Pendlebury Item of the Month: A Collection of Glees, Canons, and Catches by John Wall Callcott

As I continue to catalogue rare books in the Pendlebury Library, I’ve recently been working through a batch of catches, canons and glees, all published around the beginning of the 19th century. There have been rather a lot of these volumes passing through my hands lately, which made me think they must represent quite a popular kind of music-making at some point in the past about which I know very little.

[Editor’s note: Introduces James to Susi, and the pleasures of the Black Bear Music Club]

So I thought I’d take the time to find out what catches and glees actually are, as well as bit about their history, in the hope that it may also be of some wider interest beyond the curious cataloguer community.

So this month I’ve chosen the first volume of a collection by a particularly prolific exponent of the glee: John Wall Callcott’s A Collection of Glees, Canons, and Catches, published in 1824.

I have found that when it comes to catches and glees, catches came first. They are a type of comic part-song, usually for three to four male voices, which appeared and became popular in the taverns of Elizabethan England. They were generally sung as rounds, with the parts often arranged so that the words of each part ‘catch’ each other in playful ways as they are combined, as can be heard in this example by Purcell. Morley gave brief instructions on how to compose them in his Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke (1597), and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night includes a scene where the catch Hold thy peace is sung by three members of the cast.

The catch was primarily known for its humour. They were generally a celebration of carefree male leisure time and their words were usually on such subjects as drink, tobacco, music, poor service in taverns and, especially, sex, all sung about with schoolboyish gusto. Henry Purcell (1659-1695) was one of the most prolific of the early catch writers, although his catches are usually remarked upon today as a kind of amusing historical footnote to music history, especially noteworthy for their lewd content.

By the mid-18th century, informal singing groups in taverns across the country were increasingly organising themselves as official catch clubs. But by this point, this was generally thought of as an attempt to revitalise a genre that many saw as outdated. The unbuttoned heartiness and uncouthness of the catch were increasingly out of step with the changing sensibilities and manners of polite society, and as such, these catch clubs actually ended up doing more to foster and promote glees.

Largely influenced by earlier madrigals, glees were through-composed part songs with a more genteel ethos and subject matter. From the late eighteenth century ‘inappropriate’ catches were excluded from anthologies, glees dominated, and many compilations were no longer exclusively male in both their performers or target audience. And thus it is from this later stage in the history of catches and glees that our chosen item dates.

The most famous of these new part-song clubs was the Noblemen and Gentlemen’s Catch Club founded in 1751. Aside from their rather exclusive meetings (waiting lists were long and members were often aristocratic) the club also initiated an annual competition for the best new glees and catches, which encouraged an outpouring of part songs amongst English composers.

And it was John Wall Callcott (1766-1821) in particular—the composer of the item I’ve chosen to highlight here— who dominated the annual Catch Club competitions. Indeed, his career as a composer was launched when he won three of the Club’s prizes simultaneously in 1785. He became a prolific writer of catches and glees and in 1787 he submitted no less than 120 entries.

And, indeed, the collection I have chosen here is just one of many currently held by the Pendlebury Library, reflecting a sizeable chunk of Calcott’s prolific output. It’s one of the things I like most about cataloguing that so often an item can reveal a huge amount of music from a near-forgotten tradition of music making, in this case one that was popular for over two centuries.


About jamesluff

Senior library assistant at the Pendlebury Library of Music, University of Cambridge
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