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  • Writer's pictureTim Braithwaite

The Sounds of a Town Church-Choir in 1861

‘Turn into a town Church, for instance, and what does one hear? Fifty charity children squalling their little windpipes to pieces in uninstructed efforts to sing a psalm tune or hymn tune which no effort in the world could make singable by the congregation at large. Or perhaps a choir in the gallery, composed, first, of a young damsel not remarkable for over-modest demeanour, who is looked upon as the Prima Donna by her co-adjutors, and who screams out the air of the tunes in such a voice as might be expected at a Casino ; secondly, of a few youths who sing tenor by ear ; and thirdly, of four or five old fossils of a past generation, whose “gipsy-bass” is passing into a most unmitigated growl. The organist, who is at the head of his clique, may or may not be a man of religious feeling and taste ; but the chances are that he is a man of cheapness, who spends his week-days in teaching “Rousseau’s dream” to young ladies in pinafores, and his Sundays in grinding not over-correct harmonies on the Church organ, by way of accompaniment to the vocal performances of the singing gallery.

Yet look at the congregation that sits under such sounds year by year ! There are “real gentlemen and ladies,” who know what good singing and good music is, and who are by no means unfamiliar with the concert-rooms or the Opera : there are professionals and tradespeople, with their wives and daughters, who like a “little music” in the evening after the work of the day is over, as well as anybody ; and who have their little music given them by the younger members of their families in anything but a despicable style : and there are the labouring classes, whose hearts bound into their mouths at a tune that they love if it is well sung ; and who can many of them sing it infinitely better than the chosen few who lead, or rather usurp, the psalmody behind their red moreen curtains in from of the organ.

Why do we all submit to be tyrannized over thus ? Is it custom ? or don’t we take any interest in the matter ? Or is the thing irremediable ? Or is it a part of our religion to encourage bad singing in Churches, and to enjoy good singing elsewhere ? Perhaps good singing is worldly, or popish, or something of that sort ; and bad singing one of the last lingering relics of the good old times when Church people were orthodox…’



“Things to Be Said or Sung.-I.,” The Oxford Magazine and Church Advocate, 1861,

The image below is a print from c.1770 by Samuel H.Grimm entitled “Village Choir”

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