings for daily prayer were specified in tabular format as were the Psalms; and canticles, mostly biblical, that were provided to be said or sung between the readings.

Antiphon short sentence sung or recited before or after a psalm or canticle; call and response, especially in Christian music and ritual

An antiphon is a short chant in Christian ritual, sung as a refrain. The texts of antiphons are the Psalms. Their form was favored by St Ambrose and they feature prominently in Ambrosian chant, but they are used widely in Gregorian chant as well. They may be used during Mass, for the Introit, the Offertory or the Communion. They may also be used in the Liturgy of the Hours, typically for Lauds or Vespers.


Morning and Evening Prayer and Holy Communion include a Psalm, chosen according to the lectionary of the day. This may be sung by the choir or congregation, either to plainsong, or to a distinctive type of chant known as Anglican chant by the choir or congregation.

Lectionary book of scripture readings for a particular day or occasion

A lectionary is a book or listing that contains a collection of scripture readings appointed for Christian or Judaic worship on a given day or occasion. There are sub-types such as a "gospel lectionary" or evangeliary, and an epistolary with the readings from the New Testament Epistles.

A chant is the iterative speaking or singing of words or sounds, often primarily on one or two main pitches called reciting tones. Chants may range from a simple melody involving a limited set of notes to highly complex musical structures, often including a great deal of repetition of musical subphrases, such as Great Responsories and Offertories of Gregorian chant. Chant may be considered speech, music, or a heightened or stylized form of speech. In the later Middle Ages some religious chant evolved into song.

Anglican chant

Anglican chant, also known as English chant, is a way to sing unmetrical texts, including psalms and canticles from the Bible, by matching the natural speech-rhythm of the words to the notes of a simple harmonized melody. This distinctive type of chant is a significant element of Anglican church music.

Anthems or motets

Part-way through a service of worship, a choir may sing an anthem or motet, a standalone piece of sacred choral music, which is not part of the liturgy but is usually chosen to reflect to the liturgical theme of the day.


The singing of hymns is a common feature of Anglican worship and usually includes congregational singing as well as a choir. An Introit hymn is sung at the start of a service, a Gradual hymn precedes the Gospel, an Offertory hymn is sung during the Offertory and a recessional hymn at the close of a service.

Organ voluntary

A piece for organ, known as a voluntary, is often played at the end of a service of worship after the recessional hymn.


A choir singing choral evensong in York Minster Evensong in York Minster.jpg
A choir singing choral evensong in York Minster

Almost all Anglican church music is written for choir with or without organ accompaniment. Adult singers in a cathedral choir are often referred to as lay clerks , while children may be referred to as choristers or trebles. [8] In certain places of worship, such as Winchester College in England, the more archaic term quirister is used. [9]

An Anglican choir typically uses "SATB" voices (soprano or treble, alto or counter-tenor, tenor, and bass), though in many works some or all of these voices are divided into two for part or all of the piece; in this case the two halves of the choir (one on each side of the aisle) are traditionally named decani (or 1, for the higher voice) and cantoris (or 2, for the lower voice). There may also be soloists, usually only for part of the piece. There are also works for fewer voices, such as those written for solely men's voices or boys'/women's voices.

Many more recent works were written for, or dedicated to, one of the many famous cathedral or collegiate choirs of England.


At traditional Anglican choral services, a choir is vested, i.e. clothed in special ceremonial vestments. These are normally a cassock, a long, full-length robe which may be purple, red or black in colour, over which is worn a surplice, a knee-length white cotton robe. Normally a surplice is only worn during a service of worship, so a choir often rehearses wearing cassocks only. Younger choristers who have newly joined a choir begin to wear a surplice after an initial probationary period. Cassocks originated in the medieval period as day dress for clergy, but later came into liturgical use. Additionally, choristers may wear a ruff, an archaic form of dress collar, although this tradition is becoming less common. In some establishments, including King's College Choir, Eton collars are worn. Whist singing the offices, adult choir members may also wear an academic hood over their robes. In England, young choristers who have attained a certain level of proficiency with the Royal School of Church Music, an international educational organisation that promotes liturgical music, may wear an RSCM medallion. [10] [11]


Prior to the Reformation, music in British churches and cathedrals consisted mainly of Gregorian chant and polyphonic settings of the Latin Mass. The Anglican church did not exist as such, but the foundations of Anglican music were laid with music from the Catholic liturgy.

In the early 1530s, the break with Rome under King Henry VIII set in motion the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church and the Reformation in England. The Church of England's Latin liturgy was replaced with scripture and prayers in English; the Great Bible in English was authorised in 1539 and Thomas Cranmer introduced the Book of Common Prayer in 1549. [12] [13] These changes were reflected in church music, and works that had previously been sung in Latin began to be replaced with new music in English. This gave rise to an era of great creativity during the Tudor period, in which composition of music for Anglican worship flourished. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, musicians of the Chapel Royal such as Thomas Tallis, Robert Parsons and William Byrd were called upon to demonstrate that the new Protestantism was no less splendid that the old Catholic religion. [14] [15]

Following the events of the English Civil War and the execution of King Charles I, Puritan influences took hold in the Church of England. Anglican church music became simpler in style, and services typically focused on morning and evening prayer. During the Restoration period, musical practices of the Baroque era found their way into Anglican worship, and stringed or brass instruments sometimes accompanied choirs. In the late 17th century, the composer Henry Purcell, who served as organist of both the Chapel Royal and Westminster Abbey, wrote many choral anthems and service settings. During the Georgian era, the music of George Frideric Handel was highly significant, with his repertoire of anthems, canticles and hymns, although he never held a church post. [13]

Up until the early 19th century, most Anglican church music in England was centred around the cathedrals, where trained choirs would sing choral pieces in worship. Composers wrote music to make full use of the traditional cathedral layout of a segregated chancel area and the arrangement of choir stalls into rows of Decani and Cantoris, writing antiphonal anthems. [13]

In parish churches, musical worship normally only consisted of congregational hymns, while prayers and psalms were normally said rather than sung. The tradition of a robed choir of men and boys was virtually unknown in Anglican parish churches until the early 19th century. Around 1839, a choral revival took hold in England, partially fuelled by the Oxford Movement, which sought to revive Catholic liturgical practice in Anglican churches. Despite opposition from more Puritan-minded Anglicans, ancient practices such as intoning the versicles and responses and chanted Psalms were introduced. [16] [17] Composers active around this time included Samuel Sebastian Wesley and Charles Villiers Stanford. A number of grandiose settings of the Anglican morning and evening canticles for choir and organ were composed in the late 19th and early 20th century, including settings by Thomas Attwood Walmisley, Charles Wood, Thomas Tertius Noble, Basil Harwood and George Dyson, works which remain part of the Anglican choral repertoire today.

The singing of hymns was not an integral part of Anglican Orders of Service until the early nineteenth century, and hymns, as opposed to metrical psalms, were not officially sanctioned. [18] [19] From about 1800 parish churches started to use different hymn collections in informal service like the Lock Hospital Collection [20] (1769) by Martin Madan, the Olney hymns [21] (1779) by John Newton and William Cowper and A Collection of Hymns for the Use of The People Called Methodists [22] (1779) by John Wesley and Charles Wesley. [18] [23] Anglican hymnnody was revitalised by the Oxford Movement and led to the publication hymnals such as Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861). The English Hymnal , edited by Percy Dearmer and Ralph Vaughan Williams, was published in 1906, and became one of the most influential hymn books ever published. It was supplanted in 1986 by the New English Hymnal . [24]

The popular appeal of Christmas carols owes much to Anglican musicians; published collections such as Oxford Book of Carols (1928) and Carols for Choirs , and the annual broadcast of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College, Cambridge have done much to popularise church music. Following the early music revival of the mid-20th century, the publication of collections such as the Oxford Book of Tudor Anthems encouraged renewed interest in 17th-century composers such as Byrd and Tallis.

In all but the smallest churches the congregation was until recently confined to the singing of hymns. Over the past half century or so efforts have been made to increase the role of the congregation and also to introduce more "popular" musical styles in the evangelical and charismatic leaning congregations. Not all churches can boast a full SATB choir, and a repertoire of one-, two- and three-part music is more suitable for many parish church choirs, a fact which is recognised in the current work of the Royal School of Church Music.

Anglican churches also frequently draw upon the musical traditions of other Christian denominations. Works by Catholic composers such as Mozart, Lutherans such as Bach, Calvinists like Mendelssohn, and composers from other branches of Christianity are often featured. This is particularly the case in music for the Mass in Anglo-Catholic churches, much of which is taken from the work of Roman Catholic composers.

See also

Related Research Articles

Magnificat hymn of Mary in the Christian tradition

The Magnificat is a canticle, also known as the Song of Mary, the Canticle of Mary and, in the Byzantine tradition, the Ode of the Theotokos. It is traditionally incorporated into the liturgical services of the Catholic Church and of the Eastern Orthodox churches. It is one of the eight most ancient Christian hymns and perhaps the earliest Marian hymn. Its name comes from the incipit of the Latin version of the canticle's text.

Canonical hours Christian concept of periods of prayer throughout the day

In the practice of Christianity, canonical hours mark the divisions of the day in terms of periods of fixed prayer at regular intervals. A book of hours normally contains a version of, or selection from, such prayers.

Church service In Protestant denominations of Christianity, a meeting the primary purpose of which is the worship of God

A church service is a formalized period of Christian communal worship, often held in a church building. It often but not exclusively occurs on Sunday, or Saturday in the case of those churches practicing seventh-day Sabbatarianism. The church service is the gathering together of Christians to be taught the 'Word of God' and encouraged in their faith. Technically, the "church" in "church service" refers to the gathering of the faithful rather than to the building in which it takes place. In most Christian traditions, services are presided over by clergy wherever possible.

Nunc dimittis passage from the Gospel of Luke

The Nunc dimittis ; also known as the Song of Simeon or the Canticle of Simeon, is a canticle taken from the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke and known by its Latin name from its incipit, the opening words, of the Vulgate translation of the passage, meaning "Now you dismiss". Since the 4th century it has been used in services of evening worship such as Compline, Vespers, and Evensong.

William Henry Harris British musician

Sir William Henry Harris KCVO was an English organist and composer, affectionately nicknamed "Doc H" by his choristers.

John Marbeck, Merbeck or Merbecke was an English theological writer and musician who produced a standard setting of the Anglican liturgy. He is also known today for his setting of the Mass, Missa Per arma justitiae.

Robert Parsons was an English composer of the Tudor period who was active during the reigns of King Edward VI, Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I. He is noted for his compositions of church music.

Divine Service (Lutheran)

The Divine Service is a title given to the Eucharistic liturgy as used in the various Lutheran churches. It has its roots in the pre-Tridentine Mass as revised by Martin Luther in his Formula missae of 1523 and his Deutsche Messe of 1526. It was further developed through the Kirchenordnungen of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that followed in Luther's tradition.

Choir of St Johns College, Cambridge Collegiate choir

The Choir of St John's College, Cambridge is considered to be one of the finest collegiate choirs in the world. It is part of the English cathedral tradition, having been founded to sing the daily liturgy in the College Chapel, though it is set apart from other English choirs of this tradition by the frequent inclusion of Continental works in its repertoire and its emphasis on polyphonic interpretations. Alongside the choir of King's College, Cambridge, it is one of the two most famous collegiate choirs in Cambridge, having had over 90 recordings published.

St Peter's, Eastern Hill is the Anglican parish church of the City of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. The parish is in the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne and dates from 1847. The letters patent of Queen Victoria declaring the city status of Melbourne were read on the steps of St Peter's in 1848. The parish is well known as belonging to the Anglo-Catholic or High Church tradition.

St Matthews Church, Northampton Church in United Kingdom

St Matthew's Church, Northampton is a Church of England parish church in Northampton, within the Diocese of Peterborough.

Liturgical book Christian prayer book

A liturgical book, or service book, is a book published by the authority of a church body that contains the text and directions for the liturgy of its official religious services.

Order of Mass is an outline of a Mass celebration, describing how and in what order liturgical texts and rituals are employed to constitute a Mass.

Church music in Scotland

Church music in Scotland includes all musical composition and performance of music in the context of Christian worship in Scotland, from the beginnings of Christianisation in the fifth century, to the present day. The sources for Scottish Medieval music are extremely limited due to factors including a turbulent political history, the destructive practices of the Scottish Reformation, the climate and the relatively late arrival of music printing. In the early Middle Ages, ecclesiastical music was dominated by monophonic plainchant, which led to the development of a distinct form of liturgical Celtic chant. It was superseded from the eleventh century by more complex Gregorian chant. In the High Middle Ages, the need for large numbers of singing priests to fulfill the obligations of church services led to the foundation of a system of song schools, to train boys as choristers and priests. From the thirteenth century, Scottish church music was increasingly influenced by continental developments. Monophony was replaced from the fourteenth century by the Ars Nova consisting of complex polyphony. Survivals of works from the first half of the sixteenth century indicate the quality and scope of music that was undertaken at the end of the Medieval period. The outstanding Scottish composer of the first half of the sixteenth century was Robert Carver, who produced complex polyphonic music.


Evensong is the common name for a Christian church service originating in the Anglican tradition as part of the reformed practice of the Daily Office or canonical hours. The service may also be referred to as Evening Prayer, but Evensong is the more common name when the service is musical.

<i>Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in D</i> (Wood) Choral setting of Magnificat and Nunc dimittis

Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in D is a choral setting by the Irish composer Charles Wood of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis for the Anglican service of Evening Prayer. Scored for four-part choir and organ, it was written in 1898. It is also known as Evening Service in D major.

Daily Office (Anglican)

Since the Reformation, the Daily Office of the Anglican church has been based around two daily services: Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. These services are generally conducted according to set forms contained in the various local editions of the Book of Common Prayer. Services of the Daily Office may be led by an ordained clergyperson or by a lay person. In many Anglican provinces, ordained clergy are required to pray the two main services daily.


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