CURTAIN-RAISER: OR, THE ROYAL SCHOOL OF CHURCH WHAT?
‘WE HAVE a hope that is steadfast and certain, gone through the curtain and touching the throne…’ For some of us, this was a belated indication of something strange stirring behind the rather different curtains of the RSCM. Six years ago it was one of the better texts in a small red booklet of items and after thumbing through the first half-dozen, uninstructed readers had to glance back to check that its shiny cover really did say ‘Royal School of Church Music’
Since then (I speak as a non-musician) things have really shifted, the key has decisively changed. Two friends who are musicians give contrasting interpretations: spot the difference if you can. One speaks of a breath of fresh air in exciting new dimensions: the best thing that has happened since St. Cecilia or was it Jubal? The other, more akin to Jeremiah, grieves in anguished tones over the dire fate that has overcome the old place; it has abandoned any concept of quality standards. The only air available has a nasty whiff of sulphur from the pit. I do not exaggerate.
Can it be that musicians mutter harsher things about other musicians than (say) painters about other painters, or poets about other poets? Even apart from the lighter style of song, many hymn tunes are idolised in some circles and rubbished in others. ‘Hardly a tune at all’, they say: ‘trivial and shallow; ‘harmonically illiterate’; or maybe ‘totally unsingable’ – you know the sort of thing.
As we suspect, when decoded this often means ‘I don’t like it’, which in turn equals ‘I don’t know it.’ Or maybe ‘I’ve heard it so often that I’m sick of it’; the answer to which is not to shoot the composer. But your average writers of texts and singers of hymns can hardly be blamed if they remain confused, The late John Wilson has helped us all with his small classic ‘Looking at Hymn Tunes’.
What can we say about the new-look RSCM is that it has left us without one of the classic matters of our time. Not that I want to go back to the old regime, some of its earlier literature seems a bit remote from what was happening at ground level. Many small congregations found the traditional peaks of choral purity hard to scale, and could be made to feel like failures. Even hymns were perceived as rather bourgeois, don’t you know? Enemy number one was ‘the parson’.
By contrast, one of their newer regional advisors worked minor miracles with a varied assortment of talent in one country parish still dear to my heart. If you have five musical loaves and a couple of fishes (need not be bass, or angel fish) the Royal School is there to help you, by the grace of God.
But there is a warning to be sounded. With due respect to the worship-song market (which since 1992 has included John Bunyan, George Herbert, and Thomas Ken see Worship Songs A&M) I do not want to see the quality control of words abandoned. I did say that Wendy Churchill’s text was one of the better ones; and the tune leaves you neither exhausted nor hypnotised. Some others do either or both.
If the great musical establishment were to become the Royal School of Silly Songs, that would be a Bad Thing. And then someone would come and re-invent the original model. After all, unlike you musical chaps, we authors know exactly what’s good and what’s not. Don’t we?
Christopher Idle is Associate Minister of Christ Church Old Kent Road in the Diocese of Southwark.