West Gallery music

‘West Gallery’ music is the music of English (and American) churches and chapels in the Georgian period, 1700-1850. This music never completely died out: in the USA, the ‘Shapenote’ tradition is still flourishing, and in Britain some congregations and carol parties have kept the music going until the revival of recent years.

Redland_Stewart_Interior_22kIn the 18th century, very few country churches had an organ, and for music they depended on the vocal efforts of the parish clerk and congregation, who sang psalms in the metrical paraphrases of the Old Version (1562) or New Version (1696). From about 1670 on, companies of singers were formed, and the first music specially composed for such ‘country choirs’ appeared about 1700. Village singers learnt to sing ‘by note’ in harmony, and adopted a vigorous style of singing, often varying the point at which the voices entered, known as ‘fuguing’.

From about 1740, accompanying instruments began to be used, and by 1800 there were groups of competent singers and musicians in many churches. Sometimes the musicians, especially string players, played for dances on Saturday as well as for psalms and anthems on Sunday: they brought the same vernacular approach to both kinds of music.

Not only the choir in church, but also the congregation in chapel, developed the art of singing in harmony. The singers and musicians were often placed at the west end of the church, in a raised ‘singing seat’ or a gallery: hence the term ‘West Gallery music’, which was devised by Thomas Hardy to refer to the sturdily independent character of the old church bands. In the end, as Hardy observed, changes of various kinds in church and village life and practice led to the demise of the singers as an independent force in English country churches: the galleries and singing seats were destroyed, the instruments were disposed of, and the manuscript music books lost. The churches came to be dominated by a harmonium or an organ, and the people sang in regimented fashion from Hymns Ancient & Modern.

Dunster: The last parish clerks’ spectacles and prayer book.

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