England is not usually thought of as a particularly musical country (disregarding pop and rock which in all honesty don't really count, though folk music is another matter), with only Purcell, Handel (who, of course, wasn't English), Elgar and maybe one or two others belonging to the major league. However if you go back to the 16th century you find that many of the greatest composers of the time were, in fact, English. This period was a Golden Age for English art in general but I am focussing on music here because that is probably the most spiritual of all the art forms in that its effects, for good or ill, can be the most profound in the sense of inwardly awakening or morally corrupting.
Although its roots lie in earlier times, and are represented by people like John Dunstaple, the really great period of English music might be said to start with the Eton Choirbook which dates back to the late 15th century. This was a collection of sacred pieces for unaccompanied choir copied down for performance at Vespers in Eton College. They are all, I believe, in praise of the Virgin Mary who was very important in pre-Reformation England, almost like a feminine deity perhaps thought of as more approachable and closer to common human concerns than the Father who might be regarded by ordinary people as rather too transcendent and remote. One of the great losses caused by the Protestant revolution was precisely this; that the English, and those that descended from them, lost touch with feminine grace and mercy as expressed in a spiritual form.
The music in the Eton Choirbook was drawn from the greatest composers of the day, musicians such as John Browne whose Stabat Mater is one of the pillars of the collection. This, like all the pieces in the book, is florid polyphony whose elaborate lines echo the architectural glories of King's College Chapel at Cambridge, great soaring arches of sound in which the top lines (sung originally by boys but now more usually and very effectively taken by female voices) float above the tenors and basses like high flying birds above the waves. The Browne Stabat Mater is for six voices, which sometimes break down into a smaller number of parts, and alternates between expressive sections for solo voices juxtaposed with more powerful ones for full choir. In a normal performance it lasts about 15 minutes and the cumulative effect is quite breathtaking.
A slightly later composer is John Taverner who wrote masses and motets as well as the votive antiphons which was the most common musical form in the Eton Choirbook. The Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas is probably his best known work today but pieces like Dum Transisset Sabbatum and O Splendor Gloriae are works of overwhelming beauty whose spiritual intensity is unmatched in music of any period in my opinion. Was Taverner a particularly spiritual person or just a talented musician working in a language that lent itself especially well to spiritual expression? Perhaps a bit of both, but the greatness of Renaissance vocal polyphony is that even composers not necessarily of the first rank could write music that touches on the sublime when working in that style.
From the generation following we have Thomas Tallis and then William Byrd, both of whom were Catholics writing at a time of religious change and even persecution. This produced heartfelt works of longing and anguish by both men, generally shorter in length and perhaps more human in their emotional content than earlier composers though no less spiritual in effect. But perhaps Tallis's greatest work is one that harks back to the style of the Eton Choirbook. His Gaude Gloriosa is an immense piece consisting of nine invocations to the Virgin Mary and builds up to a shattering climax that is surely the closest thing we can get on this Earth to the choirs of cherubim and seraphim praising God in the highest. Whatever the greater development of later music in the Baroque and Romantic periods there is nothing that approaches this for sheer spiritual power and transcendent beauty. I write as a listener not a musician but while Bach, Beethoven and Wagner are doubtless greater composers with more technical ability and greater harmonic understanding they do not, possibly because of the nature of the times in which they were working, reach such spiritual heights in which the soul is raised above its earthly station to a purer condition of heavenly beauty.
The tail end of this period of English sacred music, in which it touched a spirituality rarely known before (even, in my opinion by the Palestrinas and Josquins on the Continent, great composers though they were), is represented by Orlando Gibbons, Thomas Tomkins and Thomas Weelkes, all fine composers but not so capable of expressing divine glories as their earlier compatriots, perhaps because they were setting English words rather than Latin, perhaps because of the artistic depredations of the Reformation or perhaps just because time moves on. Then we had Purcell (whose lovely hymn to Albion, 'Fairest Isle' from the semi-opera King Arthur, is worth drawing attention to in the context of this blog) and a few other minor composers, and then, after Handel, not really much at all until Elgar and Vaughan Williams. But there is an interesting 20th century footnote to add.
Two English composers of the early 20th century, quite well known at the time, then forgotten but more recently rediscovered, were John Foulds (1880-1939) and Cyril Scott (1879-1970). With the best will in the world neither can be called great but they are both interesting, and that is not just to damn them with faint praise. Their music may not be great but it is good. They were not Christians in the ordinary sense but they were both influenced by Theosophy, which is probably the major source of much New Age spirituality, and they both, intriguingly from my point of view, claimed to be in touch with Masters; that is, spiritual beings belonging to the hierarchy of saints that is supposed to guide and watch over humanity on this Earth. In fact, John Foulds was married to Maud MacCarthy who was the Swami Omananda who wrote about the Masters in Towards the Mysteries. And Cyril Scott wrote a trilogy of books (The Initiate etc) about encountering a Master in London and America which I believe to be fictional but which were presented as fact. It may be that Scott thought he was promoting a true idea in a way that was more palatable to the general public as the books are written in a somewhat journalistic style. I have to say that I think presenting fiction as truth is the wrong way to go about things, even if your intentions are good, but I'm sure his intentions were to enlighten not to deceive and he may well have had the contact he claims though probably in a different form. Anyway, the point is that there was a revival of the connection between spirituality and music in this country in the first half of the 20th century. Even Vaughan Williams can be seen as part of that, and, in the context of Albion, two other composers worth a mention are Arnold Bax, especially with his symphonic poem Tintagel, and Rutland Boughton whose music drama entitled The Immortal Hour was first performed at the Glastonbury Festival in 1914. It's a sort of fairy opera that somehow seems to call to mind prehistoric Britain though filtered through an Edwardian sensibility.
What I think all these composers had in common was a sensitivity to the theme of this blog, a certain sort of English spirituality. They expressed this in different ways and according to their own time and culture, but they all were responding to an inner world of light and truth that constantly bubbles up from the depths of England only to be suppressed again by materialistic forces. It can never really be suppressed because it is true but it needs to be brought forth anew with every generation, and the hope is that it will become stronger in people's minds until eventually it can really blossom forth and shine out clearly in the world.