A branch of the drawing-room repertoire which grew in importance throughout the nineteenth century was the sacred song. The term 'sacred song' could be used to denote anything from a simple hymn to a complex ballad of the Russell gran scena variety based on a religious theme. In the last quarter of the century, some ballads cannot be readily separated into straightforward sacred or secular categories: it is debatable, for instance, which of these labels would best describe 'The Lost Chord', 'The Better Land', or 'The Holy City' (three ballads discussed in detail in Chapter 7). Part of the problem is that the entertainment of the drawing room came to uphold 'the ideal of the week of seven Sabbaths' (Disher 140).

At first, sacred songs were thought of as part of Sunday evening's entertainment in the home. An early publication aimed at this market is James Hook's Sunday Evening's Recreation (1806), a collection of hymns, solos, and duets with piano arrangements; it sold well enough to be reissued two years later. More activity is discernable in the 1830s, with music being produced for Sunday Schools, and further voice and piano arrangements of hymns being provided for home use (for example, Family Hymns, published by Chappell in 1837). The market for hymns at this time was located among the Dissenting middle class; in the Anglican church, music had become a wayward affair, and in some parishes non-existent. Greater interest in Anglican church music was shown in the 1840s, when societies were formed to promote church music, recruit choirs, and throw out the village band (or at least insist that they play only sacred music — See Mackerness 191-93). Much of the impetus came from Tractarians, who emerged as a potent force in what was called the Oxford Movement (since it was in Oxford that Keble delivered his influential sermon on 'The National Apostasy' [text] in 1833). A debate over the nature of religious authority split the Anglican church between Evangelicals and Tractarians, the latter moving ever closer to Rome (and, in the case of Newman, all the way). The 'high church' Tractarians stressed the importance of Com- munion as the Christ-given service of the church and placed great weight upon the choir and music during services. The 'low church' Evangelicals, whose leading spokesman was Charles Simeon, had been concerned to contain religious fervour within the Anglican church rather than move to Dissent. The original spur to the Evangelical movement had perhaps been the perceived threat of French Republican atheism and Jacobinism; this certainly accounted for the involvement of influential laymen like Wilberforce. The feudal character of the [103/104] Established Church, seen in the yawning gap between wealthy bishops and poor curates, was in urgent need of reform.

The majority of the middle class, for historical reasons, were nonconformists. The unwillingness of early Dissenters, such as Quakers, to take loyalty oaths had restricted the career opportunities available to them. Quakers Lloyd, then Barclay, took banking to the provinces; other Dissenters formed companies to pay 'navigators' (gangs of workers who, in the 1830s, came to be known as 'navvies') to build canals and, later, railways. Industry was a career for which pupils at Dissenting schools were well fitted: these schools had the advantage of up-to-date equipment. Dissenters held most of the mining concessions in the country, something which proved immensely valuable with the development of coke-fired furnaces. The religious character of industrial capitalism was, therefore, Dissenting; furthermore, 'Nonconformist strength went on increasing, as the middle and working classes of the new industrial order continued to grow in numbers, wealth, political power and social esteem.'3 In industrial districts there were often either Dissenting churches or none at all. The relationship of the class division between aristocracy and bourgeoisie to the religious division between church and chapel was made transparently clear when the bishops tried to stop the Reform Bill in 1831. Once that Bill was passed, the Dissenters, in their turn, fully expected the disestablishment of the Anglican church to follow; instead, various Parliamentary reforms took place.

Hymns and sacred solos

Nonconformist hymns were a transforming influence on church congregational music: the hymns of Isaac Watts (1674-1748) and Charles Wesley (1707-88) challenged, then superseded the metrical psalms previously sung in church. Watts worked in the Calvinist tradition of close adherence to the Biblical text but differed in allowing personal reflection, as in 'When I Survey the Wondrous Cross'. Watts was an Independent, and his hymns became popular with Baptists and Presbyterians. Charles Wesley, the brother of John Wesley, was actually the one who founded the 'Holy' Club, the original Methodists. Strong emphasis on the personal was a constant feature of his hymns, and it accorded well with a burgeoning middle-class individualist ideology. The idea of God's caring love for the individual was also a comfort to the poor. 'Jesu, Lover of My Soul' was a favourite; this hymn also shows that Wesley's novelty lay not only in his content, but also in his experiments in metre and verse structure. The unusual trochaic metre for 'Jesu, Lover of My Soul' set a precedent for Toplady's equally personal 'Rock of Ages'. Melodically he made a conscious gesture in the direction of the middle class by employing tunes which resembled the musical style of contem- porary theatre, in particular that of oratorio (the tunes to Methodist hymns became broader in popular appeal as time went on). The English oratorio, as established by Handel, was written in a style associated with secular musical practice and performed in the theatre, a fact which had brought Handel into early confrontation with the Bishop of London.4

Recognition of the crucial importance [104/105] of Handel to the development of English sacred music is given in a large Edwardian song collection:

Since the time of The Messiah [sic], sacred music in England has been utterly unlike what it was before. We had nothing remotely comparable, in melodic character, to such airs as, 'He shall feed His Flock', 'I know that my Redeemer liveth', and other airs which have long been installed as first favourites of English speaking nations throughout the world.5

Handel made much use of the Italian operatic style in his oratorios, but the influence of Purcell is not negligible. Charles Wesley also shows his familiarity with Purcell by parodying the air 'Fairest Isle' (words by Dryden, from the 'semi-opera' King Arthur) in his hymn 'Love Divine All Loves Excelling'. Compare the first stanzas of each:

Fairest Isle, all isles excelling,
Seat of pleasures and of loves;
Venus here will choose her dwelling,
And forsake her Cyprian groves.

Love Divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven, to earth come down,
Fix in us thy humble dwelling,
All thy faithful mercies crown.

Wesley thus sets a precedent for 'divine parodies' of music from the stage, a practice usually associated with the Salvation Army.

In the 1840s the hymns sung by families on Sunday evenings began to be supplemented by more and more of the solo songs coming on to the market. At mid-century, these newcomers fell into three recognizable types: the short strophic song resembling the hymn, the song modelled on the solo found in oratorio, and the genteel style of ballad already familiar in the drawing room. Caroline Norton's 'No More Sea' (1853), No. 2 of her Sabbath Lays, shows where the hymn stops and the drawing-room ballad begins. Structurally, it is not unlike a hymn, being a sixteen-bar melody in regular phrases. However, it differs in a crucial respect: it is composed for a solo voice. The hymn's function as a vehicle for collective expression holds consequences for its musical form:

The hymn tune is even more shackled in regard to verbal expression than its secular counterpart, the ballad. A ballad singer can vary the length of notes from verse to verse, so as to improve the elocutional force of the words. Metrical irregularities can be accommodated. But in the case of the hymn tune this is not possible. The hymn tune is for the congregation, a vast unyielding mass . . .6

The tune of 'No More Sea' does, indeed, contain adjustments to suit the slight differences between various stanzas, either in numbers of syllables or change of accent. The words themselves reflect upon a Biblical text (Revelation 21: 1 and 4) in a manner common to hymns. The melody is described as an 'Arab air', introducing an exotic element which would have held connotations both sacred and secular. On the one hand there would have been a suggestion of Palestine and things holy, and on the other an association with exotic theatre sets (Weber, for [105/106] example, had included an 'Arab melody' in the Finale of Act I of Oberon). Norton's tune turns out to be a precursor of that familiar today as the 'Hootchy Kootchy Dance', supposedly composed by New York Congressman Sol Bloom for an Egyptian dance at the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition in 1893.

Although this tune can be found circulating in the 1890s in profane form, as a danse du ventre (belly dance), the reverse also happened, and sacred versions supplanted secular ones, as when Mendelssohn's 'Gutenberg der Grosse Mann' became 'Hark! The Herald Angels Sing'. In the nineteenth century it was generally acknowledged that music 'in itself is neither secular nor sacred, and each piece must be judged upon its merits’; 7 but dispute about those merits might focus on the extent to which a tune's secular associations create distractions to worship. The piano accompaniment was very much an integral part of Norton's Sabbath Lays, highlighting their character as Sunday drawing-room ballads. Their appeal to the home-music market was further enhanced by their being published by Chappell separately with colour lithographs on their front covers.

A colourful and richly decorative cover also adorns Maria Lindsay's 'Resignation', published by Robert Cocks & Co. in 1856. Cocks divided up his publication list of Lindsay's songs into sacred and secular categories and gave many of the former 'elegantly illuminated titles', which lent a gothic splendour to her work. Musically, 'Resignation' is indebted to the English oratorio as established by Handel and given fresh impetus in the 1840s by Mendelssohn. The latter's Elijah had been received with enormous acclaim at the Birmingham Triennial Festival in 1846. One air from the work, 'O Rest in the Lord', became a particular favourite in the drawing room; its narrow compass and uncomplicated technical demands were admirably suited to the amateur performer. A combination of simplicity and musical subtlety was what was so highly esteemed in Handel; a critic notes with regard to 'He Shall Feed His Flock' (from Messiah): 'A boy often may sing this air with effectiveness, while the greatest artist may find in it scope for the highest intelligence of expression (Buckley 10.). Its ease of execution for the performer is not a universal feature of Handel's music, but where it existed it found a ready market: for example, between 1815 and 1905 a new edition of the air 'Angels Ever Bright and Fair' (from Theodora) was issued, on average, every five years. Lindsay's 'Resignation' has exactly the same compass (ten notes) as 'Angels Ever Bright and Fair' but does not possess the fluidity of musical phrasing found in this and other music by Handel. Some flexibility is, however, necessary to meet the [106/107] demands of Biblical prose, which does not offer the regular patterns of metrical verse. Lindsay employs repetition of words as well as the declamatory device of recitative, a traditional means of accommodating the difficulty presented by a prose text; yet the end result of these compositional techniques is often nothing more than a constant succession of two-bar phrases.

The text is taken from II Samuel 12: 22-23 and concerns the need for resignation following the death of a beloved child. Sacred songs for the home dealing with the deaths of children are not uncommon; their quantity is probably related to the high infant and child mortality rate (from which the middle class were not immune) — See Best 74-75 — and the family's need to come to terms with their bereavement, or that of their close relatives. There would have been few without the experience of attending a burial service for a young child. A favourite text, suggesting, perhaps, an added importance attached to the male child, was David's lament for Absalom; a setting made by Lindsay of these words in 1868 (again, in oratorio manner) was particularly highly regarded. It is difficult, now, to perceive the 'originality, sweetness, and extreme pathos'10 which her sacred songs were thought to possess, since her melodic lines seem so plain and predictable. Yet perhaps her achievement in adapting the refined and professional medium of the oratorio to the capabilities of the home circle was felt to oner new dignity to Sunday-evening music-making.

The third variety of sacred song at mid-century has its roots in the 'improving' ballad of the Henry Russell type. There is no difference in style between Joseph Knight's genteel settings of Bayly's verse and his setting of Emma Willard's 'Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep', published in London in 1846.11 The same slow rate of change of harmonies, sentimental chromatic inflexions to the melody, and gentle pace are present. If there was some doubt as to whether or not 'Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep' was a sacred song, since it resembled neither a hymn nor an air from an oratorio, it is strange that no such doubts applied to Stephen Glover's duet 'What Are the Wild Waves Saying?', published by R. Cocks & Co. in 1849.12 It may be that Glover's success with his Songs from the Holy Scriptures of the preceding year inclined people to think automatically in terms of the sacred category, even though there is no more of Holy Writ in this duet than in 'Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep'; it is, in fact, based on a scene from Charles Dickens's [108/109] Dombey and Son. A sick Paul Dombey demands of his sister Florence, 'I want to know what it says — the sea — what is it that it keeps on saying?' Dickens fails to give a precise enough answer in his novel, but this defect is remedied by J. E. Carpenter who wrote the words to the duet. He has Paul and Florence proclaiming together ecstatically,

The voice of the great Creator
Dwells in that mighty tone!

Again, a slow harmonic rhythm (generally one or two chords per bar), a sentimental sprinkling of chromatic notes in the tune, and a modest tempo reveal its ancestry in the polite style of the drawing room. A kinship with Russell's ballad style is especially noticeable in the accompaniment, which is in places identical to the pattern used in 'Woodman, Spare That Tree!'

In the 1860s hymns began to be marketed in a more decisive manner: some publications targeted the church or Sunday School, and others the home. In 1861 Novello published Hymns Ancient and Modern, a collection inspired by the Tractarians, but in the variety of its contents displaying a desire to attract the [107/108] custom of churches generally. It was so successful in this aim that by 1895 around 75 per cent of English churches had adopted it, and a remarkable 60 million copies had been sold by 1912.13 In contrast, Chappell clearly intended their 100 Sacred Songs of 1861 to find a market in the home, since they were available in arrangements for clarinet, cornet, concertina, flute, sax-horn, or violin. New hymns for the church which proved popular were packaged for the home in small collections, or even as single sheet-music items. The setting of Lyte's 'Abide with Me' by William Monk (editor of Hymns Ancient and Modern) circulated in an arrangement by A. F. Mullen in A Collection of Popular Sacred Melodies in 1863; four years later it was issued as a separate sacred song (also arranged by Mullen) and as a duet. The Victorian hymn had a broad appeal which set it apart from earlier church music; the difference can be readily perceived by trying to imagine a Sternhold and Hopkins metrical psalm being sung at a Wembley Cup Final as an alternative to 'Abide with Me'. Another difference can be found by comparing 'Eternal Father, Strong to Save' with 'The Old Hundredth' ('All People That on Earth Do Dwell'); the former achieves its emotional impact through a modern use of expressive chromaticism (for example, at the words 'O hear us when we cry to Thee'), while the latter's austere majesty comes from its strong, plain harmonic progressions.

Although interest in German sacred song had grown in the 1850s (benefiting, in addition to Mendelssohn, the lesser-known Franz Abt), the most successful solo sacred ballad of the 1860s was French in origin. Charles Gounod's chant evangelique 'Jesus de Nazareth' (words by A. Porte) had appeared in Paris in 1856 but was first published in London by Schott & Co. in 1862. It was printed with English words only (by H. F. Chorley), was entitled, more guardedly, 'Nazareth', and was available with an ad libitum harmonium part. Its popularity is indicated by the quantity of different arrangements which became available — piano transcriptions, a violin and piano duet, a version for piano and harmonium, and many others. 'Nazareth' contains features which differ from what was the norm in vocal music for the British drawing room and which indicate the song's foreign origin: it is written for bass voice and, because the accompaniment is designed to make the most of this, it is unsuitable for any other voice; moreover, the compass of the song and the technical difficulties for singer and accompanist make it awkward for amateurs. This is not to say that display pieces for a particular voice never found a footing in the drawing room (Shield's 'The Wolf is an early example of a bass song which was well established there), but publishers favoured songs which could be sold to both male and female singers and, as a further boost to sales, be offered in at least two keys to cater for low and high voices. Schott & Co., of course, were not to be deterred by arguments on purely aesthetic grounds from offering 'Nazareth' for other voices; once they realized they had a runaway success, they offered it in five different keys. This was clearly an attempt to reap profit from the home market; the only orchestral concert versions available were both for low male voice. In retrospect, the success of'Nazareth' can be attributed to its standing at the head of a line of'big' sacred songs, which culminate in the ballads of Adams and Cowen and extend well into the Edwardian period. In some [110/11] respects, 'Nazareth' is like a sacred counterpart to the famous tenor display piece 'Come into the Garden, Maud' (Performance by present author): they are both in rondo form, and both save their passionate climaxes till the end.

Virginia Gabriel's setting of Adelaide Procter's 'Cleansing Fires', published in London by Cramer & Co. around 1869, is a more typical sacred song of its time. Its musical style shows a homogeneity which cannot easily be broken down into any of the previously discussed categories which were prevalent at mid-century. Gabriel extracts the maximum drama from a strophic setting by giving a strongly contrasted musical treatment to the first and second half of each of Procter's stanzas. The first half of each stanza is set to an austere, mainly unison, minor melody; the second half moves to a bright tonic major with the melody soaring ever higher to emphasize Procter's optimism concerning the moral benefits which accrue from suffering. The stark unison treatment suggests an association with oratorio, for example, 'The People That Walked in Darkness', from Messiah; the throbbing triplets of the second half, on the other hand, are a familiar feature of drawing-room music. Because each stanza falls into two sections, the effect is of verse and refrain, but it is not without ambiguity. A glance at Procter's verse would suggest a refrain for the last two lines of each stanza where she repeats her rhymes and image of gold being tried by fire. Gabriel, however, moves to her major section two lines earlier, when the mood of each stanza turns to one of optimism; moreover, a refrain would normally begin with tonic harmony, but here she dovetails the first and second halves by prolonging an inconclusive dominant harmony from the former into the latter.


The sentiments of Cleansing Fires accord with a common Victorian preoccupation with trial and the winning of moral strength from having been tried. There is, in fact, nothing strongly religious about the song, which compares the casting of gold in a furnace with a heart's emerging cleansed from 'the furnace of living pain'. A middle-class audience for Procter's text is plainly assumed in verse 3, which begins:

I shall know by the gleam and glitter
Of the golden chain you wear,
By your heart's calm strength in loving,
Of the fire they have had to bear.

'Cleansing Fires' has drawn together various threads of sacred music-making in the home, but, importantly, the result is a song that need not be confined to Sunday evening.

Boosey & Co. woke up to the realization, in the 1870s, that this kind of sacred song could be marketed in the same fashion as the rest of their drawing-room ballads. In the previous decade they were unsure of the relationship of the sacred song to the other ballads they published. This may be gleaned from the fact that, although Claribel was their best-selling songwriter, her Sacred Songs and Hymns were published posthumously in about 1870. In 1875 Boosey's Sacred Musical Cabinet was begun (running to twenty-eight parts before its termination in 1885), and in the later 1870s they published Sacred Songs, Ancient and Modern (edited by J. Hiles). Other ballad publishers were also taking a keen interest in this field: Metzler published Forty Sacred Songs as the second of their Popular Musical Library (1873); Charles Sheard, who had taken over the Musical Bouquet, published Sacred Songs with accompaniments for piano or harmonium in 1874; and A. Hammond & Co., who had succeeded to Jullien's firm, published, as part of their 'Musical Presentation and Circulating Library', Sabbath Strains (a collection of solos and duets) and Sunday at Home (piano pieces).

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Last modified 14 June 2012