The West Gallery Choir and Band Called to be Saints will perform a concert in All Saints Church in Nunney on Saturday 11 July from 3.45pm.
West Gallery music, also known as “Georgian psalmody” refers to the sacred music (metrical psalms, with a few hymns and anthems) sung and played in English parish churches, as well as nonconformist chapels, from 1700 to around 1850.
In the late 1980s, West Gallery music experienced a revival and is now sung by several West Gallery “quires” (choirs).
The term derives from the wooden galleries which were constructed at the west end of churches during the 18th century upon which the choir would perform. Victorians disapproved of these Georgian galleries, and most were removed during restorations in the 19th century.
Nunney’s west gallery
Nunney Church once had a west gallery that was created after a petition in the 18th century. In 1849 the organ was described by Sir Stephen Glynne as being in the west gallery by the tower.
This was eventually moved to its current position, which meant that the effigies were broken up and shoved into a windowsill. In fact, the organ later had to be turned because for decades it blocked any sight of the ancient effigies.
The music sung by gallery choirs often consisted of metrical psalm settings by composers with little formal training, often themselves local teachers or choir members. The tunes are usually two to four voice parts.
“Tunes in reports” or fuguing tunes featured imitative entries of the parts, while anthems (settings of prose texts from the Bible or the Book of Common Prayer) often had changes of texture and musical meter.
Most early West Gallery groups sang unaccompanied, but later they were augmented by instruments such as the violin, cello (sometimes referred to in contemporary accounts as ‘bass viol’), clarinet, flute and bassoon.
As the primary purpose of the accompanying instruments was to maintain the pitch of the singers, they tended to double the vocal parts, with depictions of such groups (such as Thomas Webster’s painting The Village Choir) showing each instrument leading a group of singers gathered around it.
Accompaniment with a bass instrument was most important and is seen from the mid 18th century: bands including treble-range instruments were rare before 1770, and were more common during the period 1780-1830.
During this period, some collections of psalmody included independent instrumental parts, either accompanying the sung sections, or ‘symphonies’ (short instrumental interludes).
Use of West Gallery music in the Church dwindled when the organ became popular, since it was cheaper to keep up one instrument than a West Gallery group. Furthermore, the old church bands were often difficult for a vicar to control, while influence over an organist was a much easier task.
More information on West Gallery music is available on the West Gallery Music Association’s website www.wgma.org.uk.
The concert in Nunney Church on Saturday 11 July 3.45-5pm is given by Called to be Saints, a West Gallery choir based in Bristol.
Come and hear traditional West Gallery music as heard in village churches from around 1720 to 1860 – and enjoy a cup of tea and some homemade cake. Admission is free.