Church Choirs

The Church Gallery Minstrels of Old Sussex by the Reverend K. H. MacDermott (2006)
Considering how many people are involved in making church music, most of them enthusiasts, it's sad that there really aren't that many books out there aimed at this audience. This is an exception, a fascinating reprint of a 1922 book, looking back at music making in Sussex churches between the 1600s and the end of nineteenth century. Although the text is over 80 years old, it hasn't got the stodginess of much writing of the period, and it gives a living link back to the living memory of those who sang and played in Victorian churches, as the author was able to interview the last of the old musicians. It is very specific to the county of Sussex, but that really doesn't make much difference - the experience would not be dissimilar across the UK.

Part of what makes the book so fascinating is the parallels with the present day. Village choirs with members who have sung there for 70+ years. Choirs where the top part is mostly girls. The difficulty of getting people to play, and the shift from organs to bands. And yet at the same time it's a very different world. Strange instruments, a central focus on the psalms with hymns very much a sideline (metrical psalms, though, not chanted), tunes in the tenor line (there's still the odd optional tune like this in Ancient & Modern), dress of smocks for the men and cloaks for the ladies - it all makes an engaging read. Sometimes entertaining too, as when we hear of the habit of putting decoration into psalm tunes, resulting in the necessity to repeat syllables, coming up with such wonders as:

"Oh take thy mourning pil./ Oh take thy mourning pil./ Oh take thy mourning pil./ Oh take thy mourning pilgrim home!" or "Ci. Cities and Holds, Ci. Ci. Cities and Holds..."

After the main text there is a more recently added section giving detail of the collection of church instruments and books left by the author to a local museum, plus a fun bonus in a CD of 13 Victorian Sussex carols, which though not directly linked to the text gives some idea of the sort of music in use back then.

Two small points that could be better, one from the original text, the other from the reprint. The author tells us of the old manuscript music books and the occasional (expensive) printed book used by the village choirs. Some contained anthems, and we also hear how many of the singers knew the (few) anthems they used and the psalms off by heart, as they couldn't read. But we don't hear anything about which anthems were sung - the text concentrates on psalms and hymns, which to a modern church music eye is a shame. I would have been really interested to know more about the anthems they sang.

The reprint problem is that the text appears to have been scanned and optically read by computer, without having a strict enough proof read afterwards, so there are an unusually high number of typographical errors, some odd ones that humans are unlikely to make, like "bis" for "his" and "fche" for "the". Some pages are okay, but some have several errors on one page, which is a touch irritating, and a shame because otherwise it's a nicely put together little book.

Overall a delightful peek into the past of church music.

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Church Choir Humour

We have recently come across a range of anecdotes about UK church choirs by Reginald Frary. If you enjoy one, you'll enjoy them all - there's really not a lot of point distinguishing between the titles.

The choirs Frary visits (whether factually or in imagination is left to the reader) are mostly very old fashioned. They delight in heavy duty Victorian music, haven't the subtly for Tudor music and don't get the point of modern church music. They all seem to sing matins and have plenty of boys in the choir (both have pretty well disappeared from much of the real world), and most strangely, despite the fact that several are apparently award winning all seem to sing from Ancient & Modern rather than English Hymnal (despite the fact that almost every cathedral and many top notch parish choirs use the latter). A cynic might point out that Frary is published by the people who publish Ancient & Modern - could this be a gentle version of product placement?

However, the stories are gently pleasing and will raise a smile or a laugh from anyone who has sung with a church choir, especially a village choir - particularly the way the choir seems to operate as a separate fiefdom from the rest of the congregation, and the constant battles between young would-be modernising vicars (often women in the more recent books), anxious to get in guitars and win over the young folk, and the usually very traditional choir and choir director.

A must for any choir enthusiast.

It'll be All Wrong on the Night (2002)

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Hearts to Heaven and Tempers Raise (2005)

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We don't do that Tune, Vicar (2007)

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The Lost Chords (2007)

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Church Music

A Brief History of Christian Music by Andrew Wilson-Dickson (1992)
Not all that brief at over 470 pages, but a very useful background to where church music came from. The thematic arrangement of periods doesn't always match where you would expect to find some composers, and it is more about the development of church music itself than the composers, but even so provides the sort of background that anyone who leads a church choir or is interested in the origins of the music that they sing should take in.

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Church Choir Politics


At Cross Purposes by Michael Smith (2014) - Most of us are probably aware that the big cathedrals have professional organists and semi-pro choirs, working at the highest levels of musical performance. In his memoirs, Michael Smith, organist and choirmaster at Llandaff Cathedral from 1974 to 1999, gives the inside story of what was often a battle to maintain such singing standards. This might sound a touch dull - and there certainly are many small and personal events in this 400 page book, but for those who are interested there are also some fascinating stories, from a murder to legal threats, conspiracy and downright managerial incompetence.

LLandaff was unique among the Welsh cathedrals in keeping up a full scale cathedral choir contribution, singing services six days a week, with a choir of boys and men. The men, as at most major cathedrals, were paid a relative pittance for a job they loved, in theory in combination with accommodation and other opportunities, though the accommodation part was one of the many battles Smith would have with the management of the cathedral: the Dean and chapter.

In keeping the cathedral choir going through many musical successes, Smith had two big problems. One was the bizarre setup at Llandaff: the cathedral was also a parish church, and effectively operated with two separate management structures, even two choirs and totally separate services. This inevitably led to clashes of priority and finances. The other, even bigger, issue was that the management of the relationship between Smith and his employer, the Dean and chapter, was disastrous. Rather than talk about things, everything seemed to be done through letters - which usually seemed to be entirely ignored by the management side. This led to Smith's house becoming dangerously in need of repairs, a total mismatch of salary to other cathedral organists and constant battles over every little detail from who paid the phone bill to a dodgy piano. Other problems arose from the cathedral choir school, which provided the boys for the choir and whose management also seemed both to have serious issues and to be at odds with the school's role as a choir school.

What also comes through strongly is the way that Smith's devotion to a tradition remained constant while society's views gradually shifted, resulting in some unfortunate clashes, all documented here. I can relate to this change in attitude. When I was at school, I sang in a highly rated choir that provided the boys' parts for pieces performed by the Hallé Orchestra and the regime was strict. I can remember things being thrown at choir members who weren't paying attention and others getting detentions just for turning to round to see who had come into a room during a choir practice. Smith never resorted to this kind of regime, but getting a choir to a professional level requires a professional approach, which he had both to his choirs an the music examinations he supervised - and in both cases, towards the end of his career, he was probably unfairly censured for his strictness, at one point being suspended for several months over highly inflated allegations.

Bitterness is a major part of this memoir - combining someone who, I suspect, was always going to be quite a difficult employee with terrible management, leading to a disastrous inability to communicate and get things done. Yet despite that, magnificent music continued to be made. Occasionally an inflexibility comes through that suggests this wasn't entirely one-sided. Smith was, for instance, incredibly reluctant to perform anything in Welsh, despite this being a Welsh cathedral. And he occasionally displayed the musical preferences of a different age when the big hymn books refused to print Welsh tunes because they were too lowbrow: this comes through when he considers the great Welsh tune Blaenwern more suited to a chapel than a cathedral. Yet at the same time there was no doubt that Llandaff was punching far above its weight musically thanks to Smith's efforts.

Whether he is describing conducting wonderful anthems and choral works, gadding around the country and abroad to conferences and to administer music examinations, or taking up Kleeneze sales and market research in an attempt to bolster a meagre income, there's a poignant honesty in these memoirs. It's not a laugh a minute - at times the annual cycle of events can seem to go on for ever - but if you are interested in how this great musical tradition somehow survives against remarkable odds, it's well worth reading Michael Smith's account.

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