Through the great oak door of a 15th-century mansion, set against a sweeping hillside, the sound of singing wafts into the frosty air, accompanied by a mix of strings and woodwinds. “Almighty God, who hast given us thy only begotten Son to take our nature upon him – and at this time to be born, born of a pure Virgin.”
When Thomas Clark, a Kent cobbler, wrote his Christmas Day collect setting some time around 1830, he would perhaps have been astonished to learn it would still have the power to inspire Christian devotions two centuries later.
Halsway Manor, set amid Somerset’s Quantock Hills, was mentioned in the Domesday Book. But it’s been a centre for English folk arts since the 1960s, and includes West Gallery music by Clark and his contemporaries, organised by the Madding Crowd association, on its annual programme.
As high-quality sacral music, it might be said to belong more properly in churches. But it was banned by the Church of England back in the 1850s, and rarely gets an approved hearing even today.
With Anglican parishes still reluctant to acknowledge it, should Catholics be taking a closer look?
The West Gallery tradition dates from the 17th-century Restoration period, when church music was liberalised after Puritan rule, allowing local parishes to set up their own choirs and orchestras. Many built special galleries for them at the western end of their churches; and with no central organisation, local composers, often with little training, began providing material.
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