*** DEBUG END ***

The music that the Church lost

25 August 2017

Two hundred years ago, church music was very different. Rollo Woods describes the rise and fall of West Gallery music

Alan Courtney

Good singing still: the Purbeck Village Quire performing in Dorset earlier this summer

Good singing still: the Purbeck Village Quire performing in Dorset earlier this summer

IN 1990, few people had even heard of West Gallery music. Even fewer had undertaken any research into its history, repertoire, or style, and the best advice that could be given to an enquirer was to read Thomas Hardy’s novel Under the Greenwood Tree.

The phrase “West Gallery Music” would not have been recognised by those who first created it. Thomas Hardy, in A Laodicean (1881), said that the tune New Sabbath “apper­tained to the old west-gallery period of church music, anterior to the great choral reformation and the rule of Monk”. W. H. Monk was music editor of Hymns Ancient and Modern, first published in 1861.

The phrase was re-invented by Gordon Ashman in the 1980s when he began working on a West Gallery manuscript from Shropshire. Be­­cause it developed from the time when Psalms were the only things sung in church, those who originally practised it usually called it “Psalm­ody”, and some of those now study­ing and performing this music prefer the term “Georgian Psalm­ody” or “English country Psalm­ody”. Both names are valid, but West Gallery seems to be accepted by the majority (and the BBC).

It was also Thomas Hardy who first referred to the combination of instrumentalists and singers as a “Quire”. This term, again, would not have been recognised at the time: the group, including the in­­stru­mentalists, were often referred to as “the singers”. “Quire”, however, has been adopted by many revival groups in the West Gallery Music Associa­tion (WGMA), founded in 1990, and will be used here, the constituent parts being referred to as “band” and “singers”.

WG music, which flourished between 1740 and 1860, lives some­where between art music, which is created once for all by the com­poser, and folk music, which is recreated by each performer, and at each per­formance. Although much is known about folk instrumental and singing styles, recordings from performers old enough to have heard a church quire are rare. Record­ings of village carols, by groups directly descended from the WG period, from Cornwall, Somer­set, Dorset, Derbyshire, and York­shire, are available, but at least two generations separate them from the days when the WG quire per­formed in church.

Alan CourtneyGood singing still: the Purbeck Village Quire performing in Dorset earlier this summerAny list of distinctive WG char­acteristics quickly becomes a cata­logue of contradictions: Handel and Haydn and the crudest amateur compositions; inspired hymns and clumsy doggerel; humble and devoted service, and arrogant self-satisfaction; fine melodies still in every hymn-book, and complex fugues that needed careful rehearsal, and which, when badly put to­­gether, now excite only ridicule.

Current interest in WG music was aroused not by its research interest, but by the unexpected dis­covery that some of the music is of high quality: not rivalling Handel, of course, but quite as good as much of the Victorian music that replaced it. Thomas Hardy’s commendation of it as “good singing still” has been endorsed by groups up and down the country.

The music has had wider recog­nition on radio and television, in The New Oxford Book of Carols, and in recordings by Andrew Par­rott and the Taverner Consort, and other professional groups. We may yet see and hear Old Foster or Zadoc replace Winchester Old in the Chapel of King’s College, Cam­bridge.


What came before

In their church reforms of the 1640s, the Puritans wanted all wor­shippers to understand and par­ticipate in the service. Illiteracy was widespread, and so, in the words of The Directory of Publique Worship (1645), it was pronounced that, “for the present, it is conven­ient that the minister, or some other fit person appointed by him and the other ruling officers, do read the psalm, line by line, before the sing­ing thereof.”

The “fit person” was usually the parish clerk, and his lining out developed into a form of chant. According to a manual of 1694, reprinted 1731, The Parish Clerk’s Guide, he should “read it tunably, i.e. in a singing tone, and after the manner of chanting . . . allowing the time of a crotchet or a pulse-beating to each syllable in Reading. . .

“This way of Reading the Psalm was constantly practised and com­mendably performed by the ingeni­ous Mr John Playford, Clerk to the Honourable Society of the Temple.”

When all the hymns and psalms were lined out, it was inevitable that the first note of each line should be lengthened to gather in all the voices. Eventually, “gathering notes” came to form part of the tune.

Thus developed the “Old Way of Singing”, congregational and un­­accom­panied. Its chief character­istics were:


Alan CourtneyGood singing still: the Purbeck Village Quire performing in Dorset earlier this summer1. The tempo went from moder­ate to slow, then very slow, until each note lasted from four to six seconds: “as long as one can con­veni­ently sing without breathing”. A psalm of 35 verses, with lining out, might last an hour;

2. All sense of rhythm was lost, and sections of the congregation sang at different speeds, some finish­ing a line while others were halfway through;

3. Since there was nothing but the clerk’s voice to mark the tune, people inserted passing notes as they slid up or down to the next proper note, possibly going too far and having to return.


The results were totally dis­cord­ant, and yet came to be the accepted way of singing metrical psalms, and, later, hymns.


The singers

West Gallery music, with the intro­duction of a band to support the singers, and the formation of parish religious societies (who practised singing at their devotional meet­ings), helped to reform church music, though the Old Way of Sing­ing left traces in WG style and repertoire.

This can be seen in contemporary accounts of WG choirs, though these were usually hostile. Thus John Antes La Trobe wrote with reforming zeal in 1831: “The evils that require a reforming hand are chiefly these: singing out of tune, frequently too flat, with a nasal twang, straining the voice to an un­­natural pitch, introducing awk­ward drawls and tasteless orna­ments. . .

“They see no defect in their taste, throwing in, according to their notions of beauty, shakes, turns, cadences [cadenzas], and other frivolous ornaments. . .

Alan CourtneyGood singing still: the Purbeck Village Quire performing in Dorset earlier this summer“The scream, the pert snap, the buzzing bass, the rude and violent pronunciation, the deafening thump of the timekeeper . . . might be kept in subjection to a sounder judge­ment.”

A sounder, more sympathetic judgement of WG singing can be gleaned from the manuals used, such as John Arnold’s The Com­plete Psalmodist (1761). The Intro­duction includes a section “Of the several Graces used in Music”. Of these: “The first and most principal Grace, necessary to be learned, is the Trill or Shake. . . The Trill ought to be used on all des­cended pointed Notes, and always before a Close; also on descending sharpened Notes, and on all des­cend­ing Semi­tones; but in Psalm­ody, none shorter than Crotches. . . There is another Grace used in Music, called the Grace of Transi­tion that (is) to slur or break a Note, to sweeten the roughness of a Leap, &c”.

John Wesley copied most of this verbatim to his “The Grounds of Vocal Music” in Sacred Melody (third edition, 1770).

How far country quires followed these instructions is uncertain, and would vary from place to place. The Widecombe manuscripts — and some of them must have been lost — now contain more than 300 psalms and hymn tunes, and the bands had access to at least five printed sources as well. No one could memorise so many tunes, and so the bands would have been sight-reading most of the time, adding only occasional passing notes or final trills.

Rehearsal time and repertoire sizes could have been very like those found today. Ornamentation is a learnt skill, like scales, which can be applied when sight reading.

Most printed and manuscript sources are either two-part (Air and bass) or four-part, nominally SATB. In printed sources, the parts are usually marked for the first tune in the book. If not, the bass and alto are easily identified (the alto is written an octave above pitch. Only a trained soprano could hit all those high As — though some tried to do so). One part should be marked Air, the other Tenor or Second. Tenor means normal SATB, Second that tenors take the Air, and trebles sing a subordinate part, unless they, like the high voices in the congregation, double the Air.


The band

Often the church was responsible for buying and maintaining the instruments, and churchwardens’ accounts detail the expenses in­­curred: £1:10:0 for a “flut”; £2:2:0 for a clarinet; £5:5:0 for a bassoon; 3½ yds of serge at £0:1:10 per yard for a bag for the bass viol £0:6:5. Thread and tape for same 8d. (A violin bag needed only one yard of serge and 2d. of tape.)

Regular payments are recorded in church accounts for reeds, strings, and “hareing ye bow”. At Swalcliffe, Oxfordshire, in 1782, the church collected £7:14:3 to buy a basic band: hautboy (oboe), vox humana (tenor oboe), and bassoon, complete with reed cases, spare reeds, and instruction books. The last 2s. 6d. was spent on a fat goose as a Reward “for purchaseing and proving the instruments”. The church later added a bass viol to its band.

Surviving records suggest that wind instruments were about twice as common as strings. The mini­mum size for a band was two, air and bass; three was better; four meant support for all four vocal parts. Many bands were larger. In The Grave by the Handpost, Hardy says the Chalk (i.e. Maiden) Newton band one Christmas included “two or three violins, two ’cellos, a tenor viol, double bass, hautboy, clarion­ets, serpent, and seven singer”.

David CourtneyDavid CourtneyBand members were typically independent skilled artisans. The Hardy family were masons, and the Winterbourne Abbas band included a thatcher and a shepherd. Other musicians are known to have been shoemakers, weavers, farmers, tail­ors, shipwrights, etc.

Such people had several advant­ages: work that provided a steady income through the year, mostly in cash; enough education to be able to read, write, and calculate; their own private workplace. Thus they could afford to buy an instrument and instruction book, or pay for a few lessons; read and understand a printed tutor, and find somewhere to practise without disturbing the family and neighbours.

They also had that independence of character which made them, in the eyes of the Oxford Movement, “the worst members of the parish. The radicalism of singers and bell-ringers is notorious” (John Mason Neale).


The music

The Hymn Tune Index, a lifelong project by Professor Nicholas Temperley, lists all the tunes associ­ated with English sacred texts be­­tween 1535 and 1820, gleaned from published sources in the English-speaking world. The index suggests that there were at least 18,000 tunes available to English quires. In addi­tion, many manu­scripts exist that repeat these or add to their number.

WG quires divided the tunes they used into three basic types: plain, repeating, and fuguing. In a plain tune, each line of a stanza is sung only once, with all the voices in the different parts singing the same syllables together. The first tunes were plain, and one note to one syllable was the rule, as in the Old 100th. Later, passing notes were introduced, and by the end of the period a syllable could be spread over a long series of notes.

Repeating the last line added emphasis to the message, helped the illiterate, and gave the singers pleasure — and became a habit. Such lines were usually sung by one or two voices first, then repeated in chorus. John Wesley was very offended by these tunes: “It is a flat contradiction to our Lord’s command, ‘Use no vain repetitions.’”

In some tunes, only half the line, or a single word was repeated, sometimes with ludicrous results:

“Stir up this stew/stir up this stew/stir up this stupid heart of mine.”

The Gentleman’s Magazine reported that some chorister was seen passing a message to a girl in the last line of Watt’s Evening Hymn: “And love thee Bet/And love thee Bet/And love thee better than before.”

Fuguing tunes, where different voices entered at staggered intervals to produce overlapping text, were the most advanced, complex, and bitterly criticised of all the varied forms of WG music. It was, though, popular in its own day.

Again, John Wesley opposed these tunes: “I can attend to only one sentence at once and I hear three or four at one and the same instant! It runs through (O Pity! O Shame!) the greatest part even of our church music!”

A rare example to have survived is Lyngham, the accepted tune for “O for a thousand tongues to sing”. Because fuguing tunes served to concentrate music-making in the quire rather than the congregation, some churches refused to sing them.

The Union Tune Book, edited by Thomas Clark, contained about 150 plain tunes, 175 repeating tunes, and 41 fuguing tunes. The Centenary Tune Book, a later Methodist collection, contains 83 repeating tunes, 64 fuguing tunes, and only ten plain tunes.


REXLining out: a 19th-century illustration of a parish clerkDecline and reform

The end, or rather, the deliberate destruction, of WG music is usually credited to the Oxford Movement, the coup de grâce being delivered by Hymns Ancient & Modern. This simplifies a complex progress, and does not explain the simultaneous change in the Free Churches.

From the late-18th century, the Church of England had begun to put its own house in order. The Pluralities Act (1838) stopped well-connected clergymen acquiring a number of benefices. Clerical salar­ies were improved, and those of bishops and higher clergy made more equal. There was renewed church building: more than £500,000 from public funds and £5.6 million from private sources were spent on new Anglican churches between 1831 and 1851 alone.

Most of these new churches, Anglican and Non-conformist, had organs.

In 1800, only three churches in Dorset had an organ. London was better served. By 1750, half the churches had organs, and, by 1800, this had risen to 80 per cent. Where London led, others followed. All the country organ needed was a boy to pump the bellows. They made a sweeter sound and were easier to control than a band. The church could also assume that the parson’s wife or daughter could play it, for all girls of good family were taught to play the piano.

And the repertoire was changing. From 1820, the output of new Anglican hymns rivalled that of the Methodists, and the tune books issued with them had no separate staves for the inner parts.

Complaints about WG-style music increased. La Trobe’s lengthy analysis — he was as critical of a lazy clergyman or a bumptious city chorister as of WG music — showed how strong this feeling was by 1831. Two years later, the Oxford Movement gave such opposition a theological basis and programme.

The Church of England has never issued its own official hymn-book, but for the general public, Hymns Ancient & Modern takes that place. The first edition, in 1861, was published as a private venture, and the proprietors were embarrassed to find their sales running into millions.

The idea of printing a specific tune above each hymn was not entirely new, but A&M was the first popular book to do so. Some WG tunes were included in A&M when they could be made to fit the rules, but many were replaced by new tunes by J. B. Dykes and W. H. Monk. When other hymn-books wanted to use these copyright tunes, permission was readily given, provided the same words were linked to the tunes.

The editors (“those cunning old match-makers”) took great care in matching words to tunes, though the full-music edition still included a metrical index of tunes, so that choirs could make a choice in the old way. However, few did, and the A&M choice became the national standard; within a generation: Winchester Old had replaced hundreds of local tunes as the only tune for “While shepherds watch’d” — at least in church.

The last band did not suddenly vanish in 1861. The new diocese of Truro discovered that, of its 219 parishes, 18 still had a band of some kind in 1895. Kenneth Young lists many Non-Conformist churches that had bands well after 1861, even up to 1939, and this was also the case in Wales.

Even when no longer used for ordinary services, they continued to lead the singing on special occasions: Easter, Christmas, Sunday-school anniversaries, etc.

Widecombe is a good example of how the change came about. The parish church installed an organ in 1857; but in Dunstone Methodist Chapel, less than a mile away, the band, two fiddles and a ’cello, lasted until about 1908. All players were elderly men, and when the last ’cellist died, the fiddlers carried on without him.

Then William Hern, the leader, died, and the congregation had to deduce the tune from the second part (summer visitors found this confusing). Eventually, the second violinist decided to retire, and the chapel bought a harmonium, and arranged for a girl, the last survivor in the choir, to have six lessons at 1/6 a time, which proved adequate.

Her sister later replaced her, and continued to play the small pipe-organ that replaced the harmonium as long as she was able, pumping the bellows with her right foot, until electricity reached the village in the 1960s.

By 1914, WG music in the churches was dead, and only carol parties kept its memory alive. Many of these did not survive the war, and very few people can remember what a WG choir was.


This article was compiled from extracts from the new edition of Good Singing Still by Rollo Woods (WGMA).


A ‘movement’ that disappeared

Although WG music could be found from the Scillies to the Lakes, it was never a movement like the Evangelical Reform it supported, or the Oxford Movement that helped to destroy it. It had no focal point, no charismatic leader. We do not know where it started, and no church or meeting house claims to be the pioneer. No journal reported its progress. It seems rather to have developed by a trial-and-error process, with no guidance from the Church of England hierarchy or the national assemblies of the Free Churches.

Nor were there national uniform standards. The make-up of the band and their repertoire varied widely, and the parson or minister often exercised little control over them. Because it died out, or was deliberately suppressed, during the 19th century, it can be studied today only from the following:

  1. In contemporary accounts, mainly hostile;

  2. In church and chapel records;

  3. Through the surviving instruments;

  4. Through the printed books and manuscripts that WG quires used, the manuscripts being compiled by members of the band too poor to buy their own copies of the books;

  5. From recordings of village carol parties that have preserved fragments of the repertoire.

In contemporary accounts, mainly hostile;

In church and chapel records;

Through the surviving instruments;

Through the printed books and manuscripts that WG quires used, the manuscripts being compiled by members of the band too poor to buy their own copies of the books;

From recordings of village carol parties that have preserved fragments of the repertoire.

Of these, the printed and written texts are the most important. Nearly all accounts of WG quires in action are hostile, and possibly exaggerated. They can only be used with caution.

None the less, from this scant evidence, a strong revivalist movement has sprung up in recent decades. The West Gallery Music Association is now supported by more than 30 quires around the country, and modern editions of WG music are now available. See www.wgma.org.uk.


Different theology

Although the West Gallery period was the Golden Age of the English hymn — “the Century of Divine Songs” — reading through any large collection of hymns from the period, such as John Rippon’s Selection, first published in 1787 and intended for Baptist churches, shows that a high proportion even of hymns by the greatest writers reflect a theology no longer generally accepted.

Christians of mainstream denominations no longer worship a wrathful God, but a loving heavenly Father. We sing Charles Wesley’s “Love Divine, all loves excelling”, but his “He comes, He comes, the Judge severe”, though it is based on scripture, was dropped even from Methodist hymn-books by 1904. Changes in theological thinking, due in part to advances in science, medicine, and technology, have made such hymns unacceptable today.


Ecumenism in action


Most of the great hymn-writers of the WG period were Dissenters, and strong musical traditions developed, even without access to the main centres of musical education, the cathedrals and universities, and without endowments. Most music-making was voluntary and unpaid (as was much Anglican music in country churches). Some Free Church quires surpassed the performances in the Church of England. They also went on longer, into the 20th century in some cases.

Thankfully, even when the bias against dissent was strong, there were people in all churches who were prepared to collaborate, and this included the quires. The band of Fulbourn, Cambridgeshire, in the 1870s, played in the parish church in the morning, and the Methodist chapel in the afternoon. Others lent a hand for special services, exchanged music, and co-operated generally.


Women writers

The Baptists produced several women hymn-writers — one, Anne Trapnell, as early as 1654. She was followed by Anne Dutton, whose 50 books included an autobiography and a collection of hymns (1734). More important was Anne Steele (1716-78), who used the pen-name Theodosia and published her Poems in 1760. Her hymn “Father of mercies, in thy word” is in many hymn-books still, though many of her hymns are now rejected because of their morbid feeling. Her fiancé died bathing on their wedding morning, and she felt this was God’s judgement on her for her sins.


What the parson thought

“We sung the Old Varsion of the Psalms, or sometimes the Noo Varsion, any on ’em we liked and anywhen we liked, too. No, vicar, he didn’t care what we sung, and told us to bawl out what we pleased, s’longs we didn’t bother him.”

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)