Saturday, 21 April 2012

Smug, snobbish, irrelevant

Thanks to those doughty folk at the Thomas Hardy Association, I have belatedly had my attention drawn to the patronising, smug, snobbish views encapsulated in this review of the London Gallery Quire.

I have no idea what the London Gallery Quire sounds like. Actually, that's not true - I could probably have a pretty good guess. What I mean is, I've never actually heard them, though I do plan to if I'm in Town on the right day. I suspect they're pretty good.

But let us consider the situation when the West Gallery quires were being pushed out of existence. A group of random performers - some good, some bad, some quite possibly dreadful, would get together to praise God on an assortment of whatever instruments they could play. If they were the purists of Thomas Hardy's Mellstock dream-world, they would have stuck to "strings forever". If they were of the less fastidious variety of quire, they might include those tooting clarionets, the marvellous deep note of the serpent, the outlandish weirdness of the "vamping horn" even.

Unlike Michael White's metropolitan, comfy view of the quires being replaced, throughout the land, by the surpliced choristers of cathedral choir schools - it didn't happen. In Hardy's short novel, Under the Greenwood Tree, it's just the organist (whose bodice the vicar is hoping, at some point in the future, to be ripping). In many places it was just the schoolmistress and the kids from the Sunday School. What was achieved was not better music - it was more controlled music. Instead of having to deal with a bunch of semi-educated rustics, the vicar merely had to instruct the schoolmistress or his daughter or whoever in the hymns he would prefer this week.

It was all part of that generally annoying tendency the vicars of the 19th Century had towards tidying everything up. With a new-found professionalism, they had a new-found interest in interfering in everything. So the quires had to be cleared away. The wild rituals of the Maypole were transformed into prim, chaste, ordered, country dancing - with ribbons and, again, the adults replaced with children. Running off into the woods on St John's Eve was very much last century.

They knocked down ancient churches and rebuilt them in Gothic. Installed pitch-pine pews that nobody can get rid of today without some busybody chaining themselves to them. Wrote some of the worst hymns anyone could ever sing. Whereas the 18th Century was "the church's finest moment in this country" - it was the time of revival, of the Wesleys, Isaac Watts and George Whitefield. We have had nothing to compare with it since, no raw shock of the Gospel proclaimed again nationwide, coming to hundreds of thousands who had never heard - just tinkering and attempted re-invention of a tradition that never existed; a withdrawal of the Gospel to the Telegraph readers, as they tried to make it as tame, tidy and clean as a bunch of nice choristers in white surplices.

And by taking away the interest in the worship from a large collective of the community to themselves and those they could most directly control, they divorced religion from the people and made themselves the only ones who cared whether it happened or not. And in giving organists all that power, where once it would have been a bunch of yokels who would argue even amongst themselves - did they know what monsters, in so many cases, they created?*

So it is with joy that I hear a music group playing in a church. Because the spirit of the Mellstock Quire does not live on only as a curiosity. Wherever two or three decide that what the church really needs is a band made of two out-of-tune guitars and a couple of ocarinas; wherever someone is trying to find the best way to combine the sounds of an English Horn and a ukulel; whenever somebody puts a 200W PA in and realises they've run out of sockets for all the leads; the spirit of Mellstock is kicking back. Because "viols and their like" are not "indeed long gone from Anglican worship". Stick a strap on a bass viol, hang it round your neck and add a pickup or two and it's a bass guitar.

It took them 160 years, Parson Maybold, but you've failed. The Mellstock Quire is back - you just wouldn't recognise it.

* Any organists reading, don't worry - obviously I don't mean you. It's those others...


  1. One of my local churches has a muzak group. The perform at all services and jolly amateurs they are. But lovely, well meaning and the maracas sound quite wonderful alongside the snare drum and banjo. The Recorder player is quite young and still learning, and strives to keep up, but being two notes behind everyone else, helps her to stand out from the crowd.

    The Church leans towards Evangelical, which means that whatever they do must be outrageous and frighten the horses. That they get crowds coming in every Sunday, says they must be doing something right.

    Perhaps it's the offer of Lusty singing and free beer afterwards that's the draw, but I prefer to think it's their musical tradition, built on that of the 18th Century and earlier.

    1. You know, I'm increasingly thinking that you may belong to a dispersed community of Beaker People.

  2. (and surely it wouldn't have been that difficult to get the Hardy quote right - "*and it seems to me*/it had better not be.")

    1. I've the feeling he may have been echoing the Mikado? "And I expect you'll all agree That he was right to so decree."

  3. I often tell people my husband is the organist at our church. I don't always tell them its the harmonica variety.

  4. Episcopal churches in America sure are different. Not only does the organist not have much of ANY say in anything, but we have lots of guitarists and wild, wild music. Twice a year my church has Jazz Sunday and we sing Duke Ellington and others. The church ROCKS - it's our priest's favorite service. Then we also have U2charist which is a Eucharist with U2 music - priest loves that one too. We have TWO guitar groups who play monthly and we even have service outside "Mass on the Grass with Brass". The 1982 Hymnal has a great supplement that has a lot of African-American Spirituals that we use all the time.

    However, it is often a distraction to the real "meat" of the our "blessing" is sometimes a curse. I find that when I participate in our music program, I am far too concerned about the 3-ring circus and not enough about what I'm really there for.

  5. In fact, our music program is so successul, our music director has been threatened with martydom if he dares to bring music to our freakish early dawn service. He does manage to punish the early service once a year at Easter by forcing a fully musical service at them.

  6. Patronising, smug, snobbish?

    Not sure about that, but he did start a sentence with a conjunctive adverb.

  7. Yeah that's all very well, but I particularly enjoy singing the likes of O Nata Lux, and 4,6, or 8 part harmony is a challenge to my intellect that I enjoy... b*g*er the audience, sorry congregation, I say let the choir enjoy singing what it sings best - Palestrina, Tallis, Allegri whatever and yeah, you're right the victorians have a lot to answer for but for heaven's sake we are just making this worse by indulging the likes of Rutter.... (I do so enjoy a rant in the afternoon, thanks for the opportunity)

  8. By the way your clock must be a water clock or something, it is wildly out... my last post was sent at about 13.07 on 22 April, this one @ 13.11...

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. I removed it (the comment that was removed by the author, that is to say, me) because of the all spelling mistakes. I wouldn't like you to think I couldn't type accurately at the end of a lazy weekend. What I wanted to suggest was that I feel that instead of just plain singing all the time a bit of plainsong might make a change...

  11. I conduct London Gallery Quire. We have sung in dozens of London churches, including St martin in the Fields, St James Piccadilly, and at Lambeth Palace. We can't be that bad. but we sing West gallery music. If you want a surplices choir singing Byrd and Wesley, don't come to us. The vicar at Hampstead has already invited us back next year, so he must have liked our kind of music.

  12. Prejudice against calling forth the voice of the Beaker Folk ?

    Curwen's Studies in Worship Music (?1888) includes the following extract :

    "WITHIN the memory of middle-aged men, a great change
    has gone over the style of English psalmody. Forty or
    fifty years ago the grand old tunes like the " Old
    Hundredth " and " French," our heritage from Reforma-
    tion times, were used with others, like "Hanover" and
    " St. Anne," written in the same style, and scarcely less noble and lasting in structure. Their massive force, when sung by large congregations, was not to be
    surpassed, but the popular taste seems to have desired a
    relief. Tunes of a more florid structure had found their
    way into use, and very greatly did the people enjoy
    singing them. These tunes, unlike those of the note and
    syllable sort, contained slurred notes, and runs for the
    voices, and were especially remarkable for the way in
    which one line generally the last was taken up by
    men and women in succession, and repeated with growing
    force by both together.

    The movement towards these tunes is generally spoken
    of as wholly bad in art ; unworthy of the notice of the
    musician; a mere ebullition of rant and vulgarity. In
    this judgment there is much prejudice ; it is surely worth while to enquire into the causes which made these tunes so popular. In all that has been said against them, no one has doubted that they called forth the voice of the people in a way that the syllabic tunes fail to do. Granting that the popular taste needs directing and elevating, there is, at least, a prima facie case for a tune if the people sing it. The compilers of some recent collections appear to have gone on the opposite principle, and considered that congregations must never expect tunes which they can enjoy, any more than little boys must be allowed to hope for pills made of sugar. These old tunes certainly contained a germ of good ; they are worth examining ; and our condemnation of them, if condemnation it must be, should be measured and intelligent."


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