The music of past ages is ours to perform as we please, and it is not the purpose of this article to be
prescriptive. Some people like to take into account information about how styles of music were
performed in the past; their performances are described as "historically informed." This article aims
to give such information, together with the experience of specialist West Gallery quires.
Many specialist quires find that the style of singing which suits the repertoire best is robust, open-throated
and vibrato-free, often more akin to that heard in a folk club than a cathedral.
Contemporary reports often refer to poor singing by some quires, but there is no reason in modern
performance not to aim at good tone, intonation, diction and expression; West Gallery music can be
sung well, as can all musical styles.
Accompaniment and part allocation
West Gallery music was sung both unaccompanied and with a variety of different instrumental
accompaniments. The doubling of the air (the tenor part in earlier West Gallery pieces) at both
octaves is well documented. Terms such as "solo" and "duet" often draw attention to a reduction in
vocal texture rather than necessarily calling for individual voices; such a usage may be regarded as
optional. Accompaniment and part allocation are dealt with in more detail in A West Gallery event for you?
Rhythm and tempo
Many West Gallery settings benefit from being sung with rhythmic drive. West Gallery musicians
were often the same as those who performed dance music at local events, as described vividly in
Thomas Hardy's fiction. It is hard to believe that the rhythms of folk dances did not spill over into
West Gallery musicians used a system of time signatures to indicate tempo as well as pulse. This
will not be described in detail here, as in any case it was not strictly adhered to. But it is advisable to
set a tempo which will support the necessary rhythmic drive; this may be faster than in much
conventional church music. Even in those pieces where a moderate or slow tempo is appropriate,
there is a need for underlying rhythmic solidity.
Some settings end with written Handelian rallentandos, and it is often within the style to slow the
tempo at the end of a piece. Other tempo changes are usually made only where there is a new
section of music; quickening or slowing the tempo in mid-section is usually inappropriate.
Written dynamics are seldom found, and are usually limited to piano and forte. Forte is rarely found
without a preceding piano, and piano usually accompanies a reduction in texture. It is therefore
appropriate always to sing thin-textured passages more quietly, except in imitative or "fuguing"
passages where the entries need to be clearly heard. "Chorus" is often used as an alternative to forte
when restoring the original dynamic; it rarely has its modern meaning. Additional dynamics may be
added where musically or textually appropriate, but any great elaboration in this respect is foreign to
Slurs are used only to indicate underlay and tied notes. The text usually provides the best guide to
good phrasing, which often varies from verse to verse in strophic settings. The overall style is
usually within the Baroque idiom, even for pieces composed well into the 19th Century.
It is known that many quires added decorations such as passing notes, appoggiaturas and cadential
trills, and also that this practice was disapproved of in some quarters. Where this is done, it is
appropriate to do so within an overall Baroque idiom, (as with phrasing,) and to avoid any great
Repeated sections and da capos are usually integral to the musical structure of West Gallery
settings, and are not to be regarded as optional. Some discretion in this respect may be needed when
singing a strophic setting with many verses.
In many strophic settings, pauses indicate no more than the end of a phrase, in the manner of a Bach
chorale. It is advisable to use some discretion in deciding which pauses to interpret literally.
Variety in strophic settings
While there is little historical evidence for such practices, modern West Gallery quires often like to
introduce variety of texture between verses of strophic settings. This may be done by omitting some
vocal parts, or some or all of any instrumental accompaniment.
Further information about publications, workshops and other West Gallery
events and activities may
be found at the website of the West Gallery Music Association. Roding Music welcomes any enquiries.
No copyright is claimed in this article, which may be freely reproduced
for promoting knowledge of West Gallery church music.