Easter 2024

22 February 2006
Parsley, Osbert (1511-1585) - part of the Anglican Choral Tradition

OsbertI keep up with the relatively new "Canterbury Tales," an Anglican blog. Recently, it has propagated the idea that the Episcopal Church, nay, the Anglican Communion itself, isn't really worth saving. Anglicanism, however, has produced a few things worth saving: architecture, choral music, "lay appreciation for the Divine Office," "educated clergy and laity," and a good liturgical sensibility.

Personally, I think the Episcopal Church itself is worth "saving." Whatever that means.

Me: Are you saved?

Episcopal Church: Yes.

I was fascinated by the author's choral music list, which included the great (Britten, Byrd, Howells), the good (Gibbons, Purcell, Vaughan Williams), the obscure (Frederick Ouseley), and the very obscure (Osbert Parsley).

When I told Megan about Parsley she said: "His name sounds like a food."

Parsley is remembered as a "Singing-man" in the Norwich Cathedral Choir.

The "Non-singing men" just took up valuable space in the choir stalls. No one really knew why they were there.

Parsley: Do you sing often?

Non-singing man: Not Ouseley, no.

From a commemorative tablet1 in the cathedral:

Here lies the Man whose Name in Spight of Death.
Renowned lives by Blast of Golden Fame:
Whose Harmony survives his vital Breath.
Whose Skill no Pride did spot whose Life no Blame.

His Harmony has survived less than his commemorators may have hoped. Here at Indiana University, we have recordings of only two of his pieces and a score for one of them: Lamentations. I guess this isn't bad considering only a handful of works by Parsley survive.

I'm a little confused about how the inclusion of Parsley's name contributes to an accurate sample of the Anglican Choral Tradition (ACT). (Maybe his name was meant as a garnish?) Whatever the reasons for his inclusion, I have been made aware of him, and he has me thinking.

The church is not perfect; it is spotted by Pride and Blame. The English Reformation is revealing, because it forced composers to adapt to their circumstances. Parsley, like Byrd, was one of those composers who had to compose Catholic (i.e., Latin) and English (i.e., English) music. We know that Byrd preferred the Catholic stuff and risked his life to continue writing music with Latin words.

I don't know whether Parsley wrote Latin church music by candlelight under his blankets at night, but I do know that Grove's Dictionary of Music says that his church music set to English texts "is markedly inferior in quality to his Latin church music, being marred by stiff points of imitation and an unimaginative approach to problems of texture."

So, if Parsley's best work is set to Latin texts, but he's included in a list of "vernacular" ACT composers . . .

In a sense, I don't think there's anything inherently Anglican about the Anglican Choral Tradition. I think that composers in every denomination, nay2, every religious tradition, strive to create works of beauty that speak of a higher power.

"Jesus's [sic] sign at the Last Supper was beautiful. If it is to speak of hope in the face of death, then it must be re-enacted beautifully. Church teaching is often met with suspicion. Dogma is a bad word in our society. But beauty has its own authority. It speaks our barely articulated hope that there may be some final meaning to our lives. Beauty expresses the hope that the pilgrimage of existence does indeed go somewhere, even when we cannot say where and how. Beauty is not icing on the liturgical cake. It is of its essence."

-Fr. Timothy Radcliffe (Quoted in The New Liturgical Movement: Beauty is of the Essence of Liturgy)

So, does Parsley's work (in Latin) need to be saved because it is "Anglican" or because it is beautiful?

If you sing his English stuff in Latin, does it become more beautiful?

Do we need to be proactive about saving choral music that is beautiful liturgy-cake3, or will it manage to survive on its own?

The "Blast of Golden Flame" that inspires our music — and to whom our music aspires — will work through our denominational structures as they change over the centuries.

And there's nothing we can do about it.

1. You can purchase your own Osbert Parsley commemorative tablet. Check the Norwich Cathedral bookshop.

2. I generally try to use "nay" less than I have in this essay (twice). You can write "nay" as often as you like. You will need some sort of writing material. Check the Norwich Cathedral bookshop.

3. Available wherever cakes are sold? Nay, only the Norwich Cathedral bookshop.


(Maybe his name was meant as a garnish?)

Quite possibly the funniest thing you've ever written. Still chuckling and it's 10 minutes later.

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