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  • Writer's pictureTim Braithwaite

A nineteenth-century description of English choral performance, as recalled by lay clerk J.V. Cox

“Everything was done in the most florid style, viz., grace notes, cadenzas, 'shakes' (single, double, and triple), while time was not much considered. Indeed, some of the treble solos were nearly sung ad libitum... In the anthems I have heard three boys making 'shakes' simultaneously, and not only the boys but the lay-clerks used to 'shake' most extensively. There was one lay-clerk - Mr William Smith - who had a good 'shake,' so he was requested not to forget it at the service, as the ladies so much admired it. I have known him begin a solo with an elaborate 'shake' and end with one - besides introducing two or three in the middle of the anthem. In fact, the 'shakes' were so numerous that they must have shaken the Cathedral to its very foundation! Such things are not allowed now”

Quoted in Frederic Kitton, Zechariah Buck, Mus. D., Cantor, Organist, and Master of the Choristers at Norwich Cathedral, 1817-1877 : A Centenary Memoir (London: Jarrold, 1899). Found in Francis Knights, “Zechariah Buck of Norwich,” The Musical Times 131, no. 1764 (February 1990): 107,

The image below is Edward Bird’s ‘Country Choristers,’ completed in 1810.

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