Friday, March 10, 2017

Singing the Faith: Day 5

West Gallery hymns

One of the perennial problems for hymn singers and church leaders has been how hymns should be led and accompanied, if they should be accompanied at all. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, most ordinary churches didn’t have organs. They might, however, have a small band of instruments and some keen singers who could sing in four part harmony. These musicians were often housed in a “West Gallery”, behind and above the congregation – there was one in Seal church. There is a rich treasury of the “West Gallery” music they performed, often in a rather earthy, but enthusiastic style. It lives on in some of our favourite hymn tunes, like Lyngham, which we use for “O for a thousand hymns to sing”. The last line of each verse is sung several times, with women and men taking different parts – often to the confusion of unwary members of the congregation. It is a rollicking tune, however, and captures the joy of Charles Wesley’s words very well. Lyngham is a classic “West Gallery” tune composed by Thomas Jarman, (1776-1861), a Baptist minister and choir master from Clipston in Northamptonshire. You can find out more about West Gallery music here.

O for a thousand tongues to sing
my dear Redeemer's praise,
the glories of my God and King,
the triumphs of his grace!

Jesus! the name that charms our fears,
that bids our sorrows cease,
'tis music in the sinner's ears,
'tis life and health and peace.

He speaks, - and, listening to his voice,
New life the dead receive;
The mournful, broken hearts rejoice;
The humble poor believe.

Hear him, ye deaf; his praise, ye dumb,
Your loosen'd tongues employ;
Ye blind, behold your Saviour come,
And leap, ye lame, for joy.

He breaks the power of cancelled sin,
he sets the prisoner free;
his blood can make the foulest clean;
his blood availed for me.

My gracious Master and my God,
assist me to proclaim,
to spread thro' all the earth abroad
the honours of thy name.

  • The West Gallery musicians were often looked down on by more sophisticated urban church musicians. Does it matter to you whether the music in church is of a “professional standard” or do you think it is more important that everyone can have a go at singing it?

Another way of helping non professional musicians  sing was "shape note" singing, in which the notes were indicated by shapes. This style developed into "Sacred Harp" singing, named after a hymn collection which was much used by people who sung in this style. It is enjoying a revival, with Sacred Harp groups springing up in the UK, including in London. More here!

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