Jonathan Luxmoore: The lost sounds of England

The Village Choir (c 1847), by Thomas Webster

Through the great oak door of a 15th-century mansion, set against a sweeping hillside, the sound of singing wafts into the frosty air, accompanied by a mix of strings and woodwinds. “Almighty God, who hast given us thy only begotten Son to take our nature upon him – and at this time to be born, born of a pure Virgin.”

When Thomas Clark, a Kent cobbler, wrote his Christmas Day collect setting some time around 1830, he would perhaps have been astonished to learn it would still have the power to inspire Christian devotions two centuries later.

Halsway Manor, set amid Somerset’s Quantock Hills, was mentioned in the Domesday Book. But it’s been a centre for English folk arts since the 1960s, and includes West Gallery music by Clark and his contemporaries, organised by the Madding Crowd association, on its annual programme.

As high-quality sacral music, it might be said to belong more properly in churches. But it was banned by the Church of England back in the 1850s, and rarely gets an approved hearing even today.

With Anglican parishes still reluctant to acknowledge it, should Catholics be taking a closer look?

The West Gallery tradition dates from the 17th-century Restoration period, when church music was liberalised after Puritan rule, allowing local parishes to set up their own choirs and orchestras. Many built special galleries for them at the western end of their churches; and with no central organisation, local composers, often with little training, began providing material.

Much of it was complex, involving fugues and multiple harmonies. And though flutes, bassoons, clarinets and hautboys (oboes) predominated, fiddles, cellos and double basses were used too, occasionally accompanied by more exotic serpents, vamphorns and psalmodies.

At the height of the West Gallery craze in Georgian England a vast array of hymn and psalm tunes – perhaps as many as 18,000 – were available to the weavers, tailors and farmhands who made up the singers and musicians. And while some was crude and unworkable, much was accomplished and beautiful, blending high art with folk energy, and meriting comparison with Purcell or Playford.

West Gallery songsheets found their way to America and Australia. But the choirs and orchestras faced uneasy relations with parish priests, who often saw them as troublesome and disruptive.

And in the mid-19th century, as village traditions were eroded by the Industrial Revolution, the Oxford Movement set out to bring a more formal flavour to Anglican worship, with organs and surpliced choirs.

The galleries were dismantled, and instruments, costumes and sheet music – much of it copied by hand – locked away in crypts and sacristies. Slowly but surely, the West Gallery repertoire was expunged from service orders, amid emotional scenes captured by Thomas Hardy in his 1872 Wessex novel Under the Greenwood Tree. Hardy’s grandfather had performed in a West Gallery choir; and though he knew “fashionable society” looked down on the music’s rumbustious style, he saw it as “good singing still” and regretted it was being sidelined.

The changes went ahead; and in 1861, Hymns Ancient and Modern, compiled by WH Monk and JB Dykes, prescribed a new simplified canon of hymns. A few West Gallery contributions were accepted, such as Lyngham, the accepted tune for O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing. But the dozens of local melodies used for popular classics such as While Shepherds Watched were pushed aside in favour of single tunes.

Village choirs and orchestras, expelled from the churches, continued to perform the music in pubs and Nonconformist chapels. And in the 1990s, local enthusiasts began to re-popularise it, aided by surviving songbooks and manuscripts.

Should Catholic parishes be taking an interest in the West Gallery tradition, as something uniquely English? Modern Gospel music, composed and played according to local preferences, has been a key to the success of Pentecostal and Baptist city churches. In the same way, West Gallery music should be viewed as a potentially powerful evangelical medium with deep roots in national culture – which evokes the profound spirituality found in the works of Catholic masters from Thomas Tallis and William Byrd in the 16th century, to Thomas Arne and John Francis Wade (author of Adeste Fideles) in the 18th.

Though its composers may not always have mastered formal syntax and shown classical finesse, they nevertheless produced music of a high standard – works of religious creation which brought people together and provided insights into contemporary joys and sufferings.

Jonathan Luxmoore covers Church news from Warsaw and Oxford