top of page

EXPLORING MUSIC :''The Spirit Of Good Times'' /Fill Your Glasses

The MHS Review 394 Vol. 11 No. 16, 1987

click on the cover to return to the table of contents

Richard Carlin


not yet released.png

Social drinking, since the dawn of time, has been one of man's most important ritualized behaviors. From the revels of Bacchus to today's chug-a-lug fraternity brawls, drinking has celebrated the bonds of friendship. Good drinking in good company has always inspired good talk, and freely flowing words have led to song. Toasts--unique rhymed recitations, centering on the happiness we feel when we are together with friends--have been known for centuries in many different cultures. It is only natural that these stylized recited poems should themselves inspire music. And so the drinking song, from its humble folk roots through the highly developed glees heard on this recording, became an integral part of the social celebration.

Glees can be both happy and sad, although certainly sprightly lyrics and melodies predominate in this form. The modern glee began to take form in the last years of the 17th century and came into full flower during the 18th century, years when gentlemen such as Dr. Jonson and Addison and Steele met in pubs, to revel in strong discourse, full-voiced song, and hearty ale and beer.

The glee is a part song, consisting of at least three parts; traditionally, it is performed without accompaniment. On this recording, you will hear many of the finest 18th and ear­ly 19th century glees sung in their original style. You will also hear music performed on the serpent, an instrument that had its greatest popularity some 100 years earlier. The serpent--which takes its name from its S-­shaped body--has the sound quality of the trombone, with a slightly sweeter edge. Talented performers on the instrument pro­duced great volumes of sound, and it became a favorite instrument in rural English churches because of its carrying power. The blending of instruments and voices on this recording is a modern innovation, but one in keeping with the spirit of the music itself.

Some trace the roots of the glee back to the madrigal, also an unaccompanied vocal com­position performed in parts. However, while the older madrigals are based on the church modes, and share with other medieval music a stark tonality that is strange to modern ears, the glee is firmly based in modern concepts of harmony. The tunes are all in either major or minor keys that arc readily recognizablc to us today.

While the madrigal takes one or two melodies and subjects them to elaborate ex­position, through dense counterpoint and variation, the glee usually features many simpler melodies that are not highly developed. The most striking difference is the richness of harmony that is heard in the glee, which is almost totally absent from the earlier madrigal. While the madrigal features long melody lines that overlap to form a musical canvas, the glee is busier, more lively, with short bursts of melodies, rapid changes in tem­po and key, and glowing harmonies.

The glee composers were drawn from the same society of gentlemen who performed the songs. These were primarily men who per­formed in the bustling London music scene, many of whom were employed as church organists. The first great glee composer was Samuel Webbe (1740-1816), whose lifetime spanned the period when the glee enjoyed its greatest popularity. Apprenticed as a cabinet­maker at age 11, Webbe tired of the grueling work and soon took a position as a music copyist in a publishing firm. A talent for com­position emerged, and at the age of 26 Webbe was awarded a medal by the London-based Catch Club. This organization of well-to-do singers celebrated the canon or round. Webbe was welcomed into the organization as secretary, and when members formed the Glee Club in 1787, he became its librarian and favorite-son composer.

The music of Webbe and his contem­poraries shows how far the lowly drinking song had come in the rarefied atmosphere of the social singing clubs. Although the topics center on friendly drinking, the words and melodies have all the rough edges of a rowdy night at the pub softened to soothe even the most delicate ear. Obviously, the subject of drink and friendship became highly conven­tionalized, and the glee reflected the finer tastes of the aristocrat, rather than the bawdy barroom dweller. However, the spirit of good times continues to shine through in this uni­quely English musical expression.

Review of Fill Your Glasses Convivial English Glees Pg 61

bottom of page