This is a recording of what has become known as West Gallery music— the largely joyful stuff that flourished in the parish churches and chapels of the towns and villages of England between the start of the eighteenth century and the middle of the nineteenth. It was so called because it was often performed by a band of singers and musicians in the galleries erected at the west end of the churches. It came into being because of a wish by the church authorities to “improve the quality of psalmody.”
There was much room for improvement, half a century on from the dourness of a Commonwealth which had banned music from churches and destroyed organs so that it should never return. Fortunately, that was a vain Cromwellian hope since the post-Restoration years saw a large amount of excellent secular music being written, and a number of publishers ready and willing to engage in the setting of sacred music to be sung in the parish churches.
Fast forward another century and half and we find the high-minded Victorians of the Oxford Movement so alarmed by the exuberance of the West Gallery singing, often driven along by string and wind bands, that they exile it from sacred premises and bring back the seemlier presence of the organ. Part of the bands’ “offence” was that they were not what we would call a dedicated unit; that is, they might well have been playing in the pub the night before, and were thereby tainted by the whiff of profanity.
Nowhere is this social and musical turning point in England’s history better described than by the writer Thomas Hardy, himself a West Gallery fiddler in his native Wessex, in the 1872 novel Under The Greenwood Tree. In the rural extremes of an industrialising nation, West Gallery music hung on for a few years, with the last such parish quire reportedly disbanding in 1895.
Still, in the substantial window of its ascendancy it produced an astounding body of metrical psalms, hymns, canticles, anthems and carols. Most of the composers were technically amateur but far from unlettered. Thanks to the diligence and enthusiasm of such scholars as our own quire’s founder and director Dr Francis Roads, many of these items are only now being rediscovered and sung afresh. With the ever-expanding membership of the West Gallery Music Association, the genre – though the word sounds stuffy – is undergoing nothing less than a revival.
You only have to hear it to know why. The mood is almost universally upbeat, its rhythms vivacious, its harmonies rich, and its tunes ranging between catchy and sublime. Hence the title of our record. Dr Roads, who founded the London Gallery Quire twenty years ago, observes that the style of the music is “happy rather than clappy.” This is not to say it cannot also be rueful and melancholy, as you will hear from such items as the prolific Anon’s setting of Isaac Watts’ “Deep In Our Hearts Let Us Record,” and Kathryn Rose’s setting of William Cooper’s poem “The Contrite Heart”. But whatever its mood, this is conveyed with a deeply affecting mix of passion and directness. Sometimes it has its head in the heavens and its feet at the country fair. It also has its spirit in the present, with both Dr. Roads’ setting of “O Come Hither and Behold the Works of the Lord” from Psalm 46, and his deputy director Kathryn Rose’s contribution offering clear proof of an ongoing revival.
The idea behind the selection of items on this, our second CD, is to show how West Gallery music marks the progress of the church calendar. Hence we have two Advent pieces, five carols, two for Easter, one each for Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, Ascensiontide and Harvest, and four for the periods of Ordinary Time, during which there are no particular festivals, and even one for the now neglected occasion of Oak Apple Day (The Restoration of King Charles II, May 29th).