With his haunting ‘carol-anthem’ in 1918 Herbert Howells changed the sound of English church music at a stroke by introducing sensuous chromatic harmony and sinewy flowing counterpoint often combined to ecstatic effect. His friend Patrick Hadley sent him a card every Christmas quoting the end of A Spotless Rose: ‘Oh Herbert, that cadence!’ Hadley’s own output was tiny but fastidious and his setting, for a friend’s wedding, of words from the Song of Solomon opens to overwhelming effect before subsiding in rapture. Michael Tippett was a pioneering conductor of Purcell in the 1940s and was amused when an eager American chorister asked him ‘But tell me, what is a Spake?’ Of his Plebs angelica he once said that only in England could a conscientious objector newly released from Wormood Scrubs be commissoned to write a work for Canterbury Cathedral.
Presiding over this period was Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose editing of the English Hymnal in 1906 was groundbreaking. As Grand Old Man in 1953 he contributed to the Queen’s Coronation not only the famous ceremonial setting of the ‘Old 100th’ but also an exquisitely simple communion motet, O taste and see. In 1961 the Duke of Edinburgh commissioned Benjamin Britten to add a Jubilate to his Te Deum in C of 1936 for the service of Mattins in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. And it was there that William Harris served from 1933 to 1961, having written his ravishing Spenser setting Faire is the heaven as organist of New College, Oxford, in 1325. Also enjoying an Oxford pedigree was William Walton, who, despite spending his childhood as a Christ Church chorister went down without a degree! The delicious carol King Herod was one of his last pieces, composed in 1978. Having commemorated Walton with his Missa Aedis Christi in 1984, William Mathias honoured the Queen Mother in 1987 as Patron of the Friends of St Paul’s: As truly as God is our Father so is he also our Mother. For the late John Tavener the Mother of God was a constant source of devotion and inspiration. His fellow schoolboy at Highgate, John Rutter, wrote one of his finest carols for the 1984 Advent Service at St John’s College, Cambridge, where both his sons were choristers.