The history of West Gallery music

This
post
is so wrongheaded that I initially had no idea how to
start, so I thought about it until I did. I’m going to start with
the misstatements of fact, and then procede to the wrongheaded
opinions.

  • Mr. White states that The Oxford Movement “booted this old
    nonsense out of [Church of England] liturgical practice”, which
    is true and “cleared the way for the ‘high’ choral evensong that
    remains Anglicanism’s greatest gift to the world.” It was not
    the Oxford movement that invented choral evensong, but the great
    16th
    century polyphonists (Byrd, Morley, Gibbons…) who are also the
    people who wrote the first psalm settings from which the West
    Gallery tradition arose. And the Melstock Band in “Under the
    Greenwood Tree” was not succeeded by organs and surpliced
    choirboys but by a harmonium, with a music-box like mechanism
    allowing anybody who can turn the crank to play an “approved”
    version of an “approved” hymn.
  • He quotes a Hardy poem in which the Vicar refuses to bury
    the old choirmaster as he had requested because the viols
    wouldn’t be able to play in bad weather. Mr. White claims to
    see the vicar’s point and claims that Hardy did not. Of course,
    the vicar is a character written by Hardy, so he would not have
    been able to make a point had Hardy not been able to see
    it. He may well have disagreed after he saw it, but I’m sure he
    had more experience listening to viols played in the rain than
    Mr. White does.
  • Mr. White isn’t responsible for this, but a commenter with
    the clearly pseudonymous name of Esmeralda Weatherwax, who may never have
    heard West Gallery music, equates it with the “worship band”
    with guitar, keyboard, and drums and banal choruses. The
    guitar, keyboard and drums may well be in the West Gallery
    tradition of using the musical talent available in the
    congregation, but West Gallery music for generations used only
    the Old and New versions of the metrical psalms, which are
    anything but banal. I know Francis Roads, one of the founders
    of the London West Gallery Quire whose performance prompted this post, and
    he is explicitly trying to use West Gallery music in
    contemporary liturgical settings to drive the “happy, clappy
    stuff” out.
  • When welcoming the demise of West Gallery music, Mr. White
    says, “I can’t be in a minority there because viols and their
    like are indeed long gone from Anglican worship.” This is a
    total non-sequitur — nobody ever claimed that the 19th century
    Church of England was a democracy, so the disappearance of
    choirs accompanied by bands of instruments may well have been
    imposed by a numerical minority.

And now to the matters of opinion:

  • Mr. White’s brief review of the performance he heard was,
    “They turned up with a batch of 18th-century-style wind and
    brass (serpent included), and a lot of lusty voices; and I can’t
    deny that it was fun, sort of. But spiritual, no.” I can’t
    dispute this view of this particular performance, since
    Mr. White was there and I wasn’t. But I challenge anyone to
    listen to “Egypt” or “Poole” and not have a spiritual experience
    overlaying the dread of death, and the joy embodied in Gibralter
    surely transcends “fun”.
  • I see no point in arguing with Mr. White about whether the
    West Gallery tradition is better or worse than the high choral
    evensong tradition. If a church has a congregation that wants
    to praise God with music, the church may well be better off using the
    musical talents actually available to it than trying to ape a
    church with a larger budget, a better organ, and a different
    population of singers. Mr. White and Ms Weatherwax want to
    dismiss the musical and liturgical value of what the rural
    churches came up with and I don’t.
  • Mr. White says, “Let’s face it, the 18th and early 19th
    centuries were not the church’s finest moment in this country,
    and the West Gallery tradition sums up everything that was
    wrong.” I agree that the Church of England, even prodded by the
    best of the Dissenting tradition, performed badly in a lot of
    the crises of that time. But I doubt that more little boys in
    surplices who could sing unaccompanied would have helped.

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1 thought on “The history of West Gallery music”

  1. “a commenter with the clearly pseudonymous name of Esmeralda Weatherwax, who may never have heard West Gallery music, equates it with the “worship band” with guitar, keyboard, and drums and banal choruses.”
    I think you have misinterpreted Esmeralda Weatherwax’s reaction. My feeling is that she doesn’t EQUATE this “worship band” with the West Gallery musicians of the past. On the contrary.
    Apart from this little detail I entirely agree with you, gratefully, in everything else.
    Eric Christen

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