Bright, believing bands

I was taught at university by the playwright Simon Gray, who was then at the beginning of his writing career. In one of his rare classes, he was supposed to be taking us through The Spanish Tragedy, a fairly tedious piece by the Elizabethan dramatist, Thomas Kyd. In the middle of a scene, Grey suddenly looked up, sighed sweatily and said: 'Why are we doing this when we could be reading Hamlet?'

Why do we sing Vital Spark when we could be singing Beethoven's Ninth or the Monteverdi Vespers or the Bach B minor Mass? I have no clear answers, so I'll start with some musical autobiography.

Palestrina in the gallery

I can still sing the bass part of a Palestrina mass I learnt 30 years ago when I joined a church choir in Essex. We were a Catholic equivalent on the Mellstock Quire in Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree, and we even sang in a west gallery which was specially constructed for us. We weren't very good. Out of a group of 16, only one -- an alto -- could read music. We were directed by a myopic pharmacist for whom music was an endlessly frustrating passion. He worked wonders with us and we sang collectively far beyond the limits of our individual abilities.

The man was a wonder: every bar of the mass had to be banged into our heads note by note. But once we had got it, once we could just about cope with those endlessly overlapping polyphonic lines, the joy was intense. Up in our gallery in Epping, we read the colour supplements during long boring sermons; the basses used to help the altos by singing falsetto in exposed passages; we went carol singing in the streets and the pubs. And our demented choirmaster strived always for the perfection he could never reach, although he several times came close to plunging over the gallery rail in his attempts to goad us towards it. Hardy could have written another book about us. It didn't last, of course. The Oxford movement, accompanied by the organ and harmonium, did for the west gallery choirs; reforms in the liturgy did for us. English replaced Latin at mass and it was decided that the congregation should sing rather than listen to choirs. The choirmaster fell out with the parish priest and joined the Methodists.

The parallels with west gallery choirs are obvious. Perhaps I sing our kind of music because it reminds me of the spirit of those days, a community of the not particularly talented combining in the hope of producing something half decent. And perhaps that's why lots of us now sing the psalms and anthems we know and love: we sing them because we are no good at singing anything better. We can cope with William Billings but not with, for example, Thomas Tallis. And perhaps that's the simplest answer that I can offer to my opening question.

Pounding the immensities

Yet I can't really believe that, mainly because it implies that Tallis is a better composer that Billings, a concept which involves us in the uneasy comparisons in which Matthew Arnold landed himself when he talked about touchstones. It's probably wiser to say that Tallis is different from Billings. Tallis was a product of the Renaissance, often writing music for the finest singers to perform in some of Europe's most magnificent buildings. Billings was writing pieces for the much less talented to perform in much more humble surroundings on the edge of the civilised world. This is something I can relate to. We have been conditioned to think of art in fairly grand terms and I think we also get hung up with Romantic notions of the artist. Who can resist Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique (preferably with an ophicleide in the band) or Harold in Italy? Who has not trembled before the apocalyptic visions of the Requiem, especially when the sounds of the four brass bands vibrate through your feet at the Tuba Mirum?

And yet I am sometimes made more aware of my own mortality by the Shropshire Funeral Hymn. There is a huge gap between me and Berlioz, an artist who, like Shakespeare, pounds the immensities. I can never hope to emulate him, but I need his sweep of vision, spiritual intensity, universality, and glimpses of the ultimate. But I am intrigued by John Symons, the putative composer of the funeral anthem. There is a sense that he was writing at the very limit of his creative powers but using a musical language and imagery which was within the range of the experience of his performers and listeners. It seems to be within my experience too: I don't feel the romantic gap I referred to a moment ago. Nor is there a gap with Uriah Davenport: that was clear when we sang some of his music in his own church on a morning of some spiritual confusion. Why may become apparent later.

Perhaps I can modify my original answer to my original question: we can both sing this music and feel in tune with it. It's local, familiar and approachable, produced by someone who was fairly ordinary. Not necessarily a genius, a person who may at odd times have peered through the mists of his/her limitations and seen what Beethoven saw, but most times had to settle for less.

I never feel that west gallery composers were composing as artists in the Romantic sense but as servants of the local community, producing pieces with which a lousy bunch of singers in a local church would attempt to praise their God. These were functional composers. If you go to Rushton Spencer, where Davenport worked, you find a dealer who specialises in second-hand Land Rovers. I like to think he and Davenport would have had the same status in the village had they been contemporaries. Uriah would have been as useful in the community as the wheelwright, the miller, or the baker. He might have doffed his tricorne hat to Peter Maxwell Davies but would never have seen the sense of being a composer on Hoy and faxing his scores to London. Davenport's work was published in London, but its roots were in the church halfway up the hill in the Staffordshire moorlands. It was, first and foremost, music for his community; not art for all eternity.

Spanning the gap

I bought last year a recording of a Sacred Harp singing convention made in Alabama in the 1950s. It included Jeremiah Ingalls' Northfield, a favourite of the Grace Darling Singers, of which I am a member. The American faithful sing with raw passion. To some, it may be a ghastly noise; but if Beethoven and Berlioz had heard those sounds, I have a suspicion that they might have liked them.

The New England composer Charles Ives would have. Ives was always a maverick, both in the sounds he made and in his opinions. He spans the gap, the great divide I mentioned earlier: he was both a great artist and a community musician. He was also a successful insurance executive and composed in his spare time. His father was a country bandmaster so he grew up with the sounds of military bands. He loved the musical chaos created by two bands playing different tunes simultaneously as they marched, and reproduced the effects in his orchestral works. He loved hymns too, and they turn up in his quartets and symphonies.

Ives' best music is the fusion of the local and the universal, the everyday experience set against and combined with a sense of the eternal. Most west gallery music is local everyday music, and perhaps that's now why we respond to it. But perhaps we all have those moments when we see through it and with it to something bigger. Ives also produced an eccentric but fascinating series of essays on music in which he tossed around notions of high and low art. His prose is often as tricky as his music. But there is a virtuoso passage in which he describes the significance of the hymns sung at the camp meetings, open-air religious services which fired the great American religious revival in the mid-nineteenth century. He compares them favourably with more orthodox religious music sung in more conventional setting by young lads in ruffs and surplices:

A man may find a deep appeal in the simple but acute 'Gospel Hymns of the New England camp meeting', of a generation or so ago. He finds in them -- some of them -- a vigor, a depth of feeling, a natural-soil rhythm, a sincerity, emphatic but inartistic, which in spite of a vociferous sentimentality, carries him nearer the 'Christ of the people' than does the Te Deum of the greatest cathedral. These tunes have, for him, a truer ring than many of those groove-made, even-measured, monotonous, non-rhythmed, indoor-smelling, priest-taught, academic, English or neo-English hymns (and anthems) -- well-written, well-harmonised things, well-voice-led, well-counterpointed, well corrected and well OK'd, by well corrected organists -- personified sounds, correct and inevitable to sight and hearing -- in a word, those proper forms of stained-glass beauty, which our over-drilled mechanisms -- boy-choirs are limited to.

A community of faith?

Having celebrated the sincerity and feeling of these hymns, Ives does what all good folk song collectors do -- he remembers the people who sang them, especially an archetypal figure he calls Aunt Sarah, for whom the prayer meeting is 'her one articulate outlet for the fullness of her unselfish soul'. Perhaps that will also help me answer the question: why do we sing west gallery music? Singing this music together is certainly an articulate outlet for something within us all. But how many of us are Aunt Sarahs? She went to the camp meeting because she was a fervent believer. How many of us can say the same? Some WGMA members are committed Christians, and for them this music may well be an integral par of their relationship with God. But what of the rest of us? What's the point of singing of the resurrection and the redemptive power of Christ if, at best, we are indifferent to that message and, at worst, don't believe a word of it?

We have a couple of times included Thomas Hardy's poem The Impercipient in the script used at Grace Darling concerts. Its subtitle is At a Cathedral Service, and it may have been inspired by a service at Salisbury:

That with this bright believing band
I have no claim to be,
That faiths by which my comrades stand
Seem fantasies to me,
And mirage-mists their Shining Land,
Is a strange destiny.

Why thus my soul should be consigned
To infelicity,
Why always I must feel as blind
To sights my brethren see,
Why joys they've found I cannot find,
Abides a mystery.

Since heart of mine knows not that ease
Which they know; since it be
That He who breathers All's Well to these
Breathes no All's Well to me,
My lack might move their sympathies
And Christian charity!

I am like a gazer who should mark
An inland company
Standing upfingered, with 'Hark, hark!
The glorious distant sea!'
And feel, 'Alas, 'tis but yon dark
And wind-swept pine to me!'

Yet I would bear my shortcomings
With meet tranquillity,
But for the charge that blessed things
I'd liefer not have be.
O, doth a bird deprived of wings
Go earth-bound willingly!

Enough. As yet disquiet clings
About us. Rest shall we.

The poem conveys vividly the pain Hardy feels in standing outside the community of faith, and it is no better expressed than in the image of the mistaken sound of the distant sea. This makes vivid the gap between Hardy and the believers, and that gap is there in Under the Greenwood Tree and the poems about the Mellstock Quire. Hardy wants to be there with them, singing, playing, expressing, feeling. But he sees himself as an outsider.

Many of us are outsiders too, not paid-up members of the bright believing band. Perhaps in our singing groups we try to build another community of faith. But I find more than a whiff of sophistry and wish-fulfilment, not to say pseudery, in that. In other words, I cannot really answer the big question: why do we sing this music if we don't share the faith of those who first gave it life?

I have similar anxieties when I go to a carol session in a pub in Sheffield. I don't belong to the communities which own these carols. The locals welcome me and seem happy to let me sing. But I still seem an outsider, even an intruder. Perhaps, when the organist goes to the gents, I should give them the bass part of the Palestrina Missa Sine Nomine or a burst of 'Faith of Our Fathers' and so express the culture which is distinctly mine.

Performance styles

Now for some thoughts on performance styles (thoughts largely pinched from or at least clearly articulated by the conductor Raymond Leppard, famous for his souped-up versions of Monteverdi operas).

In an article published in the Folk Music Journal in 1988, Vic Gammon showed that vicars regarded the singing of west gallery choirs as vulgar, common, indecent, light, frivolous, profane, secular, and irreligious. Should we, as revivers of this music, seek to add all those adjectives to our performances? Should we give particular emphasis to volume and traditional forms of voice production, to ornamentation and a degree of improvisation?

Let's consider this by a roundabout route. The Grace Darling Singers have never been particularly fussed about performing. When we did a concert in a Cheshire church, the vicar (who saw us as an alternative to a blessing of the pets service) asked the big question: 'Do you dress up? Smocks and that sort of thing?' 'Certainly not!' I said instantly. The prospect of a public performance gave me nightmares; I didn't want to worry about bloomers and breeches as well. We dress in black and white, which is a bit boring but I have never regretted this policy. I admire the elegance and authenticity of the gear worn by the Madding Crowd, and that is clearly one way in which they define their community of faith. But for us (or for me anyway), contemporary dress signifies something important: we are responding to west gallery music as people of the 1990s. We don't want to get into the heritage business. You can do Shakespeare in doublet and hose -- but you don't have to.

A search for spontaneity of response also dictates our performing style. I hear what people have to say about open-throated singing and I have done my bit of Bulgarian hollering. But one loyal Darling is an accountant living in south Manchester: why should she sing like a Balkan peasant? Or, come to that, like a much-parodied folk singer? We confront this music and ask first: is it any good? Then we sing it and see if it works. Eventually we arrive at our own way of doing it, informed by as much scholarship as we can muster. But it is essentially a twentieth-century way of doing it, of expressing our joy in fine melodies and sometimes unorthodox harmonies. This way, we can say that a piece that worked in 1800 works 200 years later. This way, we sing as us, not as some imagined them.

Northfield has been my obsession for the last twelve months -- I tend to have one obsessional tune each year. But there's no way that the Grace Darlings can sing it like the Sacred Harpers of Alabama. Centuries of cultural moulding have gone into their wild sounds. For us to attempt an emulation would be absurd and an insult. We have to do it our way and see if it works.

To sum up: this music is only worth performing if we are excited and energised by it; if it contributes something to our lives and tells us something about our place in the scheme of things now: if through it we see backwards to the people who made it and forwards to the other people who may respond to it in generations to come.

I am not really sure that I have done what I set out to do. Perhaps it doesn't matter. It certainly didn't matter to Charles Ives who wrote a hypnotically attractive orchestral piece which has an important part for a solo trumpet. He called it The Unanswered Question.