What makes “Anglican Chant” Anglican?

The subject line read: “What makes ‘Anglican Chant’ Anglican?” There was nothing in the body of the e-mail. I didn’t recognize the address; I can only presume it comes from one of our readers. I responded to the e-mail directly, of course; but any question worth asking by one is usually a question in the minds of ten, as I’ve heard it said.

Such things are perhaps easier to demonstrate than describe, so for your listening pleasure, the Choir of Westminster Abbey, singing Psalm 138 at Evensong (Sung Evening Prayer) during the Papal Visitation of September 2010:


The translation is from the Coverdale Psalter, which is part of the Book of Common Prayer 1662:

Psalm 138. Confitebor tibi
1. I will give thanks unto thee, O Lord, with my whole heart : even before the gods will I sing praise unto thee.
2. I will worship toward thy holy temple, and praise thy Name, because of thy loving-kindness and truth : for thou hast magnified thy Name and thy word above all things.
3. When I called upon thee, thou heardest me : and enduedst my soul with much strength.
4. All the kings of the earth shall praise thee, O Lord : for they have heard the words of thy mouth.
5. Yea, they shall sing in the ways of the Lord : that great is the glory of the Lord.
6. For though the Lord be high, yet hath he respect unto the lowly : as for the proud, he beholdeth them afar off.
7. Though I walk in the midst of trouble, yet shalt thou refresh me : thou shalt stretch forth thy hand upon the furiousness of mine enemies, and thy right hand shall save me.
8. The lord shall make good his loving-kindness toward me : yea, thy mercy, O Lord, endureth for ever; despise not then the works of thine own hands.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost : as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

In short, harmony and (some) meter, and a history different but not wholly unrelated to that of Gregorian Chant, makes “Anglican Chant” Anglican. That’s the short of it, and we have ample musicological types who can supplement the details if they wish.

I should add — believe it or not — that this complicated-sounding chant is eminently singable, even by congregations with little formal musical training, provided that the pointing of the text is clear.

Of course, Anglicans are capable (some would say ‘must needs be capable’) of poking fun at ourselves, our liturgy and our music. Here are the Master Singers, presenting the “Highway Code”:




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15 responses to “What makes “Anglican Chant” Anglican?”

  1. M. Jackson Osborn Avatar
    M. Jackson Osborn

    Anglican chant, contrary to the assertion above, does not have metre. It is most nearly similar to a Gregorian psalm tone in that most of the psalm is chanted to an extended recitation tone and articulated by cadences at each half verse. The pattern for a ‘single’ chant is: whole note reciting tone, and two half notes plus whole note cadence for the first half verse, followed by a whole note reciting tone, and four half notes plus whole note cadence for the second half of the verse. All this is in four part harmony. A ‘double chant’ is one in which the above pattern is ‘doubled’, or, repeated twice. In this way Anglican chant’s nearest relative is a Gregorian psalm tone ‘harmonised’ with fa-burdens. The first Anglican chants appeared in the XVI. century, the first one I know of having been composed by Thomas Tallis, Princeps Musici.

    Here are the first two verses of Ps XV ‘pointed’ for singing to Anglican chant:

    1. Lord, who shall dwell | in ‘ thy | tabernacle;*
    or who shall rest up-| on ‘ thy | ho-‘ ly | hill.
    2. Even he that leadeth an | uncor-‘ rupt | life,*
    and | speaketh ‘ the | truth from ‘ his | heart.

    The two verses above could be sung to a ‘single chant’ repeated twice, or to a ‘double chant’ sung once. With imagination, the pointing can be varied, yielding an interesting variety of word rhythm.

    1. Cody C.  Unterseher Avatar

      What I intended by “(some) meter” is probably better reflected by your remark regarding the “variety of word rhythm.” Right or wrong, some choir directors do treat the passing tones as having equal, strict rhythm, giving the impression of meter emerging from the fairly free reciting tones. Others treat those passing tones much like their Gregorian cousins: determined wholly by the natural speech rhythm.

      1. M. Jackson Osborn Avatar
        M. Jackson Osborn

        CCU – thanks for the clarification. You are right in that some choirmasters, more in the past, thankfully, than the present, treat both the word rhythm and the cadences in a purely metrical style. There ARE those, even, who do this to Gregorian psalm tones! They include both Catholics and Anglicans. I have a recording of Dutch Catholic chant not ten years old which is treated, most comically, in this fashion. They race the recitation up to the cadence and then stop to pound out the cadential neumes. Many people USED to do Anglican chant this way… it was called ‘Anglican thump’!

        Aside from technical and formal descriptions of Anglican chant, its great beauty is in its four-part harmony sung with a supple and free word-rhythm which is sensitive to the emotional and literary content of each verse of the psalm, and accompanied with much imaginative colour by the organ – though many verses are just as effective a capella.

        Anglican chant is, as I hinted at above, undoubtedly a development from late mediaeval fa-burden, which was a method of chanting the psalm tones with improvised harmony. It continued in practice, as has been noted below, until relatively recent times, and survives today in some places.

    2. Felipe Gasper Avatar
      Felipe Gasper

      It’s worth observing that there is a wide variance of opinion regarding the optimal pointing of texts for Anglican Chant. For example, compare “The Oxford American Psalter” (Brown) to “The Parish Psalter with Chants” (Nicholson).

  2. Mark Ardrey-Graves Avatar

    Anglican chant preserves and is related to a method of harmonized, chanted psalmody once also recognized and performed in (Roman) Catholic Europe, known as “falsobordone,” utilized primarily in Vespers psalmody up until the early 18th century. The Spanish composer Tomás de Victoria composed some falsobordone settings for liturgical use.
    It must be said, though, that Anglican chant possesses a higher level of nuance and sophistication than its continental cousin, owing in part to its long and noble compositional history and continuation as a living tradition.

    1. Samuel J. Howard Avatar

      Anglican chant preserves and is related to a method of harmonized, chanted psalmody once also recognized and performed in (Roman) Catholic Europe, known as “falsobordone,” utilized primarily in Vespers psalmody up until the early 18th century.

      Utilized today in the singing of Roman rite vespers… Admittedly this is rare (sung vespers itself is rare), but it’s by no means disappeared entirely.

      It’s mentioned in Tra le Sollecitudini for that matter.

      1. Felipe Gasper Avatar
        Felipe Gasper

        NB: Allegri “Miserere” and Monteverdi 1610 Vespers are two
        well-known pieces that make use of falsobordone.

  3. Fritz Bauerschmidt Avatar

    I recall reading somewhere no too long ago that there is no real historical continuity between Anglican chant and Gregorian chant but AC was rather a sui generis Anglican development, after a break in the musical tradition in the 16th century. I have no idea if this is true, but I’m sure others have opinions.

    In any event, is is beautiful.

  4. Fr. Allan J. McDonald Avatar

    In my previous assignment our music director was a high Anglican and set the Responsorial Psalm to Anglican Chant for the choir Mass each Sunday. Listening to the video reminded me of that and made me nostalgic for it. I find it fits very well into the English Mass and is stunningly beautiful.

  5. Michaelene Devine Avatar

    We’ve been using the Anglican Psalm Tones for almost 40 years; we began when we could begin saying/singing the Office in English and found that music improvised from the Gregorian tones just did not work. We heard — and experienced — that the Anglican Tones were written to be used with English. We’re very pleased with them! but could use a few new ones.
    (In the last few years, we also use the ICEL tones which were published about 15 years ago)

    Loved the Highway Code!
    Sr Michaelene

  6. Thomas Strickland Avatar
    Thomas Strickland

    If you really want to know . . . Anglican Chant and Chanting in England, Scotland, and America 1660-1820, Ruth M. Wilson, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1996. But the 300-plus pages take the story only up to 190 years ago. A good doctoral dissertation might be waiting in the gap here!

  7. Fergus Ryan Avatar
    Fergus Ryan

    Here’s the weather forecast delivered in Anglican Chant: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4z2jwDcb9wI

  8. Peter WJ Kirk Avatar
    Peter WJ Kirk

    Hello there. I am Peter Kirk, Custodian of the National Archive of Anglican Chants. 15700 of them! I am always on the lookout (for purchase/loan) of rare (ish) Chant Books & Psalters.

    1. Ton Meijer Avatar

      @Peter WJ Kirk – comment #13:
      Hello Peter,
      Just read your comment posted last year. In the meantime, you may have read my post (#14) about my site. I would like to get in touch with you, can you send me a private message? Mail address is on my site

  9. Ton Meijer Avatar
    Ton Meijer

    Hello there, for those of you interested: I am working on a “complete” index (melodic) of Anglican Chants. It will probably take years to complete, but I published what I have now on my site http://www.anglicanchant.nl
    Any comments or suggestions are most welcome!

    Ton Meijer

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