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Music and Theology in Nineteenth-Century Britain ed. by Martin V. Clarke (review)

From: Notes
Volume 70, Number 3, March 2014
pp. 433-436 | 10.1353/not.2014.0022

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A new title in Ashgate’s Music in Nineteenth-Century Britain series, this publication lives up to the series’ interdisciplinary ambitions by presenting eleven essays by thirteen authors working in a wide range of fields, including historical musicology, theology, hymnology, English literature, communications media, and church music history. The result is an eclectic collection of essays that explores topics as diverse as the changing repertory of the Anglican choral anthem, the role of British hymnody in the colonization of Madagascar, and the impact of Darwinian thought on nineteenth-century theories about music’s spiritual basis. The topics examined and approaches taken are as varied as the authors involved, and while this leads to a certain unsteadiness of method and approach, the richness and novelty of the contributions make the book well worth it. Not that everything here is new. The “relationship between music and theology” may well be a “burgeoning” subject, as the editor Martin Clarke asserts (p. 1), but it is one that has long exercised hymnologists, who are well represented in the book. A number of contributors are, in fact, well-known writers on hymnody and congregational song; their essays trace familiar themes while still offering fresh insights and perspectives. Mel Wilhoit’s discussion of American gospel hymnody ably recounts the story of Ira David Sankey and Dwight Lyman Moody’s impact on British evangelicalism in the 1870s and 1880s while also examining them within the context of nineteenth-century revivalism in general. He suggests that the general softening of hard-line Calvinism during the period, the shift towards a more reassuring and sentimental theology, had much to do with their success. Martin Clarke’s comparison of two early Victorian hymnbooks, one Evangelical, the other Anglo-Catholic, investigates how the two groups positioned themselves in response to the Church of England’s growing acceptance of hymn-singing (as opposed to psalm-singing, which had long been permitted) in church services. Evangelicals welcomed new texts and tunes so long as they were scripturally based or personal in tone, while Anglo-Catholics stressed the revival of ancient texts and tunes that reinforced Catholic liturgies and traditions of communal worship. Again, the argument is not exactly new, but it is well presented, and ends with a striking observation about hymns as markers of “theological identity” (p. 34) for each of the different factions of the nineteenth-century Anglican Church. Similar conclusions inform Ian Bradley’s efforts to pin down the “character” of a wide range of hymns and hymntunes, though his expansion of the field of inquiry to include High Church and Broad Church groups as well, breaks down in an overzealous need to prove his case. Each of the four main parties within the Established Church clearly had a unique theological cast, but they overlapped in subtle ways that Bradley’s analysis, for all its sensitivity on the subject, sometimes ignores.

Questions of “theological identity” also inform C. Michael Hawn and June Hadden Hobbs’s study of hymn texts authored by British and American women, though their injection of feminist criticism puts the discussion onto a different plane altogether. Here, the “personal” imagery of Evangelical hymns, explored in other essays, is linked to the “language of intimacy” and the “poetics of small things” (pp. 61, 69) by which many Victorian women, confined by increasingly strict gender roles, found an outlet for self-expression. The essay explores connections between religious devotion and sexual sublimation, and suggests that the identification of women and the domestic sphere with passion and spirituality—a cliché of nineteenth-century Anglophone culture—was partly a consequence of the popularity of Evangelical hymns. The stimulating argument is unfortunately marred by a whiff of condescension towards previous scholarship, while a concluding section on the tunes associated with these texts lacks clear focus. Still, their vigorous defense of the “sentimental” Victorian hymn on feminist grounds is salutary, and should raise interesting questions for future researchers about the sexual politics of a masculine twentieth-century hymnological culture that routinely dismissed this Victorian repertory.

The last two hymnological essays in the book are by scholars not typically associated with the field. Charles Edward McGuire’s contribution focuses on the pedagogical methods of...

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