The following description is available as spoken word in the 'Listen' section.
The George Inn was one of York's most bustling establishments and where the York Musick Club used to meet around 1724-1729. Gentlemen's music clubs such as this one could be found in taverns and inns across the country. According to music-historian Roz Southey, these clubs were a chance for gentlemen ‘to escape the cares of business and the home, and to enjoy the twin pleasures of company and music’ (1).
The Great Room of the inn was used for instrumental music and concerts, but the key activity for these societies (besides drinking, of course) was singing.
At this time, York had two music societies not associated with the church - one that met at the Minster Yard Assembly Rooms, and the one that met here at the George on a Tuesday evening.
Controversially, in 1728, the Minster Yard society began to admit women, much to the dismay of the society's gentlemen members who were required to clean up their act - in the local paper they complained that ‘filthy smoking, muddy ale and wine’ were now all forbidden during singing (2). At the George, however, no women were allowed! Members could smoke and drink muddy ale to their heart’s content.
The two main types of song popular at these clubs were the glee and the catch. These are unaccompanied songs, composed for anything between three and six solo voices, normally intended to be performed by male voices. Glees and catches are fairly similar, particularly in their conviviality, although the main difference is in their performance and the associations they hold.
Glees are written to be sung from start to finish, as expected, whereas the key characteristic of the catch is that singers enter with the same melody at staggered intervals, and the final line of the song can be continued straight into the beginning again - the end of the song ‘catches’ back onto the start, much like a round (think of 'London's Burning' or 'Frère Jacques').
Whilst glees were associated with the gentry and formal music-making, catches were generally a more tawdry affair, and it was hard to separate them from their reputation for being sung merrily in taverns, inns, pubs, and alehouses across the country. Their texts were set to music in such a way that particular words would stand out in each part when sung, creating an additional line - seemingly innocently - that was often heavily suggestive.
Members of the York Musick Club which met at the George would have performed catches, such as this one written by Henry Purcell and performed by the local group Eboracum Baroque (an extract can be heard at the end of the audio narrative in the 'Listen' section). For this catch, three voices sing:
“Of honest malt liquor let English boys sing, A pox take French claret we'll drink no such thing.”
Music kindly provided by Eboracum Baroque. For more information about the group, head to their website.
- Southey, Roz. Music-making in North-East England During the Eighteenth Century (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), p.80.
- ‘Semel in Anno ridet apollo’. York Journal, 23 January, 1728. Quoted in Chevil, Elizabeth Jane. Music Societies and Musical Life in Old Foundation Cathedral Cities (doctoral dissertation, University of London, 1993), p.78.