Church musicians behaving badly

In my reading, I’ve been making my way through The Music of the English Church by Kenneth Long. There’s a very interesting passage about average town churches in second half of the 17th century, during a period called the restoration. Previous to this, organs and choirs across England had been dismantled and disbanded. The average church would have a rowdy group of minstrels hanging out in the balcony (gallery). What resulted was quite interesting and some if it seems as though it could have been written today.  Here are a few amusing excerpts:

Members of the minstrel group were often referred to as ‘musicainers’ or ‘musickers’. They were very proud of themselves; proud too of the group as a whole and they would practice regularly  and work hard to gain the ascendancy over minstrels from neighboring parishes…But this same strong corporate spirit could occasionally bring them into conflict with the clergy or people or both; indeed, in many parishes the minstrels were a force to be reckoned with. They were often autocratic; they were not above putting the parson firmly in his place (during the service if need be) neither did they shrink from going on strike if necessary in order to get their own way. They were jealous of their rights and even a seat in the gallery was a privilege hedged round with protocol and taboos.  They resisted change, even when it did not personally involve them, and their opinion had considerable influence in the parish. In some churches the minstrels looked upon the music as their own special prerogative and woe betide the member of the congregation rash enough to join in!

Most of the minstrels were yokels – ignorant, illiterate and musically self-taught – yet they possessed immense zeal and diligence and often by sheer perseverance the more intelligent players learned to read and write music…Similarly minstrel performances were usually more notable for enthusiasm and vigor than for accuracy and artistry; indeed contemporary accounts are scathing in their criticism and make it plain that both the singing and playing were so appalling as to be either pathetic or frankly ludicrous. Many writers comment on the ‘shrill tone’ and ‘screeching’ or ‘screaming’ of the children and the uncouth voices of the men…

If the music was bad the standard of behavior was worse and there seems to have been a total lack of reverence. Instruments would be tuned during the sermon; loud exhortations, blame and praise from the leader of the minstrels would punctuate the service; raucous arguments in the gallery distracted the worshipper below…Some of the instruments were found useful for chastising boys and the intermittent thwacks and the boys’ yells were merely another irritation for the congregation to endure. All this was made worse because during the singing it was customary for the congregation to turn in their seats and ‘face the music’, so they could not escape seeing as well as hearing all that went on.



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