The music we sing and play
Thomas Hardy wrote of times past, the days when his father and grandfather were members of the local church ‘band’, playing to accompany the quire in the specially constructed ‘west gallery’ in Stinsford Church. The psalm tunes used during, before and after services in country churches were often by local, untutored composers, frequently bearing the names of local streets, villages or landmarks.
This raw and exciting music was much beloved, and jealously guarded, by its custodians in the west gallery; records exist of quires refusing the vicar’s instruction to sing a particular tune to the psalm of the day, preferring to use another more to their liking. With the passing of the years, all too frequently what was initially a tussle for control of the conduct of services became an issue of conflict with the clergy and the squire as patron.
The emergence of Tractarianism and the Oxford_Movement, together with the introduction of Hymns Ancient & Modern in 1861, saw the wresting back of control by the church establishment, with the introduction of surpliced choirs, often with small boys taking the tune, previously the sinecure of adult, male, tenors. The installation of keyboard instruments, such as harmoniums, barrel- or finger-organs spelt the end of the accompanying band of cellos, clarinets, violins, flutes, bassoons and serpents. These instrumentalists, and their singing companions, first found their way to the Independent chapels, where they continued to play and sing the old tunes they loved, but by the beginning of the twentieth century, in all but a few outposts, the old way of church psalmody was lost and virtually forgotten in England.
Such a fate did not attend the descendants of those settlers who took English country psalmody to America. In New England, from as early as the middle of the eighteenth century, English psalm tune books were being sold in Boston within months of their publication in England. This music inspired native-born composers, just as untutored as their compatriots on the other side of the Atlantic, and by 1770 a leather tanner, William Billings of Boston, had produced the first compilation of psalm tunes by a colonist. There was a flowering of ethnic composition immediately before and after the War of Independence, and the fervour for native psalmody spread throughout the Eastern United States, finding its firmest, and what has become a permanent, foothold to this day in the southern states, particularly Alabama and Georgia. Here the music notation evolved with shaped note heads as a singing aid, rather than the ordinary round note heads, and thus the term ‘shapenote music’ is often used to describe American psalmody.
Immanuel’s Ground sing psalmody from both the English and the American tradition. Our native tunes are usually accompanied, as they were intended to be, by the church band, but the psalm tunes of our American cousins are sung ‘a cappella’. These tunes are vibrant and exciting, and are a great joy to sing and play.
In early West Gallery music the air, or tune, was usually written in the tenor line, although later printed sources corrected this and used the treble for the tune. However, both treble and tenor lines were often doubled by men and women singing an octave apart, as well as being accompanied by the instruments doing the same. Instrumentalists were given 'symphonies' to play, these being a few bars at the start and end of each piece of music, as well as at section ends and sometimes between lines of words. "Repeats and twiddles" became a term used by those trying to ridicule the music.
The Quire has as its watchword the instruction of a Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford - John Wesley - to “sing lustily and with good courage”.
The discerning may recognise these words also as part of the web pages for Oxford Psalmody, an occasional and sometimes peripatetic group of singers with whom Immanuel's Ground have close links.