Gallery Hymns

This Christmas, the choir will be singing A Gallery Carol. What an interesting title and why would it be called that? Usually a hymn is named after some part of the text, but a gallery hymn describes a tradition of hymn singing.
Gallery hymns or West Gallery hymns (sometimes called psalmody) is a tradition from English country churches and dates from a short period of time in the 18th and 19th centuries. This music was performed by and often written for amateurs. The name, West Gallery comes from the placement of the musicians in the west gallery of the church. The Victorians disapproved of these galleries as frivolous, and many were removed in the 19th century.
Smaller churches were not able to afford an organ. At first all singing was a cappella but over time, various instruments were used to accompany the singers. The bass line was the first to be reinforced with an instrument such as a cello or bassoon. Later, other instruments, such as flutes, clarinets and/or violins, were added to support the other parts.
As time went on and the tradition of instruments in the church became more established, many composers wrote music specifically for the ensembles by adding a few extra bars here and there as “colour” to the hymn singing.
The influence of a more standardized way of approaching worship eventually brought in smaller organs to replace the bands of musicians. It’s been said the clergy preferred a single musician since it was easier to keep an eye on and influence over one than many!
The gallery choirs and church musicians were depicted in the painting, The Village Choir, by Thomas Webster and in the novel, Under the Greenwood Tree, by Thomas Hardy.
The tradition of gallery hymns came to North America in the form of Sacred Harp Singing (stay tuned for more on that!).
A wonderful rendition of Gallery Hymns is found on the CD, Sing Lustily and with Good Cheer, by Maddy Prior. You can find a sample on youtube. Look for Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band, Who Would True Valour See.

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