As the season of turkey and stuffing looms in our minds, there could be no more homey a disc for Christmas than this unusual collection championing the village genius of local composers, whose settings of carols and hymns kept the congregations warm all those years ago—a time when the commercial excesses of today's Christmas were unknown. Modern clichés about community values have nothing in comparison to the humble pride and unity of villagers and townsfolk who gathered to sing settings that were the labour of love and skill on the part of the local composer or choirmaster ... or even excise officer! The foibles and fondness of community life combine here with all manner of interesting tastes in compositional technique, be it idiosyncratic fugal treatment or instrumentation designed to keep busy whatever musicians could be mustered. The organ on the recording dates from 1789 and the old temperament is used.
Few country churches in the eighteenth century had organs, so early psalmody groups sang unaccompanied, often using a lively and idiosyncratic repertory of fuguing tunes, in which homophonic and contrapuntal sections alternate. Many provincial composers such as Joseph Key, an excise officer from Nuneaton, and Joseph Stephenson, clerk of the Unitarian Chapel in Poole for forty-five years, provided music specifically for such groups. Stephenson’s fuguing tunes were particularly popular with rural singers and remained in the repertory well into the nineteenth century; his folk-like setting of ‘Arise and hail the sacred day’ may have been the one referred to by Thomas Hardy in Under the Greenwood Tree, as it is included in a manuscript book owned by Hardy’s grandfather.
Later in the eighteenth century small groups of string and wind instruments began to be used to support country choirs, and composers such as Joseph Key wrote instrumental passages or ‘symphonies’ to be played at the beginning of a piece, and between the verses of psalms and hymns or between the sections of anthems. Unfortunately, there is no surviving symphony for ‘Come celebrate th’ auspicious morn’; the one used on this recording was composed by Peter Holman in the style of those that survive elsewhere in Key’s output. ‘Come celebrate th’ auspicious morn’ uses a characteristic pattern in which a duple-time verse for solo voice and bass is contrasted with a triple-time choral refrain.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century some composers began to specify particular instruments, and to use them in imaginative ways. A good example is ‘In Bethlem fields’ by the Andover composer Thomas Tremain, scored for soloists, chorus, two clarinets and two bassoons. In the charming opening duet the instruments provide a warbling accompaniment in the galant style, while in the following chorus the clarinets surround the choir with virtuoso runs in thirds, perhaps portraying the flight of angels. The setting of ‘Angels from the realms of glory’ arranged by Thomas Williams of Llanidloes also uses a wind band accompaniment, though the music comes from a very different milieu: it is an adaptation of the quartet ‘Ah perche di quell ingrato’ from Stephen Storace’s Italian opera La cameriera astuta, first performed in London in March 1788. The piece, scored for pairs of flutes, clarinets, oboes, horns and bassoons, was re-used in 1790 in Storace’s English opera No Song, no Supper and was published in full score – which is presumably how Thomas Williams encountered it. Williams contributed greatly to the development of Welsh choral singing during the nineteenth century, and popularised music by Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and others.
There is evidence that provincial choirs were sometimes accompanied by wind bands drawn from local militias. We have imagined such an occasion for the performance of two pieces: the stirring tune ‘Nativity’ by the Canterbury bookseller William Marsh, and the delightful setting of ‘Hark! What mean those holy voices?’. The latter sounds as if it is an early nineteenth-century arrangement of a passage from the slow movement of a Classical symphony, though we have been unable to identify the model or find a source earlier than the late nineteenth century. The anthem ‘The people that walked in darkness’ by John Hill of Rugby has obbligato instrumental parts, but no particular instruments are specified; we have allocated them to strings and C clarinets with bassoon. It is to Hill’s credit that he could set a familiar Handelian text without quoting directly from Messiah. Like many of the more accomplished psalmody composers, Hill was clearly aware of the English cathedral tradition: the duet ‘Of the increase of his government’ is a fine essay in the style of Purcell’s followers, such as John Weldon and William Croft.
Early psalmody composers were usually artisans such as shoemakers or tailors, though some became so successful that they became full-time musicians. For instance, William Matthews of Nottingham, choir master of St Mary’s, Nottingham, started out as a stocking-maker. His ‘How beauteous are their feet’ is richly scored for strings, flutes, clarinets and B flat trumpet and consists of a solo in pastorale style and a Haydnesque choral refrain. The anthem by John Fawcett represents the moment when psalmody began to merge with, and be replaced by, the Victorian choral society repertory. Fawcett was originally a Kendal shoemaker, and was self-taught as a musician. His early works belong to the north of England psalmody tradition, but he gradually became more assured and ambitious as, presumably, he came into contact with the choral works of Handel and Haydn. By the time he wrote ‘Strike! Seraphs, strike your harps of gold’ in about 1840 he had moved to Bolton, had turned to music full time, and was directing the Bolton Philharmonic Society; the work is written for soloists, choir and full Classical orchestra.
The setting of Adeste Fideles or ‘O come, all ye faithful’ by Vincent Novello is laid out for similar forces, but comes from a very different tradition. The tune comes from eighteenth-century English Catholic circles; Novello was one of the most important English Catholic musicians of the early nineteenth century – he was the son of an immigrant Italian pastry-cook – and was mainly responsible for introducing the church music of Haydn and Mozart to England. His setting is unusual in that each section repeat and each verse is set to different music, so that it is in effect a set of continuous choral and orchestral variations.
Several of the pieces on this CD come from the repertory of urban rather than rural churches, in which the organ was the normal accompaniment. In two pieces the choir leads the singing of a congregation (drawn largely from choirs in the Colchester area), and the organist ‘gives out’ (plays over) the tune and plays interludes between the verses, giving everyone time to recover their breath and reflect on the words. For the original version of ‘Christians, awake’ by John Wainwright, organist of Manchester Collegiate Church, we have used thematically unrelated interludes by the London organist Starling Goodwin. Unlike the version normally used today, the piece is not in four-part harmony but is mostly a duet with continuo; the choir and the congregation are restricted to the last line of each verse. The hymn ‘Helmsley’ has a complicated history. The tune seems originally to have been a dance added to Thomas Arne’s opera Thomas and Sally of 1760, and was apparently first altered to fit the words ‘Lo! He comes with clouds descending’ by Thomas Olivers, a follower of the Wesleys; it was adapted to its present form by the Reverend Martin Madan, chaplain of the Lock Hospital in London. We have chosen a fine three-part arrangement by Edward Miller, organist of Doncaster parish church, and have added organ interludes by Samuel Wesley, two of which were written specifically for the hymn.
The origin of ‘Joy to the world’ or ‘Comfort’ is a mystery. It is often attributed to Handel, presumably because of the slight resemblance to ‘Comfort ye’ from Messiah, though the opening is also similar to the beginning of an oboe concerto by Giuseppe Sammartini, published in 1752. The arrangement by Charles Rider of Manchester sets the second half of the tune in counterpoint, suggesting that the piece was originally a simple fuguing tune. We have yet to discover who wrote the Handelian setting of ‘Light of those whose dreary dwelling’, arranged by Thomas Butts, an associate of John Wesley. Both this and the charming setting of ‘Hosanna to King David’s son’ by Richard Taylor of Chester, a painter, music-seller and religious and political dissenter, are performed one-to-a-part with organ continuo, reflecting the domestic use of the psalmody repertory. The rather Purcellian trio ‘Angelic hymns thy natal day’ comes from Benjamin Cooke’s Ode for Christmas, first performed by the Academy of Ancient Music in 1763. Much of the effect of the piece come from its imaginative scoring, with a tenor rather than a bass at the bottom of the vocal ensemble, and pairs of flutes and muted violins. The London organist Thomas Adams was a prominent English exponent of J S Bach, and in his variations on ‘Adeste Fideles’ he combined a Mozartian melodic and harmonic idiom with Bachian counterpoint, passing the tune successively through all the parts.
Sally Drage & Peter Holman © 2003
Sally Drage & Peter Holman © 2003