How the Death of Charles the First changed the Victorian Church

Charles I

Charles I

Before the Victorian rediscovery of Christmas, there were two special non-Sabbath days in the English calendar: Easter and January 30th. If the former is obvious, the latter is more obscure. It was set aside in memoriam of Charles the First, 30th January being the date of his execution. (Historians tell us that this was for the rarity of "regicide", although Kings like Richard III were killed in battle. In terms of the execution of a monarch, we need only look to Queen Anne, second wife of Henry VIII. She was given a coronation in her own name and would have been Queen in the event of Henry VIII's death. If Charles I was the victim of regicide, then Queen Anne was even more the victim of regina-cide.)

But what does this have to do with music?

The Rise of the Oratorio

The Victorian theatre was prohibited from opening at Easter and on 30th January. This loss of earnings might appear to be insignificant from our perspective, but cunning impresarios found a loophole. They proposed putting on sacred works on these two "special" days.

This is how the oratorio launched in the United Kingdom. People ascribed worth to it firstly because of the words, which were usually taken directly from Holy Scripture. But in time people asserted that there was transformative power in the music itself. When they listened to Handel's Messiah and Mendelssohn's Elijah, they felt better.

Decades passed. There were other changes taking place within culture that focused once again on the oratorio. Why, said some, why is it that if we feel improved by the oratorio it is a spiritual benefit, but if we feel moved by a Beethoven String Quartet it is not spiritual?

Society had travelled so far down this road that the only way to contend such a point was to overthrow the entire oratorio genre. And so the point was made and accepted: that if music makes you feel something then it is exerting a spiritual influence on you, whether the composer and/or subject matter is pagan, Christian, Jew, atheist or anything else.

It is ironic that commemorating the legal demise of the hedonistic Charles the First should have been the pretext for Christians to fall into the gap between worship and entertainment. It would have been better for them to accept that a form of entertainment is not inconsistent with the Christian walk (even if the Victorian theatre was justly unacceptable as a place for Christians to be). Instead of which, the line was blurred by bringing an attitude of worship into the concert hall and an element of entertainment in the Cathedral and Church. The line could not be uncrossed. 

Some Christians struggle today to work out whether something is too much like entertainment to be tolerable in the public worship of God. It is unanswerable unless we challenge our presuppositions that led us to think that by a little expediency, a bit of judicious pragmatism, we could add to God's will about the way he is worshipped and somehow make it more effective.

The history of the oratorio in connection with Victorian culture is discussed at length in Music Mania: How the Victorians joined the cult of Classical Music and why England has never been the same since by Abigail Judith Fox.