Anglican Notables – John Blow (Musicians, Authors, & Poets) – 1 October

[This is a series of biographical sketches of Anglican men and women whose lives have been exemplary in virtue and/or have made significant contributions to Anglicanism’s expression of the Gospel.  Written from the perspective of full communion with the See of St. Peter, including such papal statements as St. John Paul II’s encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, this series will occasionally acknowledge differences between Anglicans and Catholics where they exist and will do so in a spirit of charity and respect.  However, the intent is to focus less on differences than on opportunities for mutual enrichment between the Anglican and Catholic traditions and on shared spiritual treasures that already unite us.]

John Blow

23 February 1648 (Newark, Nottinghamshire, England) – 1 October 1708 (Westminster, London)

Musician: Composer; Organist at Westminster Abbey; Gentleman [Layclerk] of the Chapel Royal; Master of the Choristers at St. Paul’s Cathedral

[The image is Sir Peter Lely’s (1618-80) “penetrating likeness of one of the seventeenth century’s greatest composers, a contemporary and collaborator of Henry Purcell.”]

The following sentence from _Oxford Music Online_ is an excellent summation of John Blow’s importance to Anglican music and to British music in general: “By his mid-20s he had become the foremost musician in England, and in later years he was the elder statesman of the Restoration school, whose chief luminary was Henry Purcell.”[1]

The Baroque stylistic period presented difficulties in the Anglican choral heritage.  Part of this was because while the Baroque was taking hold on the continent, England was going through a religious civil war and the republican Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans, which meant much concerning the established church, including music, was suppressed for over a decade.  But “there was resistance to the Baroque style in church music even before the Commonwealth. Some composers accepted the new styles and techniques: William Lawes, George Jeffries, and William Child, for example. But their efforts were and are regarded as negligible.[2]

I hope, at a later date, to write more about the Baroque and Anglicanism, but the following statement by Herbert Howells about the contributions of John Blow and Henry Purcell to church music concisely states the dilemma faced by composers as perceptive as these two men were.

“In a 1942 broadcast, Herbert Howells gave a brief historical overview of the Anglican choral heritage.  He used several terms for quiet and restraint, identifying the repertoire as one ‘of quiet and disciplined ways.’[3]  He declared this heritage truest to itself when its ‘still small voice’[4] is not lost among the stylistic changes over the centuries.  He expressed disapproval of Charles II’s Baroque aesthetic, mentioning that Purcell and Blow had to find a ‘dignified compromise’ by which to defend this heritage against Charles’s ‘frivolous instrumental hand.’[5]

England’s great lights of the musical Baroque, John Blow, Henry Purcell, and the German import G. F. Händel (who became a British subject), were generally at their best and most musically authentic, where church music is concerned, when they were able to express that aspect of the Baroque sensibility that lauds earthly rulers and their accomplishments.  Händel’s Te Deum for the Victory at the Battle of Dettingen is an example.  John Blow’s anthem, “Behold, O God Our Defender” for the coronation of James II is another example.  And you can be sure that if boy choristers are asked what is their favorite anthem, somewhere towards the top of the list is usually that most Baroque of anthems, Händel’s “Zadok the Priest,” which was composed for George II’s coronation in 1727.

One aspect of Blow’s character is worth noting.  He has to have been a man of great ambition and cannot have attained preeminence as England’s greatest musician of his generation (if one considers Henry Purcell to be young enough to have reigned as England’s Orpheus in the next generation) without having believed in his own abilities as a musician, organist, and choir master.  After all, he was the first to be awarded the Lambeth degree of Doctor of Music in 1677.  But such was his generosity and humility that in 1679, he “created a vacancy for the young Purcell by resigning as organist of Westminster Abbey.”[6]  He was later to do something similar by resigning his post at St. Paul’s Cathedral “in favor of Jeremiah Clarke, who was already organist.”[7]  No matter how exaggeratedly grand the music and arts of the Baroque like to be, here was an example of touching humility, chief among Christian virtues in all ages.

Collect for Church Musicians and Artists:

O God, whom saints and angels delight to worship in heaven: Be ever present with your servants who seek through art and music to perfect the praises offered by your people on earth; and grant to them even now glimpses of your beauty, and make them worthy at length to behold it unveiled for evermore; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Brother John-Bede Pauley, O.S.B.


[1] https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000003306?rskey=pPMqwE – accessed 29 September 2020

[2] John-Bede Pauley, “The Anglican Choral Heritage and Lectio Divina,” Antiphon vol. 19, no. 2 (2015) – https://muse.jhu.edu/article/634177 – accessed 29 September 2020.

      [3] Christopher Palmer, Herbert Howells: A Centenary Celebration (London: Thames, 1992),397.

      [4] Palmer, 397.

      [5] Palmer, 397.

[6] https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000003306?rskey=pPMqwE – accessed 29 September 2020

[7] https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000003306?rskey=pPMqwE – accessed 29 September 2020

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