This post is so wrongheaded that I initially had no idea how to start, so I thought about it until I did. I'm going to start with the misstatements of fact, and then procede to the wrongheaded opinions.
- Mr. White states that The Oxford Movement "booted this old nonsense out of [Church of England] liturgical practice", which is true and "cleared the way for the 'high' choral evensong that remains Anglicanism's greatest gift to the world." It was not the Oxford movement that invented choral evensong, but the great 16th century polyphonists (Byrd, Morley, Gibbons...) who are also the people who wrote the first psalm settings from which the West Gallery tradition arose. And the Melstock Band in "Under the Greenwood Tree" was not succeeded by organs and surpliced choirboys but by a harmonium, with a music-box like mechanism allowing anybody who can turn the crank to play an "approved" version of an "approved" hymn.
- He quotes a Hardy poem in which the Vicar refuses to bury the old choirmaster as he had requested because the viols wouldn't be able to play in bad weather. Mr. White claims to see the vicar's point and claims that Hardy did not. Of course, the vicar is a character written by Hardy, so he would not have been able to make a point had Hardy not been able to see it. He may well have disagreed after he saw it, but I'm sure he had more experience listening to viols played in the rain than Mr. White does.
- Mr. White isn't responsible for this, but a commenter with the clearly pseudonymous name of Esmeralda Weatherwax, who may never have heard West Gallery music, equates it with the "worship band" with guitar, keyboard, and drums and banal choruses. The guitar, keyboard and drums may well be in the West Gallery tradition of using the musical talent available in the congregation, but West Gallery music for generations used only the Old and New versions of the metrical psalms, which are anything but banal. I know Francis Roads, one of the founders of the London West Gallery Quire whose performance prompted this post, and he is explicitly trying to use West Gallery music in contemporary liturgical settings to drive the "happy, clappy stuff" out.
- When welcoming the demise of West Gallery music, Mr. White says, "I can't be in a minority there because viols and their like are indeed long gone from Anglican worship." This is a total non-sequitur -- nobody ever claimed that the 19th century Church of England was a democracy, so the disappearance of choirs accompanied by bands of instruments may well have been imposed by a numerical minority.
And now to the matters of opinion:
- Mr. White's brief review of the performance he heard was, "They turned up with a batch of 18th-century-style wind and brass (serpent included), and a lot of lusty voices; and I can't deny that it was fun, sort of. But spiritual, no." I can't dispute this view of this particular performance, since Mr. White was there and I wasn't. But I challenge anyone to listen to "Egypt" or "Poole" and not have a spiritual experience overlaying the dread of death, and the joy embodied in Gibralter surely transcends "fun".
- I see no point in arguing with Mr. White about whether the West Gallery tradition is better or worse than the high choral evensong tradition. If a church has a congregation that wants to praise God with music, the church may well be better off using the musical talents actually available to it than trying to ape a church with a larger budget, a better organ, and a different population of singers. Mr. White and Ms Weatherwax want to dismiss the musical and liturgical value of what the rural churches came up with and I don't.
- Mr. White says, "Let's face it, the 18th and early 19th centuries were not the church's finest moment in this country, and the West Gallery tradition sums up everything that was wrong." I agree that the Church of England, even prodded by the best of the Dissenting tradition, performed badly in a lot of the crises of that time. But I doubt that more little boys in surplices who could sing unaccompanied would have helped.