One of my weekly joys is singing with my church choir. Our church is small, and so is our choir, often only six or eight people, just as I imagine a small rural parish church choir in Regency times might have been. But did you know that music in the country parish churches of Regency England was very different from what you find in churches today? I fell down this fascinating rabbit hole while doing research for my not-going–to-be finished-for-Christmas-after-all holiday story, The Lord of Misrule.
Since the heroine of LOM is a vicar’s daughter, I’ve done a lot of church-related research for that story, and am now familiar with the reforms that came with the Victorian era and the Oxford Movement in the Anglican Church. Many of those Victorian era changes have lasted into our times, and they can be a roadblock when one tries to recreate an earlier time. In a country parish church of the Regency era, it would be rare or unlikely for you to find an organ, or hymnals, or even a choir in exactly the same sense we hear today.
“West Gallery Music” evolved in response to the need for guided singing in local church services, where there were few organs, and no trained musicians or choirs to lead the music. During the Reformation of the 16th century, organs in churches were destroyed as part of the rejection of Catholicism. Under Cromwell, English churches continued to suffer abuse, and organs were not replaced. Organs did not become popular in churches again until the middle of the 19th century!
In country Anglican churches 1700-1850, and in non-conformist churches even later, to 1860, the joyful and vibrant traditions of the West Gallery music reigned. A relatively modern term, the name comes from the galleries where the choirs sat. During the Georgian era, population was expanding and in the villages, church attendance was a major part of life. Galleries were added to the interiors of the small churches to provide additional seating, or at least open seating not owned privately, as most pews were. These were sometimes built along the sides, but the west end was usually the province of the choir.
Essentially, these untrained choirs consisted of a band with instruments and singers, and while their music could sometimes feature complex harmonies, most of the time the pieces (psalms most commonly, but also anthems and even Christmas carols), were simple, for many in the choir could not read music –even if they could read words. Instruments included whatever strings, woodwinds, or brasses might be available among the village folks or that the church was able and willing to purchase. Each instrument might anchor a section of voices, the treble parts and bass parts, for instance. The bands that played Sunday mornings also were called into service for village festivals and assemblies or any other special occasions.
Women were not allowed to sing in standard Anglican church choirs. The practice of fulfilling the high range voices with boys and young men led to the formation of many “boy choirs” who sang in the cathedrals and large city churches. However, the painting of “A Village Choir” by Thomas Webster (shown at the top) dates from 1840 and definitely shows women participating. Is it because the choir depicted sings in a non-conformist (non-Anglican) church? Or because it is from a later date? (maybe both?) I have not been able to confirm if women would have been singing in a Regency choir, at least on a regular basis. One argument made against it was simply that it would be improper for young women to be isolated away from the rest of the congregation with all the choir men up in the gallery!! By the 1850’s the West Gallery music was starting to decline, falling into disfavor because it was not considered “solemn” enough, and the trend to restore churches back to their “original” state was beginning to gain traction. Galleries were torn down and removed. Much of the music was lost or destroyed. However, in the 1980’s, a revival of this musical form started in Britain, and has spread into the U.S. and Australia. Local “quires” have sprung up, devoted to performing this unique music. Britain’s West Gallery Association provides a sort of loose central organization and resources. If you’d like to learn more about these groups, and/or the music and history, here are some good website and article links:
http://www.wgma.org.uk/Articles/intro.htm (West Gallery Association site with a good overview)
I am disappointed and also offer apologies that I won’t be able to offer The Lord of Misrule to my readers for Christmas!! It was rolling along quite well, but a double whammy of health issues for myself and for my husband has slowed me down too much to make it feasible. I will keep folks posted about when it will actually be finished and available!
In the meantime, had you run across the West Gallery music tradition? My heroine in LOM (along with her married friend) actually gets drafted to sing in the choir to substitute for a missing choir member, but normally women would not be allowed, in that village and that church. I always say that research is imperfect at best, and a writer can make anything happen as long as it seems logical and believable.
Best wishes to everyone for the holidays, and Happy New Year! (Sending these now since I won’t be blogging again until January –and we are anticipating making some changes here at Risky Regencies, so who knows?? Thank you for visiting us here and for reading.
Interesting. I’m putting together some MP3 tracks tonight with holiday music for a potluck ceilidh!
That sounds like that will be a fun event, Kristen! Hope you have a lovely time!! Some of the West Gallery music consists of Christmas hymns and anthems, but they aren’t the well-known traditional fare. (most of those hadn’t been written yet!)
Thanks for this. I have been trying to discover more about music in the Anglican churches of the time . Congregational singing wasn’t really much practiced in most parishes– according to what I have read.
There is an account of barrel organs — sort of like player pianos — being used in some churches where they did do some congregational singing. The hymnals contained only the words to hymns or sung Psalms and these were sung according to the tune played on the barrel organs. One tune might do for several sets of lyrics. That is still true today as our hymnal has several tunes used for two or more sets of words.
I look forward to investigating West galleries as it isn’t something of which I had previously heard.
Nancy, that’s very interesting about the barrel organs! I had not run across that. Glad I could offer you some info that’s new for you –you have such a great store of knowledge!!
This was fascinating, Gail! I’m sorry, too, that Lord of Misrule won’t be out for Christmas, but life sometimes gets in the way. It’s happened to me this year also (not with a Christmas story, but my planned work just did not come to be.) I hope your and your husband’s health issues are behind you now and you have a great holiday season and year ahead!
Judith, thanks so much for the good wishes!! I am hoping to enjoy the holidays, even though my health issues are probably going to take quite a bit longer to resolve. I am grateful they are not supposed to be permanent –I’ll take that. My hubby had a hip replacement and has to go back to have the other hip done, but I think that won’t be until a month or two into the new year. Right now we make quite the pair, him trolling around the house using a walker and I have to use a cane for stability! We think we are too young for all of this….
Anyway, I wish you the best holidays also!! 🙂
This is very interesting to me, from the point of research and also because I recently joined my UU church’s also small-ish choir. It is an interesting challenge to sing in such small groups. I was very nervous a few Sundays ago when I thought I was going to be half of the sopranos. I’ve been put there to help with balance, but I sound thready in the higher notes. I was very relieved when another of the “real” sopranos had recovered enough from bronchitis to join us!
I can relate to that Elena –there is more pressure in such a small choir, at least for those of us who are there more as support and not as soloists!! I have good pitch but not much volume, so when other altos are missing I’m not always the best help, LOL!
The parish church I attend hymnal has only words, no musical notation, which I as an American who is not familiar with the tunes makes it difficult to sing. And many familiar hymns are set to other tunes, which tend to be familiar, and in my mind linked to a different lyric.
Last Friday, there was a choir for a chorale at our church. About 2/3 of the songs were sung unaccompanied. A cord on a piano, and then they sang beautifully. Choir was perhaps 15 people. Program ran from 15th century to 21st century numbers.
Shannon, that’s interesting to learn that the hymnals they are using now still only have the words!! I’ve noticed the tendency to use different tunes than we Americans do, especially with familiar Christmas carols, etc. The chorale concert sounds lovely!!
Can you say which churches the photos show please