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Christmas Is Come: Eighteenth Century Dance and West Gallery Music from The Mellstock Band Chittlehampton Parish Church, Devon, 2.12.2005 (BK)


From Left: Charles Spicer , Dave Townsend and Philip Humphries

Dave Townsend (Director): Concertina, Voice, Violin and Humstrum
Tim Hill: Clarinets, Voice
Philip Humphries: Serpent, Humstrum, Voice
Charles Spicer: Oboe, Voice

Forget Shakespeare, Dickens and Morris dancing. When it comes to celebrating 'Englishness' (especially at Christmas) no-one does it better than the Mellstock Band. The four man team specialises in early dance music and in the 'West Gallery' church music that flourished in England between 1700 and the 1850s:their name comes from Thomas Hardy, who fictionalised the singers and musicians of the Dorset parish of Stinsford in his novels. Along with his father and grandfather before him, Hardy himself played fiddle and concertina and no wedding or party was complete without the bandsmen's music. But they led the carolling and church singing too.

'West Gallery' music blossomed in parish churches and chapels immediately after the Restoration and though its exact origins are still slightly obscure, it seems to have sprung from renewed desire (following the dreariness of the Commonwealth) to 'improve the quality of psalmody'. Parishioners of the time welcomed the new music wholeheartedly by all accounts, since it provided relief from the gloomy silences previously occurring in services where 'a psalm should be said or sung'.

A great deal of fine secular music was written in the post-Restoration period and many publishers, including the well-known composer John Playford, also began to set sacred music for use in parish churches. Since most churches had no spaces for performing music, galleries for the bandsmen and singers were built at their western ends - hence 'West Gallery' music.


Much of it is breezy stuff. It rattles along at brisk tempi, with melodious 'fuging' tunes in which congregations could join following the musicians' lead. Though restricted initially to psalm settings (only 'the word of the Lord' was permitted in services apparently), volumes of hymns were soon written, often to paraphrased settings of biblical texts: the carol 'While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night' for instance, was set to over 150 different tunes. By the time that hymn writers like Isaac Watts and the Wesleys began to provide inspiration for village composers, a new and distinctive English music was most definitely alive and unashamedly kicking.

Hardy's novels often mention the clarinet, flute and oboe, as well as fiddles and concertinas, and the Mellstock Bandsmen play period versions of these instruments. They also have a serpent, the curious cross between euphonium and bassoon so easily recognised by its shape. Their combined sound is wonderfully cheerful and when coupled with accurate and vigorous part-singing, recreates all of the richness and excitement of English village music, about as authentically as anyone could hope for.


The concert was typical of the band's output, a two hour mixture of West Gallery carols, dance music and readings from Hardy, John Clare, William Barnes and others. There was even a short Mummer's play in which 'King George' vanquished a 'Turkish Knight' - twice - while Father Christmas and a doctor spurred him on.

Some particular highlights for me (and there were lots) were 'Dives and Lazarus' with the melody played on the serpent while the other instruments wove counterpoints around it, the readings from Hardy's 'A Few Crusted Characters' by Charles Spicer (the oboist and a former Royal Shakespeare Company actor) and a crackling account of 'While Shepherds Watched' to the tune 'Otford' with the verses in three time and the chorus in a fugal four. All spirited, entertaining and good-hearted stuff, exactly right for the the Christmas season.


And then there was the humstrum, a genuine novelty to my ear. The Francis Grose 'Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue' from 1811 describes it as: 'A musical instrument made of a mopstick, a bladder, and some packthread, thence also called a bladder and string, and hurdy gurdy; it is played on like a violin, which is sometimes ludicrously called a humstrum; sometimes, instead of a bladder, a tin canister is used. Though by no means a Stradivarius, I reckon that if carol singers played humstrums today (or sang a quarter as well as the Mellstock Band) the world would be a brighter place and Christmas a far more joyful celebration. As we left the performance I heard several people saying that churches would be full these days if the music could be like this.


The Mellstock website shows where the band will be until December 18th. Go to see them if you possibly can.





Bill Kenny

Picture © Keith Kitson



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