Sunday, May 25, 2014

Samuel Webbe and English Catholics in the Eighteenth Century

I mentioned Samuel Webbe in my post last Sunday about the Mass at Our Lady and St. Gregory, Warwick Street to honor the Portuguese ambassador. He died on May 29 in 1816--25 years after the Catholic Relief Act of 1791 and 13 years before Catholic Emancipation. The Friends of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham highlights him on their Music tab:

English composer, born in England in 1742; died in London, 29 May, 1816. He studied under Barbaudt. In 1766 he was given a prize medal by the Catch Club for his O that I had wings, and in all he obtained twenty-seven medals for as many canons, catches, and glees, including Discord, dire sister, Glory be to the Father, Swiftly from the mountain’s brow, and To thee all angels. Other glees like When winds breathe soft, Thy voice, O Harmony, and Would you know my Celia’s charms are even better known. In 1776 he succeeded George Paxton as organist of the chapel of the Sardinian embassy, a position which he held until 1795: he was also organist of the Portuguese chapel. His Collection of Motetts (1792) and A Collection of Masses for Small Choirs were extensively used in Catholic churches throughout Great Britain from 1795 to the middle of the last century. If not of a very high order, they are at least devotional, and some are still sung. He also published nine books of glees, between the years 1764 and 1798, and some songs. His glees are his best claim on posterity.

Lest you are confused, Webbe did not write for the TV show Glee; he wrote English a cappella part songs, scored for three to four voices, although Glee clubs did sing them:

Discord!Dire sister of the slaughtering power,
Small at her birth, but rising every hour,
While scarce the skies her horrid head can bound,
She stalks on earth, and shakes the world around.
But lovely Peace in angel form
Descending quells the rising storm.
Soft ease and sweet content shall reign
And Discord never rise again.

The same site that highlighted Webbe notes that "The penal laws and the persecution of Catholics during the 220 years from 1558 to 1778 prevented any development of music by and for Catholics." 

This intrigues me. William Byrd's great output of liturgical music for all the propers of the Roman Missal dates from the 17th century, and I know that composers like Peter Phillips fled to the Continent to both practice their faith and compose music. Since Catholics were only able to attend Mass secretly in hidden chapels in recusant safe houses, Low Mass, silent and somber, was the rule. According to this presentation by an Oratorian priest, there was little congregational singing, and even when rarely celebrated, Benediction was accompanied by recitation of the great Eucharistic hymns of St. Thomas Aquinas. In the Embassy chapels, the liturgical music, if it represented more modern compositions than Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony, was by German, Italian, Portuguese, or Spanish composers, so English Catholics attending those Masses heard international music, not by their own.

Ashgate publishes Roman Catholic Church Music in England, 1791–1914: A Handmaid of the Liturgy? by T.E. Muir that addresses developments after the 1791 Catholic Relief Act until World War I:

Roman Catholic church music in England served the needs of a vigorous, vibrant and multi-faceted community that grew from about 70,000 to 1.7 million people during the long nineteenth century. Contemporary literature of all kinds abounds, along with numerous collections of sheet music, some running to hundreds, occasionally even thousands, of separate pieces, many of which have since been forgotten. Apart from compositions in the latest Classical Viennese styles and their successors, much of the music performed constituted a revival or imitation of older musical genres, especially plainchant and Renaissance Polyphony. Furthermore, many pieces that had originally been intended to be performed by professional musicians for the benefit of privileged royal, aristocratic or high ecclesiastical elites were repackaged for rendition by amateurs before largely working or lower middle class congregations, many of them Irish.

However, outside Catholic circles, little attention has been paid to this subject. Consequently, the achievements and widespread popularity of many composers (such as Joseph Egbert Turner, Henry George Nixon or John Richardson) within the English Catholic community have passed largely unnoticed. Worse still, much of the evidence is rapidly disappearing, partly because it no longer seems relevant to the needs of the modern Catholic Church in England.

This book provides a framework of the main aspects of Catholic church music in this period, showing how and why it developed in the way it did. Dr Muir sets the music in its historical, liturgical and legal context, pointing to the ways in which the music itself can be used as evidence to throw light on the changing character of English Catholicism. As a result the book will appeal not only to scholars and students working in the field, but also to church musicians, liturgists, historians, ecclesiastics and other interested Catholic and non-Catholic parties.

The article I cited from Newman's foundation, the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in England, points out that there were exceptions to the rule of secret and silent Masses, looking again at the Embassies in London and the outlet they offered to some Catholic composers, like Samuel Webbe, George Paxton--and Thomas Arne, arranger of "God Save the King/Queen" and composer of "Rule, Britannia". There is definitely more to this story.

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