"It is so hard for me to disentangle West Gallery Music from the Historic Chapels Trust that I won’t even try. If it had not been for the one, I would not have known about the other. The reason is that the choir I belong to sings each December at St. George’s Lutheran Church in east London which, as you will surely know, is the home of the HCT.
On my first visit, I accidentally left my scarf in the depths of one of the church’s thankfully retained box pews. Going back to retrieve it on a bright winter’s morning, I saw St. George’s in its full, if publicly hidden, magnificence. Well, the West Gallery choral tradition can be seen as something of a musical counterpart to buildings such as this.
Not only does the repertoire derive from broadly the same period, it has become the object of similarly passionate drives for conservation and refurbishment. If St. George’s is passed unwittingly by the traffic of Leman Street, this is because it is surrounded by buildings on three sides.
Illustration: Image from West Gallery Christmas Music from Northamptonshire, Collected by Stephen J Weston, Camerata Publishing, Kettering
If West Gallery has remained largely hidden, this too is on account of developments since its heyday in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
West Gallery Music is basically Georgian hymnody, and was prevalent in town and country churches, roughly between 1700 and 1850. Dr. Francis Roads, the founder and director of the London Gallery Quire, in which I sing, describes it as ‘happy without being clappy’, and this is indeed the case. The hymns are classy in their joyfulness, ranging from catchy congregational to quite difficult, ruminative anthems. They are written in four-part counterpoint that is robust yet not predictable, and often tenor-led.
Illustration: The Village Choir by Thomas Webster. Image courtesy the Sheepshanks Collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum
They have been called sub-Handelian but this surely misses the point. Their ornate energy is their own, not imitation of another. Some of the tunes and arrangements might have a certain eccentricity, but this is not a tactful way of trying to say they are naïf. Nor are they folk hymns, despite their occasional profusion of dotted crotchets. They are well-wrought metrical psalms, hymns and shifting anthems. Some of them are by such ‘name’ composers such as Wesley, Watts, Keys and Knapp; others are the work of less lettered practitioners, but they more than work by virtue of a well-ordered exuberance.
Photo Courtesy West Gallery Music Association
We are seeing a great renaissance of West Gallery, with more than thirty such choirs now in existence in this country. But since rebirths imply an earlier death, what happened to this tradition that makes current interest a revival? Put at its simplest, West Gallery was killed off by new proprieties. If we want culprits, the search ends with the Victorians, for it was they who looked askance at the bands of string and wind instrumentalists who were very likely playing until late at the alehouse on the evening before the Sunday service. This proximity of profane and sacred was too much for the sensibilities of the day. To borrow the language of our own time, the players and singers did not constitute a dedicated unit. What’s more, the bands were –horror!–of mixed gender.
Thomas Hardy is as good on all this as you would expect. He was a fiddler himself, and his father and grandfather had played that instrument in the Dorset churches which shaped his portrayal of the Mellstock band in Under the Greenwood Tree. This short novel was published in 1872, but it was looking back nearly thirty years to a musical disbanding of the kind that had taken place all over the country. A new, young, pretty school teacher Fancy Day arrives in the village. So far, so decorous. But she plays the organ; the mere word carries overtones of a siege engine in the Anglicans’ drive towards seemliness in worship. It does indeed spell the beginning of the end for the band. Here and elsewhere in his stories and poems, Hardy mourns the passing of this music with a rueful acceptance.
Last autumn we sang at St. Andrew's Church in Enfield. One of the readings during the service was taken from his account of Absent-Mindedness in a Parish Choir. It’s a yarn about a hung-over band accidentally playing the roistering pub song “Devil Among the Tailors” in church one Sunday, and being sacked. St. Andrew's happens to be the very church where the author married his young secretary Florence in 1914. How happy, if not clappy, he would have been, to sit in the pews and hear his story being enhanced by the presence of a West Gallery choir in full voice."
~ Alan Franks
Author and musician Alan Franks was a feature-writer on The Times for more than thirty years. His latest novel is The Notes of Dr. Newgate.
Historic Chapels Trust churches and chapels may be hired for West Gallery and other concerts.