What is west gallery music? -- a personal definition

It is difficult to fit ‘west gallery music’ into a convenient musical pigeonhole. The phrase is commonly used today to identify rural English church music of the 18th and early 19th centuries, but it would have been unrecognised by musicians of the period, who called it ‘psalmody’ even though it included anthems, service music, hymns and chants, as well as psalms.

The staple congregational psalmody of the Church of England consisted of metrical psalms, first in the Old Version by Sternhold and Hopkins (1562), and later in the New Version by Tate and Brady (1696). These included some metrical versions of the canticles such as the Te Deum, Jubilate, Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, and a few hymns. Anglicans were supposed to keep to Biblical texts (the word of God), and were not officially allowed to sing hymns (the words of men) until 1820 when they were sanctioned by the York Consistory Court.

Whilst Americans are proud of their heritage and have produced scholarly editions and academic studies of their church music for many years, English musicologists, apart from Nicholas Temperley (who has lived in the USA for many years), have largely ignored this repertory and dismissed is as unworthy of serious study. Recently, however, interest has increased and time-honoured prejudices are being broken down: for example, ‘art’ music by established professional composers must be better than more ‘popular’ works by unknown amateurs, and long works must be more important than short, consequently insignificant ones.

Some problems of definition occur because of the perceived conflict between traditional and art music. ‘Traditional’ may signify aural transmission by amateurs, whereas ‘art’ is more likely to imply professional performances from printed sources. West gallery music can include elements of both genres, and could perhaps be better described as ‘vernacular’. Although performers were usually amateurs and may have learnt by ear, some composers were professionals and most of the music was originally published before being disseminated in manuscript.

The origins of the phrase ‘west gallery music’

The first known printed reference to west gallery music is in the opening chapter of Thomas Hardy’s A Laodicean (1881): George Somerset, sitting on a stile on the hill above a Baptist chapel, hears the congregation singing the tune, ‘New Sabbath’ which he remembered from when he was a child.

Where the 'New Sabbath' had kept itself all these years -- why that sound and hearty melody had disappeared from all the cathedrals, parish churches, minsters and chapels-of-ease that he had been acquainted with during his apprenticeship to life, and until his ways had become irregular and uncongregational -- he could not, at first, say. But then he recollected that the tune appertained to the old west-gallery period of church-music, anterior to the great choral reformation and the rule of Monk -- that old time when the repetition of a word, or half-line of a verse, was not considered a disgrace to an ecclesiastical choir.

According to Nicholas Temperley’s Hymn Tune Index (Oxford, 1998) the composer of ‘New Sabbath’ is unknown. It was first published in 1788, when the Revd Stephen Addington, an Independent minister, included it in the 8th edition of his A Collection of Hymns for Publick Worship, and it was reprinted in numerous later English and American collections. It has a flowing 3/4 melody, typical of many other nonconformist tunes of the same period, but despite Hardy’s description, there is no word repetition if it is sung to a Long Metre text (4 lines of 8 syllables), as intended.

Hardy’s nostalgic stories of country musicians, particularly in Under the Greenwood Tree (1872), may have influenced later writers: by the 20th century, ‘west gallery’, or just ‘gallery’, often including the epithet ‘old’, had become the accepted term for rustic church music. See, for instance, Canon K. H. MacDermott, The Old Church Gallery Minstrels (1948), and C. W. Pearce, 'English Sacred Folk Song of the West Gallery Period c.1695-1820', Proceedings of the [Royal] Musical Association (1921).

Modern academics prefer the term ‘psalmody’, as galleries could also built at other compass points and were not necessarily occupied by musicians, but they are referring to the same type of music, and colloquially, ‘west gallery’ is here to stay, as is witnessed by the flourishing West Gallery Music Association -- even if the term has yet to be included in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Defining ‘west gallery music’

So, presuming that we accept the phrase ‘west gallery music’ as valid, how should it be defined? Whilst most of us agree that it flourished during the 18th and early 19th centuries, and that its core repertory consisted of metrical psalms, other criteria are more open to personal interpretation.

Some may prefer to limit it to rural Anglican music, but this is too narrow, as the same music could be performed in the same way in both town and country parish churches, and it also ignores a comparable nonconformist musical tradition.

Purists may insist that it should never be accompanied by a keyboard instrument, although some publications included figured bass or even occasionally a written-out keyboard accompaniment, perhaps combined with other instrumental parts.

Personally, I would describe it as:

the sacred music of provincial parish churches and nonconformist chapels, performed by and often written specifically for amateurs.

Whilst this definition would exclude professional cathedral choirs, even if they were performing west gallery music, it would include ‘art’ music when performed by a village choir. If church musicians liked a piece, they adopted it, and their manuscript books often included music by famous professionals such as Purcell or Handel, alongside that of forgotten local composers.

Evolution of west gallery music

We may all have slightly different ideas about the type of music that should be included under the west gallery music umbrella and also about performance styles and even dates, and yet we will probably all be right to some extent. Similar developments occurred at different times in different areas, so one village might still hold fast to the ‘old way’ of singing, with the text lined-out by the parish clerk, whilst in the next parish they might be using the New Version of the psalms and debating whether to purchase a bassoon.

In The Old Church Minstrels, Canon Macdermott dated the west gallery period from about 1660 to 1860, Nicholas Temperley, in his definitive study, The Music of the English Parish Church (Cambridge, 1979), gave 1685 to 1830 as the main period of country psalmody, whilst the WGMA website limits it to the Georgian period, i.e. 1714-1830. We can even use the Sheffield pub carolling tradition to show that this repertory still exists in the 21st century.

Of course, the most important factor is not when or even where the singing took place, but what was actually sung. To be simplistic, west gallery music grew from plain homophonic 16th- and 17th-century psalm settings, through an increasingly complicated and wondrous style, and had reverted to four-square stolid tunes by the time Hymns Ancient and Modern was introduced into parish churches in 1861. It flourished later and survived longer in dissenting chapels, where their hymns were sometimes set to popular secular tunes to encourage congregational participation. Even today, nonconformists tend to sing with more enthusiasm than Anglicans and their hymn tunes tend to be more melodic and flowing.

Again, this is a generalisation, as there are always exceptions, but by the end of the 17th century, the only music in most provincial parish churches was plain, unison psalm tunes, sung unaccompanied and extremely slowly and unrhythmically by an apathetic congregation. Apparently the rest of the service was equally irreverent: some churches had to employ a dog catcher to stop them disturbing the services, and men would leave their hats on the altar. Reform was needed, so it was decided to improve the music by starting new choirs, who were taught to sing the plain tunes with the aim that they would sit among the congregation and encourage everyone to join in the singing. Unfortunately, the plan backfired, as the choirs preferred to sit together, and to sing more complicated music, including anthems. Psalm tunes became increasingly elaborate as the century progressed, until around 1745, that most characteristic of west gallery genres, the fuguing tune, emerged, and any congregational participation was effectively silenced.

In the later 1700s the increasing use of instruments to support more complex music coincided with a spate of new compositions, and even cathedral organists such as John Alcock, and John Broderip, thought gallery choirs worthy of their work, and presumably also found such publications financially rewarding.

Musical influences

Musical influences can be traced right back to medieval times: the idea of composing a tune, then adding a bass, and then the other parts, is essentially the same as adding a fauxbourdon to plainsong. In such linear composition, the harmony tends to be incidental to the movement of the parts, with open fifths and unexpected dissonances, but with strong melodic lines.

Another early influence was the verse anthem of the English baroque, in which florid solos alternated with slightly more sedate choruses. Anthems by composers connected with the Chapel Royal, such as Blow, Clarke and Purcell, soon found their way into printed books and manuscripts, and their characteristic dancing, dotted rhythms were copied by many gallery composers, for instance, William Knapp, Uriah Davenport and Joseph Key.

Handel’s influence was even stronger, especially on later northern nonconformist composers such as James Leach and John Fawcett, who wrote extended set pieces with instrumental accompaniment for chapel and Sunday school anniversaries.

Performance practice

The performance of west gallery music depended on the vocal and instrumental resources of a church or chapel. At its simplest, congregations sang plain metrical psalm tunes in unison; at its most elaborate, choirs sang complicated anthems, accompanied by a variety of instruments.

Some of the earliest and largest choirs, or societies of singers as they were often called, were formed in the northwest of England, around Manchester, and included both men and women. Elsewhere, smaller all-male choirs were more common, and the dominance of men’s voices is evident in the music, especially that composed for country choirs during the 18th century, where the tune was placed in the tenor part.

In larger town churches, the singing was often led by a choir of charity children, accompanied by an organ, but it is debatable whether this style of music should be considered to be part of the west gallery tradition. Smaller provincial parish churches, whether in a town or a village, were less likely to be able to afford an organ, and most choirs initially sang unaccompanied, until various instruments were introduced in the later 18th-century. Nonconformists were slower to use instrumental accompaniment, and some, notably the Particular Baptists, still prefer to sing unaccompanied today.

Many Anglican churches initially acquired a bassoon or cello to support the bass line and later added any treble instruments that might be available, including oboes, clarinets, flutes and violins. Tenor instruments, such as violas, were rarely used, and instruments would play the treble at pitch but double the alto and tenor an octave higher than sung.

As the use of instruments became more common, composers such as Joseph Key, Thomas Tremain and Thomas Clark included separate instrumental parts with symphonies, which despite the name, consisted of instrumental interludes of only a few bars.

The end of the west gallery tradition

The demise of west gallery music by the middle of the 19th century can be linked to changes in society and religion. Nonconformity flourished in the fast-growing towns of the Industrial Revolution, as chapels could be built wherever they were needed, whereas new parish churches required an Act of Parliament.

As the influence of the Oxford Movement spread, country church music became increasingly conventional and correct: bands were replaced by barrel or finger organs, or harmoniums, and gallery choirs by all-male choirs placed in the chancel under the watchful eye of the clergy.

The old church and chapel music was forgotten, not necessarily because its musical quality was poor, but because its style no longer fitted in with the religious ideals of the period. In the same way, the formal hymns of the later 19th and 20th centuries, accompanied by an organ, have been replaced by worship songs inspired by pop music, accompanied again by a mixed band of instrumentalists. They, in turn, will probably also eventually be dismissed as old-fashioned and unsuitably frivolous, and in two hundred years may enjoy a similar revival to that of west gallery music today.