Afloat on a Sea of Music
by David Ward
Reprinted from an article in The Guardian © 2000
Last week, a small choir named after a sea-going Northumbrian heroine celebrated its 10th anniversary with a concert in
a pretty chapel dedicated to St Chad on the outskirts of Stockport, Greater Manchester. There were only 90 seats. It
was a small audience but we were nervous, because we always are, but not as twitchy as we were last month when we
made our debut at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester.
At rather than in: we were not actually on the wide platform where Barenboim has conducted and Kissin played; instead
we sang in the foyer as patrons arrived for a Halle orchestra summer prom featuring bleeding chunks from choral
masterpieces. As the big night approached, I had this ludicrous daydream that our performance would be so sensational
the audience would demand the Halle choir should shove off and let us do the second half of the gig.
It didn't happen. We were, after all, only the warm-up act: 40 minutes before the concert, 15 minutes at half-time. We
sang as concert-goers turned up to buy programmes, order drinks, eat Magnums, chat to friends, find the loos. We
had chosen our programme carefully to suit the venue. We had dusted off a piece appropriately named Bridgewater,
and also gave what these days is called a site-specific performance. The hall has a great glass prow jutting out over its
entrance and that's where we sang: prow made us think of ships, ships of Titanic, and Titanic of Nearer my God to Thee,
the great hymn played by bandmaster Wallace Hartley and his men as the liner slid beneath the icy waters of the
When we started, no one else was there. Then a few concert-goers turned up but pretended we weren't there. Then
some stopped to listen; there was even some applause. This event was the big time, the high-point in the career of the
Grace Darling Singers, founded in 1990 to sing a bizarre repertoire mainly for fun. It was all my idea, a bit of folly
begun by someone who can't sight read, hasn't got perfect pitch, can't breathe properly and failed O-level music with
38%. I wrote a piece for a local arts magazine inviting interest from anyone who wanted to do something a bit different
from the output of the average choral society.
About a dozen strangers (plus press-ganged friends) turned up and sang in my dining room while Emily, the late black
and white cat, yowled. Our neighbour said the singing sounded heavenly as it drifted through her wall. The first thing
we did was the Grace Darling Song, a Victorian ballad celebrating the brave woman who helped rescue the crew of the
stricken vessel Forfarshire. That song gave us our name and we adopted as our banner a dramatic portrait of Grace
pulling on her oars. (It's a very nice tea towel, a souvenir from the Grace Darling Museum in Bamburgh.) Next, to
cheer ourselves up, we sang a dirge called Peat Bog Soldiers, written during the Spanish civil war, and then I think we
did Throw Out The Lifeline, a ballad in praise of temperance.
We have met monthly and settled into a specialised repertoire: church music in England and America from 1750 to
1850, written by local composers for their own choirs, the kind of music sung by the Mellstock Quire in Thomas
Hardy's Under The Greenwood Tree. Almost everything we do has been dug out and edited from long-neglected
manuscripts and books by our musical director, who is doing a PhD in this stuff and knows about keys, cadences and
contemporary performance practice. We have sung the hymns and psalms of James Leach of Rochdale, Richard Taylor
of Chester, John Beaumont of Macclesfield, Daniel Read of Attleboro, Mass, Supply Belcher of Stoughton (Mass
again), and J J Stone of nowhere in particular.
We have a particular affection for a tune called Gilgal by Blind Billy Lonsdale of Bolton, a talented
multi-instrumentalist who was kicked out of his church when he played a jig instead of a solemn melody at a Sunday
morning service after a boozy Saturday night. And we have a kind of discreet passion for the work of William Billings
of Boston, an incredibly ugly tanner who, a century and a half before Charles Ives, wrote American music that dances
with delight and eccentricity. I'd go so far as to boast that the Grace Darlings are leading the British celebrations
marking the 200th anniversary this year of Billings's death. If the Halle audience didn't take to his Rose of Sharon it
would have stood condemned for its cloth ears. And yet, although we hit the big time with the Bridgewater (as we did
when we recorded Sunday Half Hour for Radio 2), it's the small times we seem to enjoy most.
There was that night in south Manchester when we invited the audience to join us in a couple of numbers (including one
of the earliest tunes for While Shepherds Watched; it's now better known as On Ilkley Moor Baht 'At) and heard this
wondrous wall of Methodist sound coming at us. We've sung three times to a cotton mill's massive steam engine in
Rochdale, and tried to stay in three-four time when a stoker was shovelling coal in four-four. We've hired a boat called
the Grace Darling at Stratford, cruised down the Avon and frightened the wits out of passengers on the chain ferry by
singing Nearer My God To Thee. We've walked across fields on sunny summer days to sing for ourselves in lonely
churches: one in Warwickshire was at the heart of a deserted medieval village; the other, in Cheshire, had a fine
horse-drawn hearse which we serenaded with a funeral hymn from Shropshire.
But perhaps the best day was a trip to the beautiful church of St Lawrence above Rushton Spencer, near Leek in
Staffordshire, where old Uriah Davenport taught and led his singers for 60 years until his death at 94 in 1784. If you go
up to the gallery, you can find Uriah's initials picked out in studs on a bench. We went there to sing some of his own
music at a Sunday service, and included his setting of Psalm 150, the one that goes on about praising the Lord with all
kinds of instruments. The piece has its fair number of tricks, and the tenors have to pretend to be trumpets and the
basses to be droning bagpipes.
We were quite nervous. The tenors suspended all movement in an attempt to avoid provoking distressing creaks from a
bench which was beginning to flag after 250 years' loyal service. A thrush was singing sweetly in a tree which may
have been around to tremble on September 14 1777, when an earthquake shook Rushton, throwing the congregation
into great confusion. Perhaps Uriah's singers trembled too, and perhaps terror made them sing all the better; it usually
works with us.
One of the joys of singing this kind of music is that just occasionally there is a time slip and you find yourself becoming
at one with those 18th century singers who struggled to learn a piece which took them to the edge of their collective
ability and sometimes beyond. We share their anxieties and tribulations, the lows when there is a cock-up, the
adrenalin-drenched highs when we reach for something beyond the mere notes.
We sang Davenport's Psalm 150 at the Bridgewater in almost certainly its first Manchester performance. We hope the
prom-goers enjoyed it (especially the bit where the tenors gargle like trumpets) but we wouldn't have minded if they
Last week, marking our own anniversary, we were back in the small time.