The Purbeck Village Quire

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Why ‘West Gallery’, and why ‘Quire’?

Up to about 1860, the singing in most English churches and chapels was led, not by an organ, but by a small group of singers and a band, usually situated in a gallery at the west end of the church. Thomas Hardy used the old spelling ‘Quire’ to describe this combination of band and singers, and we have adopted his suggestion.

Who played and sang in the old Quires?

The bands were made up from local people who also played for village dances and led the militia parades. The singers and instrumentalists were recruited from the village, and would be both trained and taught to read music by the Choirmaster or Parish Clerk.

What was West Gallery music like?

The musicians developed their own style, blending aspects of contemporary art music with folk music. They also composed their own tunes: ‘Wareham’, by William Knapp, Parish Clerk of Poole, a tune that is in many current hymn books today; and a tune - one of over 400 thought to have been sung for ‘While Shepherds Watched’ - composed by John Corben of Worth Matravers, are two examples.

Why did West Gallery music disappear?

One of the objectives of the Oxford Movement was to get rid of the old Quires and their village music, and replace them with organs and surpliced choirs in the chancel. In the process, the old galleries were torn down and many of the old Quire books destroyed. The tunes that survived were re-arranged for organ, and set to new words. Within two generations, West Gallery music had been almost entirely forgotten.

Did anything survive?

Fortunately, major research libraries preserve many of the printed texts, and County Records Offices, Museums, and private families have saved some of the Quire manuscripts from destruction. It is from these that revival groups like the Purbeck Village Quire select their repertoire. The West Gallery Music Association now co-ordinates research and publication of this material. Research for the Quire’s repertoire is undertaken by Rollo Woods, founder of the group, and a founder member of the West Gallery Music Association, that comprises similar groups from all over the country.