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AN OLD CHORISTER

An interview with Daniel Burton, an Oxfordshire singer and cellist, ca.1870

"I was 78 last March, and I have been a singer at church and chapel ever since I can remember." The speaker is an old man, with plenty of white hair lying rough upon his head, his intelligent but wrinkled and time-beaten face set in a fringe of white whiskers. He speaks in low rich tones that betray the singing voice, and as he talks on his favourite subject his eye kindles, his cheek glows, and he accompanies his sentences with gesture and movement. Here we sit, he - Daniel Burton - and I, on opposite sides of the table in the quaint old kitchen of his cottage. The stone floor, the small window deeply sunk in the massive wall, the low ceiling, made still lower by the great beam that crosses it, the wooden chairs and the homely furniture are of a piece with the old-world chat that is going on in the room. We are but twelve miles or so from Oxford, yet it has taken me an hour and a half to get here, the last three miles a tramp through farming country, hill and combe alternating with a quickness that stretches limb and lung. In this hamlet, the stately beeches of Blenheim in sight, Daniel has spent his long life. His mind is clear and strong; sometimes a name escapes him, but his memory for past events is distinct.

St.James, Stonesfield
St.James, Stonesfield

"My singing," he says, "began in this wise. I was a boy at the Sunday-school which was held at the church of this village. There were no day schools then; but there was a disturbance with the choir of the church, and singers and players for there were 'cello, bassoon, flute, and clarionet turned out on strike. We children were sent for to fill up the gap; and twice a week we used to go to the house where the old clerk lived to learn the tunes. That must be nearly 70 years ago, yet I remember the old man well; he had a good voice, and by hearing the tunes from him a few times we quickly picked them up, and did our work on Sundays fairly well. At any rate we remained on duty till in due time the choir came back, and then they had no further use for us. My grandfather and my uncle were singers in the church; I remember them both. The chief instruments were played by three men, father 'and two sons; they were hurdle makers in the village, and were thought a deal of by us all.

"I never had any teaching in music, except that when I was sixteen or seventeen the old parish clerk wrote down the scale of the flute for me, and told me how two minims made a semi-breve, and so on. The rest I found out for myself. For a while I played the flute in the Parish Church, and afterwards I learned enough of the violoncello to play that too. There " - pointing to a faded Daguerreotype on the wall - "there I am". I look, and see a dim figure of the old musician with a 'cello between his thighs, drawing his bow across the strings. "When my voice broke I took to singing alto, and my way was to sing alto and play bass at the same time.

"It was about the year '25 that the Methodists came into the village and began holding their services in a barn. I was strong church then, and believed the clergyman when he told us that they taught false doctrine. Very regular was I at church at that time. For two years I never missed once, morning nor afternoon, and then I only missed it because I got fighting, and had a couple of black eyes". "Fighting," I ask, " how was that?" "Well, you see, we young men used to go and disturb the Methodists and make fun of them, and it was a quarrel that came of such business. In '27 the Methodists built their chapel, and began regular services. About that time the singing in the church was very middling, and did not satisfy me. I went, now and again, to the Methodist service, and their singing opened my heart. I was right melted by it, I forgot all about the false doctrine and joined them.

"Of course I soon found myself in the choir, singing alto and playing my bass viol. After a time I dropped into the post of leader, and a very good band of singers and players we had. Everyone said we had the best singing in the circuit; we used to go abroad to tea meetings; we have sung in "Woodstock Town Hall; whenever we were within reach the chapels wanted us. At the Sunday services we led the hymns, the flute and clarionet played the air, and the 'cello and bassoon made a fine, full bass. There were some twenty of us, all told. Ah! I have seen this room choke full of singers, practising for the next Sunday. In our best time we knew thirty or forty anthems, and had perhaps a couple of hundred tunes written down in our books. Once we sang the 'Hallelujah Chorus.' We got the anthems from the Union Harmonist and other like books. Here is the Harmonist" And the old man takes from its shelf the dusty volume, turning the pages and dilating upon the qualities of each of the anthems, singing a favourite phrase here and there, and pointing with admiration to the runs and fugues. "Do you like the tunes they sing now?" he asks. "To my mind they sing them a great deal too fast. And there's nothing in them. They go:

    Tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum
    Tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum -
there's no rest, or time to catch a breath, no swells, no tasty music like we had in the old tunes and pieces. Then in this new Methodist Tune Book they have altered the harmony of the old tunes. Here and there they have put in an accidental that makes a nasty, disagreeable noise. It doesn't seem to me half as good as the old style. Every Sunday night we sang an anthem. It wasn't part of the service, but we sang it when the service was over, as the people were going out. But (with a chuckle) it wasn't many people as went out while we were singing. As my children grew up they all turned out Methodists and singers. My four sons and my two daughters were all a strength to the choir, and the boys played instruments too."

"Where did you get your tunes?" I ask. " Oh, we collected them here and there; sometimes I went to Oxford and got one or two; once or twice I was in London; another time I went down into Gloucestershire on business, and picked up some tunes there. About twenty years ago they got an harmonium, and then the players gave up. Some had left and others were getting past work. Ten years ago they built a new chapel, and we only use the old one now for the Sunday School." The old man takes me into his parlour, and brings forward a large type copy of "Wesley's Hymns," a copy of the "Centenary Tune Book", and a pair of silver-mounted spectacles, each of which is inscribed as having been presented to him in 1864 in appreciation of his services as leader of the singers at the Wesleyan Chapel for thirty years past(ref2).

"May be you would like to see our old chapel", he continues. I assent, and we stroll down the village street, Daniel stepping firmly and quickly along. The chapel, when we get inside it, certainly seems a tiny one. Daniel says he has seen 300 people in it, but it looks as if 100 would be the maximum. " Come here," he says, as he seats himself in the old square pew to the left of the pulpit, his back against the side wall." This is my seat, I sat here for many a year, and I've had many a blessing in this seat. When there's a meeting in the old place they always let me come here. There was a music desk in this pew, I sat here at the end of it with my bass viol, and along it on either side were the flute, the clarionet, the bassoon, and later times the concertina. Bless you, sir, I do think singing is the grandest worship we can render to the Almighty! Preaching convinces us of sin and converts us, but singing goes straight to God. What a joy singing has been to me ! Did you ever hear Mr. Sankey? I was up at London once and heard him at the Bow Hall. Do you think he is a good singer? He can play the harmonium, and he gives fine expression to his singing, but, do you know, sir, I think from thirty up to sixty years of age I could have sung better than he. I don't praise myself. The Lord has given me a voice and I have used it, and I don't call Mr. Sankey's a pleasant voice."

So Daniel chats on, as he sits in his corner of inspiration. I ask if the choir had any quarrels or "strikes" in his time. "We had a great fall out," he says, "when that gallery was built," and he points to a timber stage at the back of the tiny place, which looks as if it would hold twenty people. "Young people, you know, are jealous. I was chapel steward at the time, and I told them the singers would want one end of the gallery. But there was a woman in the congregation who had given more money than anybody else to the building of the church, and she wanted the whole of it for the nobs. The choir was refused, and we all turned out. I didn't go back for a long time; in fact, the centenary service was the first that brought me into the place again."

Again we move, and find our way to the new chapel, with the harmonium and other signs of a degenerate age. Some tune-books are scattered about the instrument, amongst them one of Daniel's manuscript books, containing about 100 tunes in full score in his hand- writing, alto at the top, tenor next, and treble close above the bass. He turns to tune after tune, and as I play, timing myself to his measured beat, he sings, now piping the alto, now taking up a bass lead with a sonorous voice of a rich quality that is remarkable considering his age. "I can't sing the alto as I could," he says, as if by way of apology for taking to the bass, "my voice gets flat." Nevertheless he is to-day perfectly true in tune, whether in alto or bass. At the high E flat of the alto falsetto and at the deep F of the bass chest voice he is equally at home. His voice quivers somewhat, but the pitch is faultless. He puts in many of the old grace notes which were universally inserted by singers in his time. I notice that whenever, in turning over the pages, he starts a phrase without the instrument, he starts it at its proper pitch. Several times I test this, and he expresses no surprise at being right. "I always did that," he says, "and never used a pitch-pipe to raise the tune. Sometimes I have started a tune before the instruments were ready, and they have always come in and proved my pitch right."

Daniel's heart is in the past. The new tunes, the young people in the choirs, are none of them up to the standard of his early days. He wants time in the tunes to let the voice swell and roll; to give the feelings play. He wants the young people to sing their parts from the music and not by ear; he wants more joyful devotion to psalmody. He never cared for secular music himself, and cannot see how anyone can find it so attractive as psalmody. He is a survival of a past generation, and our young choir members should not be too ready to set him on one side, but may ask themselves what good they can get from his old-fashioned notions and spirit.

Reproduced from Studies in Worshhip Music (Second series) by John Spencer Curwen, pub.1885

 

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