20th Century Folk Mass

After about 1955, British hymnody ran into troubled waters, stirred in part by the emergence of the 20th Century Church Light Music Group. Founded by Geoffrey Beaumont (1904-1971), who in 1956 published the 20th Century Folk Mass (sometimes called the "Jazz Mass"), this group of lay musicians produced tunes in various secular styles in the hope of popularizing the singing of familiar hymns for the evangelizing the youth. Causing a shock wave in some church music circles, Beaumont deliberately wrote in the "big tune" style of the Broadway musical and succeeded in having two of his best tunes published in a standard Hymnal -- The Baptist Hymn Book (1962), a comprehensive and eclectic collection after the manner of Congregational Praise. Its chief claim to distinction may be its inclusion of Beaumont's CHESTERTON to H.W. Baker's "Lord, thy word abideth," and his GRACIAS to "Now thank we all our God" (Rinkart-Winkworth).

[From Sing with Understanding, by Harry Eskew and Hugh McElrath (Nashville: Church Street Press, 2nd edition, 1995, pp. 160-165.]

Geoffrey Beaumont (1904-1971) wrote songs for the "Foot-lights" reviews while an undergraduate at Cambirdge University. After qualifying as a solicitor he discovered his vocation and in 1932 he was ordained. During the war he served as a chaplain with the Royal Marines. It was while Fr. Beaumont was chaplain to Trinity College, Cambridge, the he began working seriously on the 20th Century Folk Mass. He spent four years as chaplain to the British embassy in Madrid, returning in the spring of 1957 to become vicar of St. George's, Camberwell.

[From the liner notes, 20th Century Folk Mass, Fiesta Record Company, Inc., 1619 Broadway, New York, NY]

Frank Weir conducted the orchestra for the recording of the Folk Mass. He was one of Britain's most popular conductors of "light music" in Britain. Peter Knight orchestrated the Mass for his Singers and Frank Weir's 45 piece orchestra

Here's the individual pieces from the Mass:

1. Introit
2. Kyrie
3. Gloria
4. Gradual
5. Hymn: Lord, Thy Word Abideth
6. Credo
7. Offertory
8. Hymn: There's a Wideness in God's Mercy
9. Preface and Sanctus
10. Pater Noster
11. The Breaking of Bread
12 Agnus Dei; Communion Sentence
13. Hymn: Now Thank We All Our God

Recorded May 25, 1957 in England by Frank Weir and his Concert Orchestra with The Peter Knight Singers. Cantor: Charles Young. Printed and Packaged by GEM Alums, Inc., NY


See A Panarama of Christian Hymnody, Chapter 23 by Erik Routley. Also see British Hymnody, 1952-1975


From Church Times, November 30, 2007

It is 50 years since the BBC unbent to broadcast Geoffrey Beaumont’s light music in a liturgical context. Arnold Hunt tunes in FIFTY YEARS ago last month, the BBC broadcast a service of holy communion from St Augustine’s, Highgate, with music by the Revd Geoffrey Beaumont. It stirred up intense controversy. One newspaper declared that “this disturbing racket . . . was one of the most incongruous things ever seen on TV.” Not many church services get reviews like that in the Daily Express — but then Beaumont’s Twentieth-Century Folk Mass was no ordinary piece of music.

Geoffrey Beaumont (1903-70) was an Anglo-Catholic priest who had served with distinction as a naval chaplain in the war, and was later to become a monk at the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield. He wrote the Folk Mass while chaplain of Trinity College, Cambridge, in the early 1950s.

His Trinity colleague, the Revd Harry Williams, gave an affectionate account of him in his autobiography, Some Day I’ll Find You (Mitchell Beazley, 1982), where he describes Beaumont rehearsing the Folk Mass with a crowd of undergraduates in his college rooms, vamping at the piano amid cries of “Geoffrey, let’s have another gin before we try the Agnus.”

The Folk Mass draws heavily on the light music of the 1930s: the Kyrie and Agnus Dei are set to “beguine tempo”. Though sometimes misleadingly referred to as the “Jazz Mass”, it is not particularly jazzy in style — though the setting of Psalm 150 allowed the trumpets, guitars, violins, and clarinets to improvise in the style of the “hot breaks” favoured by some pre-war big bands.

Beaumont himself characterised the work accurately in a newspaper interview. “What is the modern appeal? I should say somewhere around the appeal of Housewives’ Choice.”

At the time of its composition, it would have been hard to imagine its ever being broadcast on the BBC. But the establishment of independent television in 1955 meant that the BBC had to face competition for the first time. The new Head of Religious Broadcasting, the Revd Roy McKay, was determined to secure a place for religion in the television schedules by adopting a bolder programming policy, aimed at attracting viewers from outside the mainstream Churches.

The BBC archives show that the initial proposal to broadcast the Folk Mass came from the saxophonist and bandleader Frank Weir, who had recorded an LP of the work. Christian Simpson, a BBC music producer, went to hear a playback of the recording, and reported favourably: “The lush intimate crooning style of singing is exploited to the full and I have no doubt that the teenagers who go for this kind of music will be considerably impressed.”

The proposal was enthusiastically supported by the Religious Broadcasting Department, where the Revd Oliver Hunkin described it as “a somewhat daring experiment”. He continued: “From the religious angle we are fully prepared to take the risk of criticism, as we feel it is an important attempt to show that the old familiar words are absolutely up-to-date.”

THE original plan had been to broadcast the service from the composer’s own church, St George’s, Camberwell, but Beaumont was uncomfortable with this, fearing that it might seem like self-promotion. The venue eventually selected was St Augustine’s, Highgate, where the Vicar, the Revd Gerald Fitzgerald, was an old friend of Beaumont, who had served with him as a naval chaplain.

The choice of such an extreme Anglo-Catholic church caused some problems, as the order of service differed considerably from the Prayer Book. Fr Fitzgerald was unwilling to make any changes, arguing, not unreasonably, that the main purpose of the broadcast was to attract the unchurched, who would be unaware of any deviations from the standard Prayer Book service.
On being told that the BBC would have preferred “an ordinary 1662 Holy Communion service”, Fr Fitzgerald was finally moved to protest. “In that case why approach me about it? It must be clear to anyone who comes into the church and is confronted with votive candles before the statue of St Anthony of Padua that this is not the sort of church where that would be feasible.”
On another issue, it was Fr Fitzgerald who nudged the BBC towards a more progressive attitude. The BBC’s policy at that time was not to film individuals receiving communion, as this was deemed to be an intrusion on a moment of personal devotion. It was therefore proposed that the broadcast should fade out during the communion of the people, to be replaced with a picture of Lake Windermere. Fr Fitzgerald firmly vetoed this idea, which he rightly regarded as a piece of “false sentimentality”.
As the date of the broadcast drew nearer, the BBC became increasingly nervous about the likely public reaction. To pre-empt criticism, Hunkin placed an article in the Radio Times, in which the Folk Mass was described, modestly, as “an experiment offered to God” — following, it was claimed, in the tradition of John Merbecke, who had set the Prayer Book to the popular music of his own day.

On the day of the broadcast, Sunday 13 October 1957, McKay provided a briefing note for the BBC duty officer to deflect the hostile phone calls that, it was feared, would flood the switchboard.

SOME of the press coverage was predictably hostile. “This grotesque mixture had moments of madness,” declared the Daily Express. “The Creed began with a boogie beat and turned into a samba . . . Within minutes the saxophones were moaning in waltz time as Mr Fitzgerald prepared the wine and bread for Communion.”

Another journalist waited outside the church to catch the mood of the congregation on their way out. “I’m not sure it had a lot to do with religion,” one elderly woman was heard to remark, “but at least the young people can’t complain about its being stuffy.”
“Not quite their cup of tea, really,” was Fr Fitzgerald’s comment — though he himself felt that the service had gone “wonderfully, much more wonderfully than I had ever expected”, with a real atmosphere of reverence.

The public reaction, however, was surprisingly positive. On the night, the BBC received only seven phone calls, six hostile, but the seventh describing the service as “magnificent”. Of the 80 or so letters that came in afterwards, 60 were in favour of the service, and only 20 were against.

Fr Fitzgerald’s mail followed much the same pattern — 70 letters in favour, 30 against — although he received one phone call denouncing him as a “fiend from hell”. His own congregation, he reported, had been very supportive, although the younger parishioners had been harder to convince than the old.

He added that only one of his correspondents had criticised the liturgical detail of the service — a lady who complained that he had failed to kneel during the Prayer of Humble Access, as required by the Prayer Book rubric. She was, he observed, “terrifically worked up by this”, so much so that she had failed to notice that large sections of the communion service had been taken from the Roman Missal.

The more thoughtful criticism centred on the incongruity between the music and the traditional Anglo-Catholic ritual, which one correspondent compared to “oil and water”. This view was privately shared by several people within the BBC. The producer, Christian Simpson, hoped for a second broadcast, this time in a more Low Church setting, attended by more young people (“including Teddy boys and the like”), and “using every means to capture the enthusiasm of young and old”. It was a prophetic suggestion. The future of popular music in the Church of England would belong overwhelmingly to the Evangelicals.

Listening to the Folk Mass today, it is hard to understand what all the fuss was about. The Musical Times described it, almost hysterically, as reminiscent of “the fetid atmosphere of a night club, dance hall or cabaret, and its emphasis on cheap, moronic sexual allurement”.

The poet David Holbrook called it a work of “emotional corruption”, and, “in the deepest sense, blasphemy”. Yet it strikes one today as a deeply romantic and nostalgic work (not without occasional moments of unconscious humour), looking back yearningly to a lost world of pre-war innocence.

In 1957, the first stirrings of rock and roll were beginning to be heard in Britain. Elvis Presley’s “Blue Suede Shoes” had come out the previous year, and, in the autumn of 1957, “Jailhouse Rock” was topping the United States’ charts. Neither Beaumont nor his critics could possibly have imagined how thoroughly the coming revolution in popular music would turn the Folk Mass into a period piece.

(Author, Dr Arnold Hunt is Curator of Manuscripts at the British Library)


On October 13, 1957, the British television audience was offered a live broadcast from St. Augustine's, Highgate, where the Communion service was being celebrated, it appeared, in a new fashion. Whatever was said by the solemn ecclesiastical gentleman who opened the program could hardly have prepared his viewers for what came next. The camera swooped around to reveal a baritone, a small vocal group reminiscent of those employed to record singing commercials, and a full-fledged dance band, complete with saxophones and high-hat cymbal. Whereupon the band emitted a penetrating screech, and all hands launched into a rendition of Psalm 150, which resembled nothing so much as an unnecessarily energetic parody of Ray Anthony.

This was "Twentieth Century Folk Mass," the product of one Fr. Geoffrey Beaumont, which has recently been recorded by the highly competent orchestra of Frank Weir (who is a sort of British Percy Faith). The Anglican service has been provided with music more usually associated with the world of TV variety shows and popular erotic ballads. Fr. Beaumont professes to write in the spirit of the old polyphonists, who wove popular tunes of their day into their masses. Most people in England, he argues, are responsive only to the kind of music purveyed on the mass-consumption mediums. What better way to enliven the average congregation's interest in the service than to greet it with the familiar, readily intelligible musical vernacular?

The English reaction to the "Mass" has been decidedly mixed. While the News Chronicle reported that "A few churchmen have been appalled ... but most of them are enthusiastic," the Musical Times was gravely wounded in its austere sensibilities. In the the lead article of its December, 1957, issue, the Times editorialized with scholarly ire, "The trouble arises at the present day because of the cleavage betwen 'popular' and 'serious' music, a cleavage unknown in earlier times." But the editor's revulsion could not be long held in check: "A certain kind of popular music is nowadays inevitably associated with the fetid atmosphere of a nightclub, dance hall or cabaret and its emphasis on cheap, moronic sexual allurement. But the service of the Holy Communion is, surely, something far removed from the idea of 'revelry by night.'"

The Times is right. Popular music evokes too many sensual associations to be much good as stimulus to meditation, spiritual or otherwise. The situation is aggravated on the recording by the arrangements of Peter Knight, although Mr. Knight has obviously done his best to keep a straight face. The chorus croons Kyrie Eleison over a lulling beguine rhythm, as bongos patter softly and violins execute Viennese glissandos. The whole idea has strong overtones of a collegiate hoax, but Fr. Beaumont has apparently convinced many people that the matter must be approached with deadly seriousness.

Most listeners are likely to agree with Alan H. Morriss, who commented that "A first glance at the score provokes the feeling that is is almost impossible to review it seriously." Passages like the sinister trombone blats at "Forgive us our trespasses," seem to encourage use of the Mass as a party record. But the piece has already been performed at a Providence cathedral, and there are rumor that it will be imported to Boston. One hopes that some time will elapse before the University Choir will be replaced at Memorial Church by the Hi-Lo's.

(From The Harvard Crimson News, April 16, 2009. Article by Edgar Murray)


Swinging Priests. he Rev. Geoffrey Beaumont is a learned and dedicated man of the cloth. In the gloom of his musty church in London's Camberwell section, he conducts services for his working-class parishioners in language hallowed by generations of solemn Anglican usage. But when he sits down at his creaky upright parlor piano, he is likely to let himself go in the foot-stomping rhythms of the South Side jukeboxes. Last week he held a little party at the vicarage to display an unusual wedding of his two talents: a Mass set to popular rhythms and already known in the U.S. as the "Jazz Mass."

When Anglican Beaumont. 53, took over St. George's in Camberwell early this year, he found that he was failing to draw the Teddy Boys and other loiterers off the street corners. So he decided to use a score he had been working on for several years to lure them with the kind of music they normally listened to and could sing. The last real folk Mass, he believes, was written in the 16th century by one John Marbeck, a convicted heretic "I took the liturgy of the Prayer Book, Beaumont explains, "and tried to regard it simply as a lyric that somebody wanted me to write the music for."

Over an eye-glazing bowl of punch based on a Spanish drink called "Blood" * Beaumont beat out his 20th Century Folk Mass last week for the benefit of his church servers, who clustered around the vicarage piano. Designed for use by a small orchestra, or combo, the Mass sometimes sounds romantic echoes of Sigmund Romberg (the Credo), sometimes switches to a "beguine tempo" (Kyrie, Agnus Dei), sometimes soars in the harmonies of the Negro spiritual ("0 praise God in his ho-li-ness") or thumps with a syncopated bass ("We praise Thee, we bless Thee we praise Thee, we bless Thee"). At several points in the score, instruments are invited to swing into their own improvisations, e.g., the trumpet after the passage, "Praise Him in the sound of the Trumpet."

eaumont regards his Mass purely as an occasional piece which can be used to "zip up" a congregation. Although it has not yet been performed at St. George's, it got a free-swinging reading in the U.S. last week by a six-man Brown University combo known as the Brown Brunotes, led by visiting Anglican Priest Michael Fisher. When Father Beaumont performs it in his own church, he knows just the kind of combo he wants: a small, zippy dance band, perhaps with some of the gutty quality of a Louis Armstrong. Guy Lombardo, he feels, would be entirely too smooth.

Another musical apostle. Jesuit Father Aimeé Duval, 38, was drawing the teenagers into Paris' Palais des Sports last week for a session of singing and guitar strumming. With permission from his superiors, Father Duval started out six years ago as a street musician, quickly became a provincial bistro favorite as a singer of folk songs, Negro spirituals (among which he includes "Me voilàa, me voilaà, old vieux Joe") and religious songs of his own composition. His record of Seigneur, Mon Ami—which might be translated roughly as "Somebody up there likes me"—sold 45,000 copies, a big sale for France. Today Father Duval ranks as one of France's leading entertainers, is mobbed by autograph-seeking teen-agers wherever he goes, is considering recitals in Western Europe and the U.S. His appeal is hard to analyze. No belting revival-style singer, he chants numbers in a low, slightly monotonous voice, in some songs' exhibits a shaky sense of beat. He himself believes that he has simply tapped a burgeoning religious revival which is sweeping all France. On the other hand, a crooner m a clerical collar may simply be a novelty hit. Sighed one teen-age fan last week: "He looks so handsome and tired."

*Father Beaumont's recipe: Pour two bottles of Spanish red wine into jug, add two oranges two lemons and cucumber sliced, splash in one bottle of soda, lace with one-eighth bottle of brandy, drop in teaspoonful of Cointreau and two dashes bitters (or "anything like that") mix well and serve ice cold.

(From Time.com - Time magazine online - April 1, 1975)


See Theology and the arts in Britain since 1945.


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