Friday, February 1, 2013

The “English Sound” in the Late Medieval Catholic Church

by Anne E. Johnson

One of Charlemagne’s many influences on European culture dealt with how liturgical chant was used by the Catholic Church. Before the ninth century and the formation of the Holy Roman Empire, each region of Europe had its own tradition of singing for Catholic worship. When he came to power, Charlemagne realized that standardizing the rituals of the Church would help his Empire stabilize its many component peoples. He looked to the monasteries of England, where some of the world's best scholars dwelled, and hired a monk named Alcuin to devise a collection of chants to become the official music of Catholics everywhere and replace the regional styles.

To create these universal chants, Alcuin needed to pick one of the regional types of chant to use as a starting point. Interestingly, he did not choose the very distinctive Sarum rite popular in England. Instead, he chose Charlemagne's favorite, a style of chant now known as Old Roman, which was widely used in Charlemagne’s native Frankish lands (i.e., Germany).

In order to convince Catholics that altering their worship at Charlemagne's command was a mandate from God, Alcuin’s people started a very persuasive rumour: It was claimed that, over 200 years before, God had sent a dove to Pope Gregory I to sing God’s chosen chants into the Pope’s ear. Those songs, according to the story, were the only official chant of the Catholic Church. With this story to justify them, Alcuin's new melodies became known as Gregorian Chant, and European monasteries did accept these songs over the coming century.

England, however, being physically separate from Europe, was a last holdout, defending their regional Sarum rite despite Charlemagne's directive. Ironically, this British stubbornness resulted in important developments in music history. In particular, the way monks decorated or harmonized against their chant was unique in the Catholic world. The lush quality of English polyphony was caused by the way English monks used "chords" (in modern terms) in ways that nobody in Europe had thought of yet, in an English Catholic singing tradition called "faburden."

By the fifteenth century, long after Charlemagne, it became clear to French and Flemish composers that the English church music had a very special sound that did not exist on the Continent. They referred to the sweetness and richness of English harmonies as the contenance angloise. Here is an example by the fifteenth-century English composer John Dunstable:

Quam pulchra es

After the Middle Ages, British composers continued to experiment with using that patented English richness in more and more sophisticated ways. Here is an example from the early seventeenth century by William Byrd:

Tu es Pastor ovium

Continental composers came up with a way to approximate that special English sound, and music would never be the same. All the great European Renaissance musicians, and even famous Baroque composers like Vivaldi and Bach, can trace the richness of their counterpoint back to the European co-opting of the contenance angloise. Thank goodness the English held onto their individuality, or the classical music tradition would have turned out very differently!

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Bent, Margaret. Dunstaple. London: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Bullough, Donald A. Alcuin: Achievement and Reputation. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2004.
Long, Kenneth R. Music of the English Church. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1991.
McKitterick, Rosamond. Charlemagne: The Formation of a European Identity. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

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Anne E. Johnson taught music history for fifteen years at Mannes College - The New School for Music in New York. She now writes fiction, including historical novels for kids. Her English medieval mystery, Trouble at the Scriptorium, is about a boy who finds a secret message in a chant book. Learn more about Anne at her website,


  1. What a fascinating story- so that's where the term "Gregorian chant" came fom! And yes, it is a good thing the English hung on to their style if it had all that influence!

  2. Thank you for including the music links-absolutely beautiful. A most interesting and informative post.

  3. Quite fascinating! Thank you so much! What would you recommend to explain the differences between early English and say 14th-16th century continental church music? Any web sites? They sing all of this in my church; we have a great small professional choir.

  4. wasn't charlemagne a catholic priest

  5. OK, I understand it now. As tuning is imperfect, the continental composers used a perfect fourth and fifth as a standard and an imperfect third; the English composers used a perfect third which gives their music that wonderful sort of settled harmony.


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