West Gallery Quire Concert

I played serpent with the West Gallery Quire last
night, in a concert at the Brighton-Allston Congregational

It was a very pleasant audience, and the group really enjoyed
playing for them and eating together afterwards.

I don’t have any pictures, and I don’t think anyone wants me to
let you hear the rehearsal recordings. But I’m feeling pretty
good about the serpent playing.

To begin with, the church is a really good room for the serpent
to play in. And the tuba playing I’ve been doing the last couple
of weeks to get ready for the Wakefield Summer Band has gotten my
low range much more reliable than it sometimes is.

I think historically, there would have usually been at most one
instrument per part, and the usual kind of church choir
distribution, modified by some of the social dynamics described in
the quote below. And the instruments would have been fairly loud
instruments that could be depended on by the singers.

This group tends to be about half instruments, some of whom are
playing for their personal pleasure, and can maybe be heard by the
person next to them, but not by anyone else. Last night, we
really could have used another soprano. The serpent was loud
enough that having only two bass singers wasn’t a balance problem,
but it’s more fun when the serpent can blend into a section.

Another issue with this group is that the director doesn’t
really ever read the words of the hymns, so he’s always deciding
what verses to sing on some pretty arbitrary criteria. Last night
we sang the 23rd Psalm in the Old Version of Sternhold and
Hopkins. (I’d give you a link, but the site I found seems to be
down.) It has 5 verses, and we sang 4 of them. Several of us
lobbied for doing all 5, since it’s a well-known text, and it
seems to be left hanging if you end on verse 4. But the director
had decided that 4 verses was the right number, and it didn’t even
occur to him that he should read all 5 and decide on the basis of
the poetry which was the right one to leave out.

Literary reference

Since we’re talking about West Gallery Music, I found a
literary reference a couple of years ago that I think describes
the milieu and its destruction better and more succinctly than the
Thomas Hardy Under the Greenwood Tree chapters that
are always cited. Thomas Hardy is certainly a better writer than
Thomas Hughes, but I think this excerpt should be available on the
web for people who want to read about West Gallery Music.

It’s from Tom Brown at Oxford by Thomas Hughes, which you can now get
in a number of formats from manybooks.net.

This is from CHAPTER XVIII


The figure of fun was a middle-aged man of small stature, and very
bandy-legged, dressed in a blue coat and brass buttons, and carrying a
great bass-viol bigger than himself, in a rough baize cover. He came out
of a footpath into the road just before them, and, on seeing them,
touched his hat to Miss Winter, and then fidgeted along with his load,
and jerked his head in a deprecatory manner away from them as he walked
on, with the sort of look and action which a favorite terrier uses when
his master holds out a lighted cigar to his nose. He was the village
tailor and constable, also the principal performer in the church-music
which obtained in Englebourn. In the latter capacity he had of late come
into collision with Miss Winter.

For this was another of the questions which divided the parish–The
great church music question. From time immemorial, at least ever since
the gallery at the west end had been built, the village psalmody had
been in the hands of the occupiers of that Protestant structure. In the
middle of the front row sat the musicians, three in number, who played
respectively a bass-viol, a fiddle, and a clarionet. On one side of them
were two or three young women, who sang treble–shrill, ear-piercing
treble–with a strong nasal Berkshire drawl in it. On the other side of
the musicians sat the blacksmith, the wheelwright, and other tradesmen
of the place. Tradesmen means in that part of the country what we mean
by artisan, and these were naturally allied with the laborers, and
consorted with them. So far as church-going was concerned, they formed a
sort of independent opposition, sitting in the gallery, instead of in
the nave, where the farmers and the two or three principal
shopkeepers–the great landed and commercial interests–regularly sat
and slept, and where the two publicans occupied pews, but seldom made
even the pretence of worshipping.

The rest of the gallery was filled by the able-bodied male
peasantry. The old worn-out men generally sat below in the free seats;
the women also, and some few boys. But the hearts of these latter were
in the gallery–a seat on the back benches of which was a sign that they
had indued the toga virilis, and were thenceforth free from maternal and
pastoral tutelage in the matter of church-going. The gallery thus
constituted had gradually usurped the psalmody as their particular and
special portion of the service; they left the clerk and the school
children, aided by such of the aristocracy below as cared to join, to do
the responses; but, when singing time came, they reigned supreme. The
slate on which the Psalms were announced was hung out from before the
centre of the gallery, and the clerk, leaving his place under the
reading-desk, marched up there to give them out. He took this method of
preserving his constitutional connection with the singing, knowing that
otherwise he could not have maintained the rightful position of his
office in this matter. So matters had stood until shortly before the
time of our story.

The present curate, however, backed by Miss Winter, had tried a
reform. He was a quiet man, with a wife and several children, and small
means. He had served in the diocese ever since he had been ordained, in
a hum-drum sort of way, going where he was sent for, and performing his
routine duties reasonably well, but without showing any great aptitude
for his work. He had little interest, and had almost given up expecting
promotion, which he certainly had done nothing particular to merit. But
there was one point on which he was always ready to go out of his way,
and take a little trouble. He was a good musician, and had formed choirs
at all his former curacies.

Soon after his arrival, therefore, he, in concert with Miss Winter, had
begun to train the children in church-music. A small organ, which had
stood in a passage in the Rectory for many years, had been repaired, and
appeared first at the schoolroom, and at length under the gallery of the
church; and it was announced one week to the party in possession, that,
on the next Sunday, the constituted authorities would take the
church-music into their own hands. Then arose a strife, the end of which
had nearly been to send the gallery off, in a body, headed by the
offended bass-viol, to the small red-brick little Bethel at the other
end of the village. Fortunately the curate had too much good sense to
drive matters to extremities, and so alienate the parish constable, and
a large part of his flock, though he had not tact or energy enough to
bring them round to his own views. So a compromise was come to; and the
curate’s choir were allowed to chant the Psalms and Canticles, which had
always been read before, while the gallery remained triumphant masters
of the regular Psalms.

Here the ladies turned in, and were going up the walk towards the school
door, when the constable summoned up courage to speak on the matter
which was troubling him, and, resting the bass-viol carefully on his
right foot, calling out after them,

“Oh, please marm! Miss Winter!”

“Well,” she said quietly, turning round, “what do you wish to say?”

“Why, please mann, I hopes as you don’t think I be any ways unked ’bout
this here quire singin’, as they calls it I’m sartin you knows as there
ain’t amost nothing I wouldn’t do to please ee.”

“Well, you know how to do it very easily,” she said when he paused. “I
don’t ask you even to give up your music and try to work with us, though
I think you might have done that. I only ask you to use some psalms and
tunes which are fit to be used in a church.”

“To be sure us ool. ‘Taint we as wants no new-fangled tunes; them as we
sings be aal owld ones as ha’ been used in our church ever since I can
mind. But you only choose thaay as you likes out o’ the book? and we be
ready to kep to thaay.”

“I think Mr. Walker made a selection for you some weeks ago,” said Miss
Winter; “did he not?”

“‘Ees, but ’tis narra mossel o’ use for we to try his ‘goriums and sich
like. I hopes you wun’t be offended wi’ me, miss, for I be telling
nought but truth.” He spoke louder as they got nearer to the school
door, and, as they were opening it, shouted his last shot after them,
“‘Tis na good to try thaay tunes o’ his’n, miss. When us praises God, us
likes to praise un joyful.”

“There, you hear that, Mary,” said Miss Winter. “You’ll soon begin to
see why I look grave. There never was such a hard parish to
manage. Nobody will do what they ought. I never can get them to do
anything. Perhaps we may manage to teach the children better, that’s my
only comfort.”

“But, Katie dear, what do the poor things sing? Psalms, I hope.”

“Oh yes, but they choose all the odd ones on purpose, I believe. Which
class will you take?”

The little choir of children sang admirably, led by the schoolmistress,
and Miss Winter and the curate exchanged approving glances. They
performed the liveliest chant in their collection, that the opposition
might have no cause to complain of their want of joyfulness. And in turn
Miss Winter was in hopes that, out of deference to her, the usual rule
of selection in the gallery might have been modified. It was with no
small annoyance, therefore, that, after the Litany was over, and the
tuning finished, she heard the clerk give out that they would praise God
by singing part of the ninety-first Psalm. Mary, who was on the tiptoe
of expectation as to what was coming, saw the curate give a slight shrug
with his shoulders and lift of his eyebrows as he left the reading-desk,
and in another minute it became a painful effort for her to keep from
laughing as she slyly watched her cousin’s face; while the gallery sang
with vigour worthy of any cause or occasion–

“On the old lion He shall go, The adder fell and long; On the young lion
tread also, With dragons stout and strong.”

The trebles took up the last line, and repeated–

“With dragons stout and strong;”

and then the whole strength of the gallery chorused again–

“With dra-gons stout and strong;”

and the bass-viol seemed to her to prolong the notes and to gloat over
them as he droned them out, looking triumphantly at the distant
curate. Mary was thankful to kneel down to compose her face. The first
trial was the severe one, and she got through the second psalm much
better; and by the time Mr. Walker had plunged fairly into his sermon
she was a model of propriety and sedateness again.

2 thoughts on “West Gallery Quire Concert”

  1. Glad to hear your excerpt from Tom Brown at Oxford. The author, Thomas Hughes, is still remembered here in the Rugby, Tennessee, colony he founded in 1880 along with investors from Boston & London. We maintain a museum village in his memory. The West Gallery Quire would be welcome to perform in our Visitor Centre auditorium if they ever find themselves around Tennessee. — George Zepp, Rugby, TN

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