The choir you see here will be singing tomorrow evening (December 18th) at the National Portrait Gallery. Founded in 1997 by its director Dr. Francis Roads, on the left of the picture, the London Gallery Quire gets its name from the style of its repertoire, which consists of the pre-Victorian English church music known as West Gallery.
Mostly joyful, rhythmic and melodious, this flourished in the town and country churches between the early eighteenth century and the middle of the nineteenth. Like other West Gallery choirs in the present revival, the four-part singing of the LGQ is accompanied by string and wind instruments, including fiddle, flute, clarinet, bassoon and serpent. If you’ve read Thomas Hardy’s novel Under The Greenwood Tree, you will be aware of the way in which such bands were being replaced by the organ, deemed more appropriate – “seemly” was a favourite word – for the sober business of worship.
I’ve only been a member of the choir for about five years – I’m in the tenor section, in front of the basses on the left of the picture – and my only regret is that I didn’t join earlier. It’s hymns, anthems and metrical psalms all right, but there’s something else going on, some rhythmic and and melodic affinities with English folk music and a degree of unorthodox spontaneity. This is by no means a euphemism for crude. It was certainly good enough for the fiddle-playing Thomas and other Hardys in the Dorset parishes which formed his fictitious but realistic village of Mellstock. The pieces of the West Gallery repertoire may have been composed by the prolific Anon and by a broad range of, strictly speaking, amateurs, but they knew what they were about and they left us with some quite sublime and uplifting expressions of devotion.
I’ve written more about this for the Historic Chapels Trust.
Some of the hymns we sing in the LGQ, like All People That On Earth Do Dwell, have their own life as popular standards of English hymnody; some, like William Knapp’s setting of Luke II v8-v14, better known as While Shepherds Watched, is a glorious departure from the usual tune; if another, Grace ’tis A Charming Sound, sounds exactly like On Ilka Moor Bar t’at, that is because the Canterbury shoemaker Thomas Clark’s 1805 setting of the first was “borrowed” by the words of the second. Thanks to Dr. Roads’ unearthing and editing of many West Gallery pieces, some of the stuff we sing hasn’t been heard for the best part of two centuries.