Christmas music like you've never heard before

The Gladly Solemn Sound in concert at The Gregson Centre, Lancaster
The Gladly Solemn Sound in concert at The Gregson Centre, Lancaster
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Still singing after 27 years - it is a record to be proud of for a choir which specialises in little-known 18th century music which boasts unusual harmonies. You can hear its rousing work this Christmas at two county venues as Fiona Finch reports.

Being “gladly solemn” is one of Paul Guppy’s special skills.

Paul Guppy, choir leader and founder of The Gladly Solemn Sound

Paul Guppy, choir leader and founder of The Gladly Solemn Sound

In fact it’s not just his skill, it is one 21 other people – all singers – have perfected too.

Each week they meet in Lancaster to rehearse – one travelling from Huddersfield, two from further north in Cumbria and the rest, face a shorter journey, residing in locations ranging from Lancaster to Scorton and Dolphinholme.

They are all members of Paul’s unusual choir called The Gladly Solemn Sound.

The name is drawn from a Charles Wesley hymn which exhorted singers to rejoice in the said sound.

CD AWake Ye Mortals All by The Gladly Solemn Sound

CD AWake Ye Mortals All by The Gladly Solemn Sound

But to the modern ear, schooled, if at all, in Victorian hymns, this is a less restrained, less formal and much more exuberant sound which rings out round the venues they perform at.

These can range from country churches and community halls to the Friends’ Meeting House in Lancaster.

This Christmas there will be two opportunities to hear the choir sing live.

It will be a chance to take a step back in time to enjoy joyful tunes from the 18th and early 19th century, including many with Lancashire roots.

Copy of the re-discovered tune 'Abbeystead'

Copy of the re-discovered tune 'Abbeystead'

Paul, a retired musical instrument repairer from Lancaster, chanced upon what is called West Gallery music many years ago while listening to a folk programme on Radio Two.

He explained the appeal of the music, contrasting it with the memory of church music some carry from childhood: “This music is a different style. It’s more of an 18th century than 19th century style. It is frequently very decorative – i.e. florid and lively. Think of the Baroque era of music, Handel particularly. It derives very often from that style of writing.”

The group sings mostly unaccompanied, but always have some musicians playing in their Christmas concerts. West Gallery music features words from the Old Testament Book of Psalms.

Paul says the choir have not got a religious message to share. He is not a churchgoer, but is fascinated by the music: “It was written in that rather jaunty style which was popular at the time ... it wasn’t so popular among the church hierarchy.”

'Repeat Their Sounding Joy. Music from a Wyresdale West Gallery' CD recorded by The Gladly Solemn Sound at the Shepherd's Church, Abbeystead

'Repeat Their Sounding Joy. Music from a Wyresdale West Gallery' CD recorded by The Gladly Solemn Sound at the Shepherd's Church, Abbeystead

He continued: “Round about 1800 the custom was to be accompanied by a band in the church with any kind of instruments that were available – clarinet flutes, cello, bassoon. They would all sit together, quite often in a gallery at the west end of the church hence the name.

“It was very much a performance situation, but not always suited for congregations to join in as it as a bit difficult for congregations to sing. The instruments were very often provided by the church, apart from the fiddles. The violins were usually owned by the players – they also played at dances and parties. The reason why they used these instruments is because the church organs were very largely destroyed after the civil war in the 17th century when the Puritans didn’t like church music.”

It was one of the choir’s founder members, Alan Nowell, who discovered what are now known as the Winder manuscripts from Wyresdale while researching about the Wyresdale Greensleeves dance.

Paul said: “He came across the choir books by accident.. I immediately went up and had a look and realised it was a gold mine. I recognised the music was the kind of stuff we were interested in. They still are the property of the Winder family – the hereditary music of Wyresdale.”

He cherishes the hope that other scores will be discovered and continues his own researches.He said: "There are places in Cumbria where old books are still around - there's nothing else in this area as far as I know. I've spent a lot of time trying to track down a lost manuscript from Millom - it's very tantalising, there are references to it and descriptions."

For Paul a particular local favourite is Abbeystead, a setting of Psalm 37. He recalled that historically some choirs sang “at” individuals in the congregation, registering a special protest, for example when a landlord evicted a tenant.

For his choir it is different: “We’re there to entertain people because there’s so much enjoyment to be had – both to listen to and take part in.”

Paul's wife Morgan agrees. She sings in the choir alongside her twin sister Barbara and said: "It’s just such good fun to sing.”

To anyone coming to their Christmas concerts he says: "First and foremost I hope they have a very enjoyable musical two hours, (that) they just enjoy the music because it is good music and well performed, they feel entertained and might have learned something about musical history which lots of people don’t know about."

• The Gladly Solemn Sound was launched 27 years ago this week with 12 members.

• The choir’s Christmas concerts are on Thursday, December 19 at 8pm at Christ Church, Over Wyresdale, also known as The Shepherd’s Church, Abbeystead and on Sunday December 22 at the Friends’ Meeting House, Lancaster at 7.30pm.

• The group has recorded three CDs. Repeat Their Sounding Joy - Music From A Wyresdale West Gallery was recorded in The Shepherd’s Church and features music from local manuscripts - the Winder manuscripts and work by John Rhodes. The group’s other two CDS are Awake Ye Mortals All - West Gallery Christmas Music and A Different Lore - The Antient Psalmody of Cumbria. CDs cost £11.50. See gladlysolemn.co.uk