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Country Psalmody

from Manchester Times, 8th Sep 1860 (citing Fraser's magazine)

We too, like Washington Irving, the inimitable, have our musical memories of Christmas long ago. How many times did our house resound with the old carol, "While shepherds watched their flocks by night", given in the full vigour of lungs and instrumentation, from six in the morning till nine at night on Christmas Day! We regret to say that some of those peripatetic minstrels, both of church and dissenting choirs, used to become towards evening considerably bemused with strong liquors. We remember one fat proprietor of a violoncello, when he had come to the dashing passage, "And this shall be a sign", losing his centre of gravity with the energetic working of his elbows, toppling over and smashing his instrument. As he and his party were returning, two or three of us, boys from school, sent some roman candle balls among them from the shrubbery, when they all took to their heels as though Lucifer himself was after them with his blue lights, the stout musician with the fragments being in the rear, holloing and staggering and praying as each fiery ball pursued him.

The particular choir in our own church we recollect well to this day, and some of their most striking tunes. We used to listen with mingled awe and admiration to the performance of the 18th psalm in particular. Take two lines as an illustration of their style:-

    And snatched me from the furious rage
    Of threatening waves that proudly swelled.

The words, "And snatched me from", were repeated severally by the trebles, the altos, the tenors, and the bass voices; then altogether sang the words two or three times over; in like manner did they toss and tumble over "the furious rage", apparently enjoying the whirligig scurrying of their fugues, like so many kittens chasing their own tails; till at length, after they had torn and worried that single line even to the exhaustion of the most powerful lungs - after a very red-faced bass, who kept the village inn, had become perceptibly apoplectic about the eyes, and the bassoon was evidently blown, and a tall thin man with a long nose, which was his principle vocal organ, and which sang tenor, was getting out of wind - they all, clarionet, basoon, violoncello, the red-faced man, the tall tenor and the rest, rushed pell-mell into "the threatening waves that proudly swelled". We have not forgotten the importance with which they used to walk up the church path in a body, with their instruments, after this effort; and our childish fancy revelled in the impression that, after the clergyman and the Duke of Wellington, who had won the Battle of Waterloo a few years before, these singers were the most notable public characters in being.

But we must make a truce with memory, or we shall lose the thread of our argument. We recollect, however, one exhibition of psalmody which was so novel that we must needs describe it. Whoever has stayed a few weeks in the neighbourhood of Windermere, will have found out that the 23rd psalm, put to a local ranting tune, is a favourite one there. One portion of it runs thus:-

    Then leads me to cool shades, and where
    Refreshing water flows

In the last line the tune has a musical division after the second syllable, and the latter part, "-shing water flows", is repeated almost ad infinitum. Being on a tour through the Lake District we happened to attend a very rural chapel where this psalm was given out; but whether there had been "a strike" among the singers, or they had gone to give eclat to some neighbouring charity sermon, certainly the old clerk, white headed and weather-beaten, was the only chorister on the occasion. Now it happened very mal-apropos that after he had set fairly to his work, an old goose, with a dozen well-behaved goslings, walked through the open doorway, and up the aisle, right in his face, as leisurely and demurely as a lady abbess at the head of her band of youthful neophytes. What was to be done? The moment was critical; the old clerk was on the point of repeating his "-shing water flows". Observe the value of presence of mind. He stepped boldly out of his desk. "Shoo! shoo!" he hissed out at the old goose, waving his arms; "-shing water flows", he continued, taking up the dropped note; "qua-ake! qua-ake!" chimed in the goslings as an accompaniment; and the intruders were ejected about the time the verse was ended. If we recollect aright, our devotions were spoiled for that day.

But while we do not reckon your rustic choir perfect, we admire it quite as much as that which is got up at so much expense in your fine city church. Both the one and the other are performances - Popish ceremonies, in which the laity were never intended to take a part. But give us the rural melodies before these elaborate displays which m electate sentimental ladies and effete opera-loungees, but can never afford pleasure to Christian worshippers. Our duty on the occasion of such a performance, is to pray, as Keble says, for "grace to listen well". In your country choir you find an honesty of face and a reality of purpose, at any rate; in your operatic orchestra there is often a very dirty mixture of character - an unsavoury smell of the singing saloon. Nor can anything be in worse taste than these displays often are; no, not even the silliest exhibitions of our rustic singers.

We would not wish by any means that the anthem should be discontinued in cathedrals and churches where the choir is competent to undertake it. But that the effect might be solemnizing, the music should be such as beseemeth the house of God, not the concert room. The notion of an anthem nowadays is too often associated with great musical display; it is that portion of divine service, which pales by its lustre the prayers and the sermon. What a disgraceful evidence of this have we at some of our cathedrals, in the mob-like rush out of doors after it has been sung! Have the authorities no power to stop this shameful exposure of bad manners and gross irreligion? Better suppress the performance than permit such a desecration of a house of prayer. - Article: Hymns and Hymn tunes for Congregational Worship

A Helpful Dog

from The Times, July 12th 1825 (from Carlisle Journal)

A few evenings since, while the singers belonging to a church in Westmorland were practising psalmody, a little spaniel bitch, who usually accompanies the singing master, observed (as is supposed) one of the party (a female) without a book in her hand, all the rest having each one. The little animal, after ranging to and fro in the church for a considerable time, was seen coming up the middle aisle with a prayer book in her mouth, which she dropped at the feet of the above-mentioned female, at the same time looking up at her, as much as to say, "Now you can join chorus:" then wagging her tail, went and lay down. The above may be relied upon as authentic.


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