The Village Choir

by Thomas Webster

[oil painting]

This well-known oil painting by Thomas Webster (1800-1886) in the Victoria and Albert Museum depicts an English village choir from the time of Thomas Hardy, and exhibits a spirit akin to that of Sacred Harp singing. Painted in 1847, the scene is inspired by "Christmas Day," a literary vignette from The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1820) by American author Washington Irving (1783-1859). Known for his portrayal of Connecticut singing-master Ichabod Crane in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," Irving here offers a satirical account of a visit to a rural parish in England on Christmas morning.

During service, Master Simon stood up in the pew, and repeated the responses very audibly; evincing that kind of ceremonious devotion punctually observed by a gentleman of the old school, and a man of old family connections. I observed, too, that he turned over the leaves of a folio prayer-book with something of a flourish; possibly to show off an enormous seal-ring which enriched one of his fingers, and which had the look of a family relic. But he was evidently most solicitous about the musical part of the service, keeping his eye fixed intently on the choir, and beating time with much gesticulation and emphasis.

The orchestra was in a small gallery, and presented a most whimsical grouping of heads, piled one above the other, among which I particularly noticed that of the village tailor, a pale fellow with a retreating forehead and chin, who played on the clarionet, and seemed to have blown his face to a point; and there was another, a short pursy man, stooping and labouring at a bass viol, so as to show nothing but the top of a round bald head, like the egg of an ostrich. There were two or three pretty faces among the female singers, to which the keen air of a frosty morning had given a bright rosy tint; but the gentlemen choristers had evidently been chosen, like old Cremona fiddles, more for tone than looks; and as several had to sing from the same book, there were clusterings of odd physiognomies, not unlike those groups of cherubs we sometimes see on country tombstones.

The usual services of the choir were managed tolerably well, the vocal parts generally lagging a little behind the instrumental, and some loitering fiddler now and then making up for lost time by travelling over a passage with prodigious celerity, and clearing more bars than the keenest fox-hunter, to be in at the death. But the great trial was an anthem that had been prepared and arranged by Master Simon, and on which he had founded great expectation. Unluckily there was a blunder at the very outset; the musicians became flurried; Master Simon was in a fever, everything went on lamely and irregularly until they came to a chorus beginning "Now let us sing with one accord," which seemed to be a signal for parting company: all became discord and confusion; each shifted for himself, and got to the end as well, or rather as soon, as he could, excepting one old chorister in a pair of horn spectacles bestriding and pinching a long sonorous nose; who, happening to stand a little apart, and being wrapped up in his own melody, kept on a quavering course, wriggling his head, ogling his book, and winding all up by a nasal solo of at least three bars' duration.

Compare this with Irving's description of Ichabod Crane:

In addition to his other vocations, he was the singing-master of the neighborhood, and picked up many bright shillings by instructing the young folks in psalmody. It was a matter of no little vanity to him on Sundays, to take his station in front of the church gallery, with a band of chosen singers; where, in his own mind, he completely carried away the palm from the parson. Certain it is, his voice resounded far above all the rest of the congregation; and there are peculiar quavers still to be heard in that church, and which may even be heard half a mile off, quite to the opposite side of the millpond, on a still Sunday morning, which are said to be legitimately descended from the nose of Ichabod Crane.

In Webster's painting, the choir, led by Master Simon, the singing-master, with upraised hand, stands in the west gallery of the parish church. The choristers in the foreground are grouped behind the gallery rail, apparently organized by voice part. The singing-master, equipped with a large book containing music notation, sings the lead or tenor part, as does the group of men surrounding the tailor playing the clarinet. Another group of men, obviously singing the bass part, is gathered near the bassoon and "bass viol." The three young women to the leader's right are reading from psalm books which apparently do not contain notation; they are presumably singing the treble part. The two boys on his left are probably singing the "counter." Other singers in the background may be singing various parts, including the young man and woman sharing a psalm book. In an undated steel engraving of this painting, engraved by Herbert K. Bourne (1825-1907), the composition is simplified: most of the background singers are omitted, along with the archway in which they stand.

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