We may imagine that the zealous followers of Luther and Calvin at first often sang their psalms in unison and private with any available accompaniment, or none. But as their congregations grew those who were musical as well as devout wished for something better. The story of Louis Bourgeois is typical: after serving a term of imprisonment for attempted innovations he was opposed by the dour Calvin for wishing to arrange the singing of the Huguenot Church at Geneva in four parts, and finally dismissed.
All People that on Earth do Dwell:, tune- Old One Hundredth. King's College choir. Music details HERE.
By the middle of the seventeenth century four-part singing was, where possible, looked upon as normal: Este's Book of Psalms of 1592, like Playford's first book, 1671, is arranged for a four-part choir.
This, of course, did not imply that congregations sang in four parts, but that there was an accompaniment and probably some body of singers more skilled than the rest. In 1677 Playford published his book with settings in three parts; in this book, as in subsequent compilations, the melody and bass are set out in one stave system, the third part, or 'medius' being given separately. The accompanist, where such existed, would play from the upper staves, filling in the harmonies in the manner of the time. Members of the congregation interested enough to buy the book would perhaps put in a little bass or 'medius' as it suited their voices; but there was undoubtedly a decline among cultured people in musical skill which worsened during the following hundred years, if we are to judge by the increasing number of pages given over at the beginning of every tune-book to an explanation of the rudiments of music.
[Possibly, of course, the musical prefaces were meant to instruct the less cultured members of congregations who had presumably never been able to read music.]
Playford, in his preface to the 1677 book, says:
In our late Forefathers' days (upon the Restauration of our Church to its Primitive Purity and Discipline) it was, That some holy and godly Men brought the present use and manner of singing Psalms into the Publick Service of our Church, following herein the Examples of the Reformed Churches in France and Germany. But Time and long Use hath much abated the wonted Reverence and Estimation it had for about 100 Years after this Establishment.
Playford, in fact, even had misgivings about some of his three-part settings, and thinking they might be hard to learn says:
Likewise all such Psalms and Hymns whose Tunes are long, and may seem difficult to some, have Directions over them to be sung to other short Common Tunes.
Rude gallery choirs were being formed in the country churches and we may suppose their musical knowledge went little further than Playford's short introduction; some, however, may have taken to heart his quaint injunction:
These are ye most usefull Instructions I think necessary for a Young Beginer (being confin'd to so little room) but for a farther knowledge in this excellent Science I referr you to Mr PLAYFORDs Introduction,
i.e. his famous Introduction to the Skill of Music. One may suppose that few of the congregation, then as now, took the trouble to acquaint themselves with the paraphernalia of the rudiments.
Until after the Restoration England had been backward in supplying organs to its churches; it was not, indeed, until the middle of the nineteenth century that harmoniums began, as in Hardy's novel, Under the Greenwood Tree, to oust the gallery orchestras. It is only in our own time that organs are to be found in almost every village church. During the eighteenth century the accompaniment was often left to a solitary bassoon playing the bass, the gallery choir, we hope and presume, singing in four parts. Playford is more optimistic when he explains:
The Church-Tune is placed in the Treble Part, (which is the Cantus) with the Bass under it, as most proper to joyn Voice and Instrument together, according to Holy David's prescription, Psal. 144.9. And since so many of our Churches are lately furnished with Organs, it will also be useful for the Organist; and likewise for such Students in the Universities as shall practise Song, to sing to a Lute or Viol.
By 1761, Arnold in his Compleat Psalmodist gives a long list, with prices and manufacturers, of instruments which may be used, though whether he is quoting instruments actually used in church is not quite clear. Possibly his guitar was meant for private devotions only, but he is certainly enthusiastic about 'Church Organs of the Machinery Kind', which though useful could hardly be said to enhance the artistic side of worship. They are, he tells us,
so contrived as to play (having Barrels fitted to them for that Purpose) a set of Voluntaries, also most of our ancient Psalm-Tunes, with their Givings-out and Interludes, ec. which are very commodious for Churches in remote Country Places, where an Organist is not easily to be had or maintained, and may also be played by a Person (unskill'd in Music) who is only to turn a Winch round, which causes the Barrels to play the Tunes they are set to; which Organs also generally have, or should have, a Set of Keys to them, that a Person might play on them at Pleasure, notwithstanding the Barrels, ec.
He mentions 'Box-Organs' 'of a very small Structure', which
may be had of the Organ-Builders, also at most Music-Shops in London, from ten to fourteen Guineas Price ...; of this Kind, as well as of the large Organs, you may have Tunes of your own chusing set upon the Barrels, and as many Barrels with different Sets of Tunes (made to put in and take out alternately) as you please.
He then mentions the harpsichord, 'double-keyed' or 'common' (i.e. with two manuals or one), and 'the Spinnets', with the 'Guittar, a very pretty and gentle Instrument, and now very much in Vogue' and goes on:
The Bassoon being now in great Request in many Country Churches, I presume therefore, it will not be improper for me here to acquaint my Reader, that it makes an exceeding good Addition to the Harmony of a Choir of Singers, where there is no Organ, as most of the Bass Notes may be played on it, in the Octave below the Bass Voices: The Bassoon requires a pretty strong Breath to blow it, but it is not at all difficult to learn to play upon, all the Instructions, belonging to it, being only a Scale of its Notes.
The Interludes, which the barrel organ was competent to play, were to be heard performed between the lines of hymns, entirely ruining both the melodic structure and the text of the hymn. In Stopford's edition of Chetham, 1811, one of these interludes is written out thus:
The Trumpet appears after every line and a note is added:
The Air of this Hymn is generally sung over first as a Solo, and repeated in full Chorus.
Arnold remarks that 'the Reading Psalms being ended a short Voluntary is performed on the Organ,' a practice now completely discontinued.
Before the advent of Sunday Schools towards the end of the eighteenth century many country congregations were doubtless unable to read and the text of the hymn to be sung was often read out by the parish clerk whose duties included those of precentor. Despite his usually humble origin, he chose the tunes, announced the hymns and was the object of hopeful admonitions in charges delivered by the bishops to their clergy.
The picture is indeed not very elevating. Nor was the music sung any better. Flighty three-in-a-bar tunes abounded and every tune-book is careful to mark in the 'trillo's' much beloved of the singers of the time as a mark of musical breeding and acquaintance with the opera. Such music was not easily eradicated; then as now your hymn-singer was pious but stubborn. Amateurs in composition thought, as they still do, that their piety absolved them from keeping the inexorable rules of harmony. Arnold roundly castigates them:
I could have wished, for their own Sakes, they had kept their Compositions to themselves, and that they never had exposed their Ignorance by exhibiting their Compositions to the public View; that they had followed the Art of teaching the Compositions of their Superiors, instead of composing such whimsical flighty Psalm-Tunes (as several Authors late have) since most of their Compositions cannot be reckoned any other than an unconnected Jumble of Notes confusedly put together, being founded on no musical Rules ...