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Northern Three Choirs Day
Rivington Chapel, Horwich, Bolton
16th August 2014

by David Ward

Reproduced from an article in West Gallery no.71, Autumn 2014

On a day in August that felt like October, a dejected bass headed to Rivington Unitarian Chapel, built in 1703 on the slopes of the west Pennines beyond Bolton.

He was in a bad way, traumatised by a performance of Carmina Burana (in a circus tent) that almost came to grief because the conductor was a dot on the horizon and the lights efficiently blinded singers without illuminating the music. He was seeking therapy in the company of the Gladly Solemn Sound from Lancaster, the Larks of Dean Quire (Bury) and the Grace Darling Singers (Cheshire) who had gathered for their annual three choirs day with director researchers Paul Guppy, Jean Seymour, and Sally Drage. The chapel’s motto offered instant comfort:

Here is quietness for the healing of our spirits;
Here is history for the background of our lives;
Here let no one be a stranger.

Rivington Unitarian Chapel
Photograph: Alan Seymour

Chapel Interior with box pews

Taking his cue from the last line, Daniel Read (1757-1836), composer and shopkeeper of New Haven, Connecticut, felt at home as he took his ghostly place in a dark-stained box pew alongside more local musical spectres: Henry Nuttall and Reuben Hudson of Rossendale, Richard Taylor of Chester, Accepted Widdop of Ovenden and R (for Robert? Rufus? Ronald?) Boxwell of Wyresdale.

Rivington Chapel organThe spirit of John Blow, sometime organist of Westminster Abbey, was at first ill at ease with this northern lot; he was, after all, a midlander turned southerner and a bit of a gent; he also wrote an opera, a form no serious West Gallery composer would touch with a pitch pipe. But he relaxed as almost 40 singers and players performed with due dignity (and with Sally) his own very simple setting of Psalm 25.

He also seemed reassured by the presence of a little organ in the corner and approved of its use, with clarinet and viola, in an affecting Nunc Dimittis by Anon (via Paul), in which he joined in a ghostly tenor.

Daniel Read (via Sally) had brought with him Complaint, a perfect setting of Isaac Watts’s words drenched in dropping tears; its pleasing misery was much appreciated. Had he been there in the flesh, he would probably have passed on his concise statement of his approach to music:
“My governing principles in the choice of tunes is like that of the Vicar of Wakefield in the choice of a wife, not so much for any glossy outside or superficial appearance as for those intrinsic properties which induce me to believe they will wear well.”

The three choirs’ tunes, most of them forgotten for a century or two, are set to wear well now they have been given new life. That life was a bit hesitant at the beginning of the day (“Sight reading? What’s that?”) but became wondrously full by late afternoon when a Henry Nuttall tune to which Jean had added words from Psalm 117 was sung with passion (and even some dynamics) in all its four-page glory.

As they departed, Mr Read said that next time he would bring Russia and Accepted Widdop ceased cursing his parents for giving him such a weird name.



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