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Catch it if you can: 19th century gleeful music club's secrets unlocked

4 September 2015

Ever wondered what the great and the good did to keep themselves amused in the 19th century? A new exhibition sheds light on the matter with a collection of artefacts that paint a fascinating picture of how one particularly musical group kicked up their heels.

As part of Heritage Open Days - in which buildings normally closed to the public open their doors for the day - the Beaney House of Art & Knowledge in Canterbury will host a special exhibition about the famous Canterbury Catch Club allowing visitors to interact with their local musical past for the first time in over a hundred years.

On Saturday 12 September as well as seeing this unique history first hand, you will also be able to hear it when at 12 noon there will be a special performance from 'Cantuar', who will be 'singing the exhibition'.

Below, the exhibition’s curator, CHRIS PRICE, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Music and Performing Arts at Canterbury Christ Church University and a gentleman singer in the Canterbury Cathedral choir, tells us more about this unique window into a bygone era.

The Light Cigar (detail) - The Beaney House of Art & Knowledge
The Good Subjects (detail) - - The Beaney House of Art & Knowledge

Canterbury Catch Club 1779-1865: its music and musicians

Chris Price

The Canterbury Catch Club lasted for almost a century, from 1779 to 1865. Every Wednesday evening from September to March, members enjoyed a thoroughly convivial evening of music to the accompaniment of mutton pies, ale and tobacco. And when the serious music was done, the evening would carry on for many hours more with the singing of catches – witty, often saucy songs popular with the English drinking classes for several centuries.

The material on display is drawn from a huge collection of vocal and instrumental music (some 3,000 vocal pieces alone). There are a number of paintings: an impressive representation of St Cecilia along with portraits of Handel and Corelli and a dozen club members.

Beautifully bound books, hand-written in the copperplate script of the age, record the minutes of weekly committee meetings from 1802 to 1865.

Most of this has not been visible for at least 150 years. Visitors are encouraged to take time to enjoy the beauty of the books and read the remarkable story of this fascinating slice of Canterbury’s cultural life. They can use the Listening Stations to listen to specially recorded examples of the music and watch introductory videos.

The archive offers a fascinating glimpse of the city’s social and cultural life
Chris Price

The archive offers a fascinating glimpse of the city’s social and cultural life. But this story may have something to say about the character of Englishness. The life-span of the Catch Club saw a period of seismic change comparable to our own: an economic shift from an agrarian to an industrial base, with the accompanying loss of a sense of community for much of the population; the increasing secularisation of society, against which the established church failed to offer a coherent response, riven as it was with schisms of its own; and the apparent decline of Britain as an international power, with the loss of the American colonies and the terrible threat from France.

In the context of all this, the Catch Club may seem blithely naive, but its earnest attempts to create a close-knit community of its own, with a music which self-consciously shored up a sense of identity – cultural and national – and which crucially depended on members’ participation for its strength and longevity, may have something to say to us today.

Canterbury Catch Club 1779-1865: its music and musicians. 12 September to 8 November 2015

Original music was composed for the Canterbury Catch Club
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Introduction to history of Canterbury Catch Club

Introduction to history of Canterbury Catch Club

History on the doorstep

Hundreds of buildings that are normally closed to the public open their doors from 10-13 September for Heritage Open Days, which aims to help local communities discover the hidden history on their doorstep.

While more familiar buildings like cinemas, theatres, pubs and hotels reveal hidden areas; civic and council organisations put on talks, tours, vintage fairs and family activities.

This year, there's a record-breaking 4,800 events taking place around England, all of them free. Last year three million visitors took part.

Find a free event near you by visitng Heritage Open Days, a Get Creative Champion.

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