Fragments of Two Centuries.
Glimpses of Country Life when George III was King
by Alfred Kingston, pub.1893.
Secular life was not so low but that it had its bright spots. Bands of music were not so well organized or so numerous as they are to-day, but there was much more of what may be styled chamber music in those days than is imagined. Fiddles, bass viols, clarinets, bassoons, &c., were used on all public occasions, and in 1786 we find that the Royston "Musick Club" altered its night of meeting to Wednesday. That is all there is recorded of it, but it is sufficient to show us a working institution with its regular meetings.
Music, though confined to a few choice spirits beneath fustian and smock frocks in village as well as town, played a much more important part with our grandfathers than is commonly supposed. It may seem a rash statement to make that in some respects we may have degenerated. If we play or sing with better tune or finish it is because we have` better appliances, not better brains nor more devoted hearts for music. I am afraid that some of our extensive cultivation of music is a sacrifice of fond parents on the altar of the proprieties, whereas our grandfathers had a soul in their work, and the man with his heart in his work - whether scraping a fiddle, ploughing a furrow, writing an epic, or fighting a battle - must, by all honest men, be awarded the palm. In this over-riding of music as a hobby there is a danger that the salt may lose its savour, for if there is any individual more to be pitied than another it is the so-called musician standing up to play according to the rules of art with no response from the inmost soul of him.
I do not think, at any rate, that those of our grandfathers who directed their attention to the fiddle, bass-viol, flute, clarionet, or trombone, could be fairly considered to lay under such reproach, for though their music may have been sometimes flat and sometimes sharp, it was always natural and congenial in the highest degree.
These old fellows took down such instruments as they had, not as so many do now, because it was "the thing" to learn music, but because music had found them out for having a love of it, and of the pleasure derived from meeting in a homely circle of kindred spirits. Their instruments were often most dissimilar, but their spirit was one!
There was a good deal of free masonry and companionable relations existing between these old handlers of musical instruments, and as we hear them in imagination, rattling away round the old spirited fugues which had been carefully "picked out" with quill pen and ink into their old cheque-book shaped "tune books"; or, as we see the picturesque group, now with countenances beaming with delight over some well turned corner which brought up the rear, now mopping their brows with a bright red handkerchief, or touching up the old fiddle, after a smart finish, as a man pats a favourite horse, it is not difficult to discover how it was that here and there, and in many places, music took care of itself so well when other things were at a low ebb!
Saxhorn, trombone, flute, cornopean, clarionet, bassoon, fiddle, bass-viol, and others as various as the dress, trades, and characters of the individuals, made up the old chords of long ago; so well hit off by a writer (J. W. Riley) in the Century Magazine:--
I make no doubt yer new band now's a competenter band,
And plays their music more by note than what they play by hand,
And stylisher, and grander tunes; but somehow - any way
I want to hear the old band play!
These old players on instruments were nearly always found in the Church or Chapel Choirs. Thus in the early years of the century John Warren performed the double duty of bass-viol player and parish clerk at the Royston Church, and later on a rather full band of instruments led the service. A similar, but less organized state of things was found in some village Churches. It was the time when the wooden pitch-pipe was in its full glory. This was a square wooden implement, with a scale on one of its sides, upon which the leader blew the key-note, and then running up the octave with his voice - off they went to the tune of some old Calcutta, Cardiff, or other piece of arduous fugal work!
The disappearance of these old village choirs, in which the village blacksmith, the baker, the tailor, and other natives played on the clarionet, bass-viol, bassoon, flute, trombone, and all kinds of instruments, while other grown-up men took their "parts" in those wonderful old fugues that seemed to make the song of praise without end - the absence of all this means a certain loss of that passion for music which has never been thoroughly recovered!
We have many more players and singers now than in the past, but not, perhaps, the same proportion of lovers of music for its own sake.
There was a marvellous difference in the state of the Established Church at the end of the last Century and to-day. It is a very rare thing now to see a parish without a resident clergyman, but then, clergymen often held two or more parishes without residing in either. In 1791, for instance, the Vicar of the two parishes of Great and Little Abington lived in a house of his own at Thriplow. The truth is, says an old writer under date, 1789, "that most of the Churches within ten miles of Cambridge were served by Fellowes of Colleges." In some cases the Curates hastened back to dine in hall. In this way the Curates would come out to the parish to a service, to a wedding, a funeral, or a day's shooting, and often served two or three parishes in this free and easy fashion, and it became necessary to limit the service in each parish to alternate Sundays.
Upon the character of the services in many village Churches of the time, I am indebted to a very good authority - MS. reminiscences by the late Mr. Henry Thurnall - for the following: "Neither Whittlesford, Sawston, Great Shelford, Newton, Hauxton, Barrington, or Chishill, had a resident minister." As to the character of the Psalmody practised in the Churches, the same authority says: - At Duxford, John and Thomas H---- performed on two bassoons anything but heavenly music; at Shelford old John M----, the clerk, used to climb up a ladder into a high gallery and there seating himself, often quite alone, and saying "let us sing to the praise and glory of God by singin' the fust four vusses of the 100th psalm, old vusshun';" and he put on his spectacles and read and sung each verse, frequently as a solo accompanying himself on a bass-viol, said to have been made by himself! At W---- old V---- set the tune with a cracked flute, and on one occasion, when reading the 26th verse of the grand 104th Psalm, he said: - "There goes the Ships, and there is that Lufftenant [Leviathan] whom thou hast made to take his pastime therein."
To this is added a glimpse of the villagers assembled in Church under the ministry of the Rev. Mr. Skinner. "Whether there was any clerk or not I do not remember" says Mr. Trollope, "but if any such official existed, the performance of his office in Church was not only overlaid but extinguished by the great rough 'view-holloa' sort of voice of my uncle. He never missed going to Church, and never missed a word of the responses, which were given in far louder tones than those of the Vicar. Something of a hymn was always attempted, I remember, by the rustic congregation; with what sort of musical effect may be imagined. But the singers were so well pleased with the exercise that they were apt to prolong it, as my uncle thought, somewhat unduly, and on such occasions he would cut the performance short with a rasping 'That's enough!' which effectually brought it to an abrupt conclusion.
The very short sermon having been brought to an end, my uncle would sing out to the Vicar, as he was descending the pulpit stairs, 'Come up to dinner, Skinner!' and then we all marched out while the rustics, still retaining their places till we were fairly out of the door, made their obeisances as we passed."
All of this book can be found on Project Gutenberg.