Our Instruments

The instruments available to the church bands were relatively few in number, and reflected those used for the social and, to a lesser extent, the military music of the period. The Clarinet, though quite a recent invention, was popular, and Fiddles and Flutes were around in plenty; the German Flute, as it was generally known, and the Violin had been the instrument of the gentleman, played to the Harpsichord, Clavichord, or Square Piano accompaniment of a lady, but had permeated society at almost all levels. These two particularly were associated with the social music of the period and were played by enough people to provide good availability for church bands. They were also popular with congregations, who associated them with happy social music.

The bass line was provided by the Serpent or a Bass Horn, a slightly later form of straightened-out Serpent. In the earliest West Gallery bands there may have been no more than a Serpent supporting the bass-line, an echo of its origins in France where it was invented by a priest in the sixteenth century to do just that.

Returning soldiers and militiamen brought to the gallery bands their Ophicleides (a brass instrument, the fusion of the Serpent and Bass Horn) and Keyed Bugles. These were the bass and soprano instruments respectively of the Serpent family.

In her ‘The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton’ of 1858 George Eliot wrote of ‘an anthem in which the keyed bugles always ran away at a great pace with the bassoon every now and again booming a flying shot after them.’  There is significance in the military analogy she uses to describe what she heard each Sunday in her church.


German Flute and Clarinet

German Flute (left) and Clarinet

Military bands also provided the Fife (a small, high-pitched, transverse flute) and the Flagelette, although that was also an orchestral instrument, the descendant of the recorder, which had all but been forgotten in England by this time.

Of the double-reed instruments, the Bassoon was most frequently recorded in the church accounts that relate to gallery bands. Perhaps this is because it required replacement reeds to be paid for fairly frequently, but its popularity may well have been due to the fact that it was much more controllable than the sometimes notoriously out-of-tune Serpent.

Bass Horn and Serpent

Bass Horn (left) and Serpent