Articles by Tony Singleton

Was City Church Music any Better?

In rural churches, the Victorians replaced the West Gallery choirs, led by a band of instrumentalists, with surpliced choirboys accompanied by an organ, attempting to emulate the cathedral tradition of church music. However, this required an accomplished organist and a competent teacher to train and lead the new choir. One assumes that, in the West Gallery period, London and other city churches all had organs and the singing, in some cases led by a choir of charity children, would have been of a good standard. However, this was not generally the case. Only half of London churches had an organ by 1750; this had risen to 82% by 1800 and 90% by 1830 and it was not normal for a church to have a choir of charity children without an organ. The remaining churches would have therefore relied on the parish clerk to lead the congregation with or without instrumental support. (1)

Even without an instrument or choir, one might expect that the singing would be reasonably accomplished, since most of the psalms were sung to standard tunes which had been sung for decades. However, William Riley was particularly critical of the standard of psalm singing in London: "The Psalm-tunes, though the most plain and easy of all Musical Compositions, are nevertheless, in general, performed in a very shocking Manner, particularly in small Congregations, where there is no Organ, an unskilful Clerk, and no Charity-Children, or perhaps such only as are not regularly taught; here the Melodies are constantly used, without so much as the Addition of one single Part, (unless by Accident) with numberless disagreeable Tunes and improper Graces."(2) He particularly complained of a practice of "falling from the Treble to the Bass, which last instance may almost constantly be observed, particularly in 'Windsor Tune', in the first and third Lines of which, instead of falling a semitone on the last Note, they usually fall a Fourth, and sing the last Line entirely wrong, as likewise the third and fourth Lines of 'Southwell', and the CXLVIIIth almost throughout; and indeed I cannot recollect any one of the old Tunes that is sung correctly." He then goes on to criticise the frequent setting of 'Thanksgiving Psalms' to minor tunes and of 'Penitential Psalms' to major tunes, usually the result of the clerk failing to inform the organist as to the nature of the psalm and the organist choosing an inappropriate tune.

In 1789, Thomas Williams in his Psalmodia Evangelica wrote: "The parish churches in the metropolis, and most great towns, have organs to direct the worship; and many of them, it is certain, are played by musicians of the first abilities; but whether it is that the people are very careless and inattentive, or their organists play in a style beyond their comprehension, it is certainly not very uncommon for them to disagree both in time and tune; and it has been often remarked that the congregation frequently sing best where there is no organ."(3)

All Soul's, Langham Place
All Soul's, Langham Place

In some churches, this state of affairs was due to apathy on the part of the congregation and the Rev.W.Bennett in 1836, was so troubled by the poor standard of congregational singing in his area of London that he was moved to preach (and publish) a sermon at Portman Chapel in Baker Street and All Soul's Church, Langham Place on the 'Neglect and Apathy of the public in the psalmody and responses in the Church Services'.(4) In it he observed: "Though we have music - the writers of our Church Services are considered on all hands to be the greatest masters of their art - we select our Psalm tunes from the simplest melodies, and such as the least trained in musical science may easily accomplish - still (particularly in those churches where higher classes more generally abound), you see the congregation, psalm after psalm, standing up with perfect indifference - not condescending, perhaps, to pronounce aloud one syllable of the psalm - not even searching for it in the book - but esteeming it as a part of the duty, in which they have no more concern than in preaching the sermon, or administering the sacrament. The clerk calls the attention of the congregation; he invites them to sing - 'Let us sing to the praise and glory of God', which invitation is responded to by no one except the few children of the school especially trained for the purpose. But what a mockery is this of God's presence!"

In other churches, the organist was blamed for a lack of sensitivity in his accompaniments, unnecessary ornamentation of the tune making it difficult for a congregation to follow. Riley complained that their "false Taste in Music, too often practised by some of them, intirely overthrows the good Intent of such parishes who, for the better Performance of this celestial Duty, have furnished their Churches with Organs; for in giving out the Psalm-Tunes (in order to shew their Finger as well as their Taste) they make such tedious Variations to every Line, that it is often difficult for any but themselves to know what Tune they are playing. The original design of playing the Tunes before the People begin to sing, was intended to direct such of the Congregation as perform by Ear, how they should sing; therefore it would add much to the Reputation of the greatest Master, to condescend even though the meanest Capacity, by giving them out as plain as possible, with only a few necessary Graces, since the Design of it is to instruct, and not to amuse." He also goes on to comment "I have sometimes heard not only long Shakes but Interludes, while the People have impatiently waited to sing the second line, in order to render the sense of the First Line complete."

He also found fault with the interludes between the verses. "With regard to the Stile of Interludes, as well as Voluntaries, it should be such as becomes the Sanctity of the Place; but sorry I am to observe, that this is too often neglected ... and our Devotion is suddenly interrupted with an Interlude in a loose profane Stile, to which the Divine Harmony must give place, till the Organist thinks proper to begin the next Verse. At this, the more devout Part of the Congregation begin to blush, and appear in the utmost Concern, ... while the more Gay, with a Smile of Approbation, applaud the Organist, and think him a good Performer." He had also witnessed an additional difficulty for the congregation, created by some organists who played interludes in common time to psalm tunes in triple time "and common Hearers are apt to be at a Loss for the Time when the next Verse begins; and this often happens to be the case by closing the Interlude on the first Note of the Tune".

In 1790, Bishop Porteous directed that organists "must not drown or overpower the singers by the unremitted loudness and violent intonations of the full organ, but merely conduct and regulate, and sustain their voices in a low and soft accompaniment, on what is called the choir organ". He also commented that whilst choirs of charity children were intended to raise the standard of music in worship, in practice this was often not the case. "In London, and part of Westminster, this business is in a great manner confined to the charity children; who, though they exert their little abilities to sing their maker's praises in the best manner they can, yet for want of right instruction to modulate their voices properly, almost constantly strain them to so high a pitch as to disgust and offend the ear, and repel instead of raising the devout affections of the hearers." (5)

By comparison, the music-making at non-conformists meetings was held up as a good example. Williams commented: "The dissenters in late years must be allowed very much to have improved this part of their worship, for which they are not a little indebted to the hints and sublime poetical composures of the late excellent Dr.Watts." Bennett's sermon remarked: "And in comparing ourselves with dissenting congregations, how infinitely we of the Established Church are surpassed. We hear, sometimes without organ or any accompanying music, the joint voices of the assembled multitude singing loud anthems to God. You may often stand and listen in the street to the out-pouring of this mass of human voices; and your hearts must surely be stirred within you for shame at the coldness and apathy which we of the Church so constantly display." The Roman Catholic church he reported "adopt into their form of worship a greater va"iety, and a greater extent of music than we do. They excel, thereby, as they do in all their ceremonies (which aim at the heart through the medium of the senses), in arousing and stimulating the cold hearts of men to more exalted feelings of devotion; but then, in their case, it is carried too far. It becomes a theatrical display, and public singers are hired for the sake of attracting crowds by their name - for curiosity and ostentation of art - rather than for the sole glory of God."

1) N.Temperley, The Music of the English Parish Church, Cambridge, 1979
2) William Riley, Parochial Music Corrected, London, 1762
3) Thomas Williams, Psalmodia Evangelica, 1789
4) Rev.W.Bennett, MA, A Sermon on the Neglect and Apathy of the public in the psalmody and responses in the Church Services, 1836, (Brit.Lib.
5) A Charge delivered to the clergy in the Diocese of London, quoted in John Turner, A Manual of Instruction in Vocal Music, 1833

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