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Interview: Rollo Woods music researcher

25 August 2017

‘If West Gallery music is just a historical curiosity, then so is the music of Vivaldi’

David Courtney

West Gallery music is the music of churches and chapels where the singing was led from about 1740 to 1860 by a small band and group of singers, who often sat in a gallery at the west end of the church. The members were local amateur musicians capable of reading, arranging, and even composing music for hymns, metrical psalms, carols, canticles, and anthems.


I’m a fourth-generation folkie. There are many links between West Gallery and folk music, but I soon came to see how good the West Gallery music was in itself. The melodies are strong, enjoyable to sing, and often easy to memorise. The best are in hymn books: Abridge, the Old Hundredth (from the 1560s), Wareham. St Stephen’s, which Thomas Hardy quotes, is in most hymn books.


I began studying it in 1972, and when the West Gallery Music Association was founded in 1990, I’d done more research than most members. At every meeting in the early years, queues used to form to ask me questions — often the same questions — about aspects of the music; so I agreed to write a short guide. Good Singing Still came out in 1995, and was soon out of print, but it contained too many errors for a straight reprint to be desirable. Eventually, I had enough material for a new, enlarged, and revised version, published earlier this year.


I read modern languages at Cambridge, including Norwegian, and did well enough to get a studentship to Oslo University for 1950-51. I took the Diploma in Librarianship at University College, London, then returned to Cambridge to work in the Library of Christ’s College, and then the University Library. In 1959, I was appointed Deputy Librarian at the University of Southampton. From 1964, I directed the Library Automation Project, pioneering the use of computers in libraries. I’ve actually published far more on library techniques than on West Gallery music.


I’m not really qualified to be a musician at all, though I have a great love for many kinds of music. I have a poor ear, can’t sing in tune, and don’t read music well. However, since I discovered instruments that require mainly mechanical skills — the concertina and autoharp — I’m able to enjoy taking part in certain limited musical activities. As to musical research, I spent 40 years of my life in universities, and research is what university people do.


West Gallery music is known now mainly from books published for the use of country choirs, and the manuscripts which the musicians made of their repertoires. The first group of manuscripts I was lent included dance-band scores written in the same hand, and for the same band as some of the church music.


For much of the period, the Church of England sang only metrical psalms, which have a limited, and obviously pre-Christian, theology. A law case in 1820 established that “human hymns” could be sung in Anglican churches. The Free Churches used hymns much earlier, often with a strong Calvinist bias. Charles Wesley, though he wrote hymns about the wrath of God, also began to write much more about God’s loving care for his people.


If West Gallery music is just a historical curiosity, then so is the music of Vivaldi. Church music in general tends to lag a generation behind popular music; so there are always composers and worship leaders trying to make converts by bridging the gap. Also, the past hundred years have seen a great interest in music of the past, including its instruments, performance methods, and traditions.


Not every item discovered in a remote record office is a lost masterpiece, but there’s so much of it that many good items can be found that are worth proper rehearsal and performance today.


A general trend to decorous, restrained behaviour in church and public life marked the later Victorian period, and West Gallery music died out. The Oxford Movement made a point of attacking West Gallery music, and its so-called restoration of churches usually involved pulling down the galleries as well as changing the way services were conducted, though the High Church type of service developed a little later. The popularity of their hymn book, Hymns Ancient and Modern, with a cheap music edition costing only 4d., led to many churches with progressive young priests abandoning the old music.


When we moved to Swanage in 1987, I hoped to form a West Gallery quire like The Madding Crowd in Hampshire. The 1990 Songs of Praise from Puddletown got things moving, and eventually two quires were formed, at Beaminster in the west, and the Purbeck Village Quire in Purbeck. The PVQ always performs in costume, based on local research.


We’re now well established, with a good repertoire, much of it local music from Bere Regis, Lulworth, Stinsford, Swanage, Wareham, Wool, and Worth Matravers, but also from further afield. We always sing a psalm in the Swanage folk-festival service.


The English Folk Dance and Song Society from time to time presents a gold badge to members who have made a major contribution to its work. Why I was chosen I’m not quite sure for basically I’m like hundreds of people who give their time and talents to sing, play, dance, and research the music they love, but the presentation was made in 2015. The day began with a session of West Gallery carols, an,d after tea, it concluded with a ceilidh with music by Maiden Oak, reinforced by my son and grandson, Tony and Owen, and other old musical friends.


I’ve never experienced the presence or nearness of God that many believers report. I was brought up in a loving but fairly strict Non-conformist family. My father was described as being the nearest to a saint any of us has known. My mother was equally faithful, but much more questioning. For instance, at an Anglican service, she would close her lips during parts of the creed she could not accept. She had a science degree, and a very good brain.


As a child, I had a fairly simple faith, and my religious life since then has been spent in gradually losing bits of this — while, I hope, getting a deeper understanding of what faith should be. I used to think that if I waited patiently I would get a revelation from God, but now I realise that I can’t escape my questioning mind, and all it involves. My favourite church meeting is “Let’s Talk It Over,” which is a monthly discussion meeting.


The greatest positive influence was probably my mother. Most of the other people who wanted to influence me made me rebel.


I was a member of the Friends Ambulance Unit [FAU] from 1945 to 1947. Membership wasn’t limited to Quakers; so among those who served with me were a strict Anglican, who felt he must end every devotional meeting with the grace from the BCP; a man always wanting to lead us through a Moody and Sankey hymn; and a man who signed all his letters “Yours in the bowels of Christ”.


With them I worked in Scandinavia, where I met my wife, Anne. I’ve often wondered since if I should have stayed in the FAU, or some other relief team. The Quaker way of life influenced me for some time, but I eventually decided to return to the Congregational Church.


I’m very much tied to the flat, as I care for Anne, and you can’t research without materials. At present I’m thinking only of preparing programmes for Purbeck Village Quire, and music for Maiden Oak, but if something turns up I might be tempted to do some more research.


I don’t set aside a time for prayer. I find I cannot. I do seek God’s help in looking after Anne many times a day.


The awful hypocrisy of people with power is what makes me angry. I’m happiest when I see my children, and their children, doing things I wish I could do.


Only a belief in the resilience of the human spirit gives me hope for the future.


I think I’d choose to be locked in a church with John Buchan, for his many attempts to understand people whose ideas he could not share; and Dorothy Sayers, to discuss The Man Born to be King.


Rollo Woods was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. Good Singing Still (Second Edition) can be bought by contacting mike.c.bailey@btinternet.com.


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