West gallery music

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The Village Choir (c. 1847), painting by Thomas Webster

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).

West gallery in St. Mary's church, Ardley, Oxfordshire

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.[1]

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'),[2] 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.[3] During this period, some collections of psalmody included independent instrumental parts, either accompanying the sung sections, or 'symphonies' (short instrumental interludes).[4]

English country psalmody was exported to America around the mid 18th century, where it inspired the creation of many new compositions by members of the First New England School.[5] Some of these works have remained in use in shape note traditions, for example in the Sacred Harp repertoire.

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.[citation needed] Furthermore, the old church bands were often difficult for a vicar to control, while influence over an organist was a much easier task. Such an ousting of the band by an organist is given a fictional treatment in Thomas Hardy’s early novel Under the Greenwood Tree, which reflected actual events at Hardy’s church at Stinsford.[6] Another factor was that the music was disapproved of because it was considered not solemn enough for worship by members of the Oxford movement.


  1. ^ Simon Knott, Upwell at the Norfolk Churches site, Retrieved 5 October 2010
  2. ^ As, for example, at Swalcliffe: see p. 198, Temperley, 1983
  3. ^ pp. 196-197, Temperley, 1983
  4. ^ pp. 199, Temperley, 1983
  5. ^ For discussion, see Temperley (1983), who refutes the earlier view that the American tradition was of largely indigenous origin.
  6. ^ See Under the Greenwood Tree in The Oxford Companion to English Literature, ed. by Margaret Drabbble, 5th edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).

See also[edit]

West Gallery composers[edit]

Composers and compilers in related traditions[edit]


  • Temperley, Nicholas (1983) The Music of the English Parish Church. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-27457-9. A massive study of both the West Gallery tradition and its antecedents, starting from the time of the Reformation.

External links[edit]