Then the choir sat in the west gallery and made strange noises and sang curious tunes, the echoes of which we shall try to catch. No organ then pealed forth its reverent tones and awaked the church with dulcet harmonies: a pitch-pipe often the sole instrument. And then—what terrible hymns were sung! Well did Campbell say of Sternhold and Hopkins, the co-translators of the Psalms of David into English metre, “mistaking vulgarity for simplicity, they turned into bathos what they found sublime.” And Tate and Brady’s version, the “Dry Psalter” of “Samuel Oxon’s” witticism, was little better. Think of the poetical beauties of the following lines, sung with vigour by a bald-headed clerk:
“My hairs are numerous,
Compared to th’ enemies that me pursue.”
It was of such a clerk and of such psalmody that John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, in the seventeenth century wrote his celebrated epigram:
“Sternhold and Hopkins had
When they translated David’s Psalms,
To make the heart more glad;
But had it been poor David’s fate
To hear thee sing and them translate,
By Jove, ’twould have drove him mad.”
When the time for singing the metrical Psalm arrived, the clerk gave out the number in stentorian tones, using the usual formula, “Let us sing to the praise and glory of God the one hundred and fourth Psalm, first, second, seving (seven), and eleving verses with the Doxology.” Then, pulling out his pitch-pipe from the dusty cushions of his seat, he would strut pompously down the church, ascend the stairs leading to the west gallery, blow his pipe, and give the basses, tenors, and soprano voices their notes, which they hung on to in a low tone until the clerk returned to his place in the lowest tier of the “three-decker” and started the choir-folk vigorously. Those Doxologies at the end! What a trouble they were! You could find them if you knew where to look for them at the end of the Prayer Book after Tate and Brady’s metrical renderings of the Psalms of David. There they were, but the right one was hard to find. Some had two syllables too much to suit the tune, and some had two syllables too little. But it did not matter very greatly, and we were accustomed to add a word here, or leave out one there; it was all in a day’s work, and we went home with the comfortable reflection that we had done our best.
But a pitch-pipe was not usually the sole instrument. Many village churches had their band, composed of fiddles, flutes, clarionets, and sometimes bassoons and a drum. “Let’s go and hear the baboons,” said a clerk mentioned by the Rev. John Eagles in his Essays. In order to preserve strict historical accuracy, I may add that this invitation was recorded in the year 1837, and therefore could have no reference to evolutionary theories and the Descent of Man. This clerk, who invariably read “Cheberims and Sepherims,” and was always “a lion to my mother’s children,” looking not unlike one with his shaggy hair and beard, was not inviting a neighbour to a Sunday afternoon at the Zoo, but only to hear the bassoons.