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The English Orpheus

While shepherds watched

Christmas Music from English Parish Churches, 1740–1830
Psalmody, The Parley of Instruments, Peter Holman (conductor)
Download only
Previously issued on CDA66924
Label: Helios
Recording details: July 1996
St Mary the Virgin, Stoke-by-Nayland, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by Martin Compton
Engineered by Antony Howell & Julian Millard
Release date: October 2008
Total duration: 66 minutes 13 seconds

Cover artwork: Snow Scene by H H H Horsley (1807-1890)
John Noott Galleries, Broadway, Worcestershire / Bridgeman Images

A Christmas record with a difference! This jolly disc revives the little-known tradition of 'gallery music', suppressed by the Oxford Movement in early Victorian times because it was too cheerful. The title track, for instance, is sung to the tune of 'On Ilkley Moor baht 'at'. Some of the tunes, and almost all of the texts, will be familiar, and all fifteen works vitally capture the enthusiasm of an age newly emerging from a century which had seen Puritanical rejection of the pomp of Christmas, a time, indeed, when 'While shepherds watched' had been the only Christmas hymn tolerated by the Church of England.

The performances on this recording are not meant to be an exact reconstruction of the way these pieces might have been performed by particular church or chapel choirs at the time; it would be futile to try to reproduce the low standards of ensemble and intonation reported in many contemporary descriptions of country choirs. In general, we have tried to find a performing style that draws on the best practice of the time, and matches the directness and vigour of much of the music. The vocal group Psalmody was formed especially for this recording and consists of professional singers, teachers and students drawn mainly from the Colchester area.


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Christmas was one of the most important ceremonies of the medieval English church, but seventeenth-century Puritans regarded it as a superstition, and even tried to replace Christmas Day with a fast. Although the feast continued to be celebrated outside the church, and was revived with the rest of the Anglican liturgy after the Restoration, it did not regain its full significance until the nineteenth century. As a result, most familiar Christmas carols come either from the Middle Ages or the Victorian period. In fact, ‘While shepherds watched’ (the ‘Song of the Angels at the Nativity of our Blessed Saviour’) was the only Christmas hymn accepted in the Church of England between 1700, when it appeared in a supplement to the New Version of the Psalms of David by Nicholas Brady and Nahum Tate, and 1782, when it was joined by ‘High let us swell our tuneful notes’ and a version of Charles Wesley’s hymn for Christmas Day, ‘Hark! the herald angels sing’.

‘While shepherds watched’ is in the ‘common measure’ used for many metrical psalms, and this meant that hundreds of tunes came to be associated with it in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Most of them come from the enormous forgotten repertory used in English parish churches between about 1750 and 1850. It has come to be called ‘gallery music’ because it was often performed by groups of voices and instruments in the west galleries of country parish churches. But not all parish choirs sang in galleries, not all the composers were provincial or rural, and not all of it comes from the Church of England; there is a related but distinctive repertory of Nonconformist music. This recording is a wide-ranging survey of Christmas music from these traditions, roughly in chronological order and ranging from the earliest rural psalmody to sophisticated pieces in the parish church idiom by London composers, and to extended and elaborate Christmas anthems by provincial composers.

The congregational singing of metrical psalms in parish churches had become so apathetic and unrhythmical by the late seventeenth century that amateur choirs were formed to improve standards and revitalize worship. This produced unforeseen results, for the choirs eventually silenced the congregations they had been originally formed to support. As they grew more competent they became more ambitious, and began to perform polyphonic psalm settings and anthems that were too complex to allow the participation of ordinary parishioners. Much of this new repertoire was collected or composed by itinerant country singing teachers, such as Michael Beesly of Blewbury in Oxfordshire. He engraved A Collection of 20 New Psalm Tunes (1746) himself, and included some of the earliest examples of the ‘fuguing tune’, a type of psalm setting in which a chordal passage is often followed by a series of contrapuntal entries. The one recorded here, with its attractive change of time, was originally composed for Psalm 8, though it eventually became more associated with ‘While shepherds watched’.

When Beesly was active rural choirs normally sang unaccompanied. Organs were installed in many urban parish churches in the course of the eighteenth century, though only about ten per cent of country churches had an organ by 1800. Instead, rural choirs began to be accompanied by small, varied bands of instrumentalists who supported the singers and played interludes or ‘symphonies’ between the verses of the psalms and hymns. Our performance of Beesly’s fuguing tune reflects this later performing tradition: the choir is supported by two flutes and strings, who play over the first section of the piece as a symphony. We have adopted a similar approach for the fuguing tune ‘Cranbrook’ by Thomas Clark, first published in 1805. Clark, a cordwainer and freeman of the city of Canterbury and the author of at least twenty-eight books of psalmody, originally set Cranbrook to ‘Grace, ’tis a charming sound’, but it was later used for ‘While shepherds watched’, and later still its tune was used for the Yorkshire song, ‘On Ilkley Moor baht’ at’—an unusual reversal of the process by which secular tunes were adapted for psalms and hymns. Clark often provided his pieces with thematically related symphonies, so we have devised one in his style for Cranbrook—with apologies to Handel!

Country psalmody has routinely been condemned by academics for its ‘incorrect’ dissonances and voice-leading, but in fact many of these features were survivals of Renaissance musical practice. In particular, psalmody composers continued to place the tune in the tenor rather than the soprano, but expected it to be doubled at the octave by women or boys, producing rich five-part harmony. Nonconformist composers usually wrote in three parts rather than four, but expected both the upper ones to be doubled at the octave, so five parts were produced from three. A beautiful example of early Nonconformist psalmody is ‘Let an anthem of praise’, published in the second part of A Collection of Tunes (1762) ‘designed particularly for those who have made some Proficiency in the Art of Singing’ by Caleb Ashworth, principal of the Dissenting Academy at Daventry. The tune is more usually associated with ‘A virgin unspotted’, though the new text (by Ashworth himself?) links the Christmas story with patriotic sentiments in an unusual and charming way. Anglican and Nonconformist musicians continually borrowed and adapted music in this way, usually without acknowledging their sources. The setting of ‘While shepherds watched’ published in 1765 by John Arnold of Great Warley in Essex turns out to have been lifted unchanged from ‘The Foundling’s Hymn’ by Handel’s associate John Christopher Smith, who wrote it for ‘the Chapel of the Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children’.

Psalmody publications were often intended to appeal to the market for domestic devotional songs as well as to choirs— hence our ‘domestic’ performance of the Smith/Arnold ‘While shepherds watched’. One of the most remarkable publications in this field was Harmonia Sacra, published in 1767 by the little-known Thomas Butts, an associate of the Wesleys. Its title may have been intended to recall the Harmonia Sacra collections published by Henry Playford in 1688 and 1693, and like them it brings together secular devotional songs and pieces borrowed from the chapel repertory. Some Christmas pieces were adapted for private devotion or solo performance. The beautiful setting of Isaac Watts’s cradle hymn ‘Hush! my dear, lie still and slumber’ was probably originally a secular song, and could possibly be by John Frederick Lampe (c1703– 1751). There are other pieces by him in the collection, and he had been an associate of the Wesleys towards the end of his life.

There is no doubt about the secular origin of ‘Hymning seraphs wake the morning’, published by Thomas Taylor of Chester in about 1815: it is an ingenious reworking of ‘The Harmonious Blacksmith’, the Air from Handel’s E major harpsichord suite, with a few harmonic and melodic innovations in the piano part that would doubtless have surprised the composer. The Rondo on ‘God rest you merry, gentlemen’ by Samuel Wesley (the son of the hymn writer and the nephew of the founder of Methodism), published in about 1810, is one of the earliest sources to associate the seventeenth-century dance tune ‘Chestnut’ or ‘Dove’s Figary’ with the familiar Christmas carol. It is a searching and surprisingly serious examination of the tune’s melodic and contrapuntal possibilities, even including a passage near the end where it is heard in augmentation with itself.

The other instrumental piece recorded here is by Pieter Hellendaal, a Dutch violinist who settled in Cambridge and led a busy performing career across much of rural East Anglia. The Pastorale from his Six Grand Concertos, Op 3, of 1758 takes its cue from the famous one in Corelli’s Christmas Concerto, and evokes the bagpipes played by shepherds around the crib.

Many eminent musicians became organists of urban parish churches in the course of the eighteenth century, and used the choir and organ to support and encourage congregational singing. We have included two examples of how this might have been done, using a specially-recruited congregation from the Essex–Suffolk borders; if it sounds unrealistically musical it is worth remembering that a capable musician, working regularly with a stable congregation in a large urban parish, would have been able to achieve higher standards of congregational singing than might be expected. Hymns were usually begun by the organist playing over the tune, improvising elaborate decorations. The choir would presumably have sung in harmony, supporting the unison singing of the congregation, and the organist would have played unrelated interludes between the verses to give the singers time to breathe. We have used examples published in the anonymous Organist’s Pocket Companion of 1751 and by Starling Goodwin in A Choice Collection of Psalm Tunes with their Givings-Out and Interludes of about 1775.

The two congregational hymns recorded here are both versions of Charles Wesley’s ‘Hark! the herald angels sing’. ‘Hark! how all the welkin rings’, printed by Thomas Butts in Harmonia Sacra, sets the original 1739 version of the text to the fine tune, first printed in Lyra Davidica (1708), which is usually associated with ‘Jesus Christ is risen today’. Edward Miller, organist of Doncaster parish church, published an effective setting of the more familiar and later version of the text to Handel’s ‘See, the conqu’ring hero comes’ from Judas Maccabaeus. The third version of ‘Hark! the herald angels sing’ recorded here is by Samuel Arnold, the London composer and editor of Handel. It is a sophisticated setting that uses the bright SSB ‘trio sonata’ texture, and manages to fit the strophic hymn into an intricate aria-like structure.

Parish church psalmody began to change rather rapidly in the late eighteenth century, as the Industrial Revolution accelerated the migration of the rural population to the towns. Established ‘art’ composers, such as Samuel Arnold and Edward Miller, began to contribute to the repertory, while the provincial amateur composers became better educated musically and more ambitious. Joseph Key of Nuneaton, an excise officer by profession, was one of the most prolific and popular composers of anthems that, though they required capable performers, were still within the scope of many country choirs. His setting of ‘As shepherds watched their fleecy care’ was one of the most popular pieces in the carol repertory and appeared in psalmody manuscripts well into the nineteenth century. Key did not provide it with a symphony so we have followed Blaise Compton’s inspired borrowing of one by Key’s Nuneaton colleague Thomas Collins, with its appropriate allusion to ‘Ev’ry valley’ from Handel’s Messiah.

The words of ‘Angels from the realms of glory’ were written by the journalist James Montgomery, and were published in his Sheffield Iris on Christmas Eve 1816. Until recently, the elaborate setting recorded here was thought to have originated in late nineteenth-century Cornwall. But we now know that it was composed and published around 1830 by William Matthews, organist of St Mary’s, Nottingham, and a former stocking-maker; indeed, it seems to be the earliest surviving setting. The two-section verse/chorus structure is typical of later provincial carol settings (also found in the pieces by Key and Jarman), though Matthews scores more precisely than most, with some effective obbligato writing for two flutes or violins.

One of the most richly scored pieces in the repertory is by John Foster, gentleman, coroner, humorist and amateur composer of High Green near Sheffield. His setting of Psalm 47 became yet another version of ‘While shepherds watched’, and is still sung today in a cut-down version as part of the pub carolling tradition around Sheffield, where it is known as ‘Old Foster’. The original, published around 1820, has remarkably Haydnesque instrumental passages, scored for a full Classical orchestra. It was probably written for one of the choral festivals that were a feature of musical life in northern England in the early nineteenth century. The same may be true of ‘There were shepherds abiding in the fields’, a miniature oratorio-like setting of familiar words from St Luke’s gospel by Thomas Jarman of Clipstone, Northants, a tailor and a prolific amateur composer, particularly of Christmas music. Jarman published it in vocal score with no indication of instrumentation, but remarked that it was ‘Also adapted for those who celebrate the birth of Christ, in the open air, early in the morning’ (a reference to the carolling tradition of singing through the night on Christmas Eve), which suggests he envisaged a more fully scored version. We have provided it with the sort of ‘indoor’ orchestration it might have been given for use at a choral festival. In general, gallery bands and organs seem to have been used as alternatives in the psalmody repertory, though there is evidence that they were sometimes combined in larger churches or on special occasions. Jarman actually provided ‘There were shepherds’ with a figured bass, and we have added organ continuo to the pieces by Matthews, Foster and Key.

Thomas Jarman is the youngest composer featured on this recording, and towards the end of his long life he would have witnessed the decline of the psalmody tradition, ousted from most parish churches by the reforming zeal of the Oxford Movement, and superceded by changing musical fashion in the middle of the nineteenth century. Yet portions of this enormous repertory never entirely disappeared from view, and the best of it is an enduring testament to the vitality of musical life in late-Georgian England.

Peter Holman © 1996

The performances on this recording are not meant to be an exact reconstruction of the way these pieces might have been performed by particular church or chapel choirs at the time. There is much that is still unclear to us about the performance practice of psalmody, and it would be futile to try to reproduce the low standards of ensemble and intonation reported in many contemporary descriptions of country choirs. We also decided not to use regional accents, partly because we do not know exactly how people spoke or sang in particular localities in the eighteenth century, and partly because we felt that the use of a generalized Mummerset or Loamshire would strike a false note of quaintness. In general, we have tried to find a performing style that draws on the best practice of the time, and matches the directness and vigour of much of the music. The vocal group Psalmody was formed especially for this recording and consists of professional singers, teachers and students drawn mainly from the Colchester area.

Peter Holman © 1996

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