Stylistic conformism

I’ve been reading about the fascinating shift in music which occurred in the 18th century Evangelical Revival in Britain, specifically as connected with the Wesleys.  The change in the character of the tunes that came to be used is noted by many, but what caught my eye tonight is Erik Routley’s comments on “stylistic conformism,” as he discusses the 18th-century appropriation of the well known tune TALLIS’S CANON.

The eighteenth century evangelical lived very much in the present; his interest in history was minimal. It therefore did not occur to him, as it would have done to an early 20th century musician, that Tallis’s music ought to be left alone and not revised. He was less interested in the purity of a canon than in an amusing melody; and some of the later versions of this revision are very entertaining indeed. All music must now sound like mid-18th century English music. A tune of Hassler’s made famous by Bach must now be translated into Handel’s language. . . . This sort of imposed stylistic conformism always takes place when there is a surge of ‘popular’ taste, as in our own age we know only too well [Routley is writing in 1981]. . . . we are beginning here to uncover a problem and a tension which never disappears from hymnody once it has escaped in this mid-eighteenth century scene . . . . It is the problem of the counterpoint of reassurance and judgment, of freedom and authority.”

Erik Routley, The Music of Christian Hymns (Chicago: G. I. A. Publications, 1981), 74-75.

This is a thought-provoking estimation. I wonder how strongly that applies to our own day?


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