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West Gallery Music

West Gallery is the term used to describe the music that was generally performed in rural parish churches and non-conformist chapels between 1700 and 1850.  The earliest music was rather dull as the parish clerk would sing a line for the congregation to repeat.  Fortunately for us, this developed into something far more interesting.  Choirs were encouraged to help the congregation and in no time at all, the singers were joined by the village musicians.  Like us, they were a mix of those who could read music pretty well and those who picked the music up by ear. Even in the smallest parishes some folk composed the hymns, psalms and anthems we still sing today. Fortunately we are still finding “new” numbers buried in the archives of libraries.  Some of the old hand written music books have even been found in charity shops and in car boot sales.

The instruments played (Click Instrumental) would have included mainly string and wind instruments, such as fiddles and flutes.  In most conventional choirs, the orchestra or accompanist generally augment and decorate the notes being sung.  However, in West Gallery music, the instrumentalists support the voice parts far more (click on Quire singing) with different types of instruments playing lines appropriate to the voices. This is very helpful for singers particularly when learning their parts.  If you sing treble, the highest voice part, a recorder or oboe might be playing your notes; for the bass a melodious bassoon might be giving the support you need.

In some pieces when the quire isn’t singing, the instrumentalists have their own little twiddles before or after the verses.  Actually these are very pleasant and tuneful but perhaps do not deserve their pretentious name – symphonies!

Musicians played with the same exuberance as they did at the village dances and this was one of the reasons for the demise of this music.  By 1850 the Oxford Movement (link to site) decided that enough was enough of this vital, jolly music often characterised by a good beat and musical intros grandiosely referred to as “symphonies”.  Hymns Ancient and Modern was introduced to standardise and sanitise this rural music. The choir put on their new surplices and the instrumentalists were replaced by the vicar’s wife or daughter playing a brand new organ, often financed by the owner of the local manor house.  But the players kept their style of music alive in the dances and festivals.

We specialise in the music that was often composed as well as performed in Sussex.  It ranges from melancholy numbers full of graves and worms to upbeat tunes, often with crunchy harmonies and fast and furious fugues. 

1774.  “Many of them had admirable voices and tolerable skill.  But we had one jarring string; a drunken gentleman a little noisy, until he was carried away.”

1778.   A long anthem was sung; but I suppose none beside the singers could understand a word of it.  I could no more bear it in any church of mine than Latin prayers.

John Wesley

Sussex Harmony in association with the West Gallery Music Association.

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