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While shepherds watched - Christmas music from English parish churches - 1740 - 1830
Michael BEESLY (b.1700)
While shepherds watched their flocks by night [04:36]
anon, arr Caleb ASHWORTH (1722-1775)
Let an anthem of praise [02:30]
John Christopher SMITH (1712-1795), arr John ARNOLD (c.1720-1792)
While shepherds watched their flocks by night [03:06]
Pieter HELLENDAAL (1721-1799)
Concerto in E flat, op. 3 No 4: pastorale [03:35]
anon, arr Thomas BUTTS
Hark! how all the welkin rings [06:24]
Hush! my dear, lie still and slumber [04:08]
Joseph KEY (d.1784)
As shepherds watched their fleecy care [06:15]
Samuel ARNOLD (1740-1802)
Hark! the herald angels sing [03:34]
Thomas CLARK (1775-1859)
While shepherds watched their flocks by night [05:04]
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759), arr Edward MILLER (1735-1807)
Hark! the herald angels sing [04:08]
Thomas JARMAN (1776-1861)
There were shepherds abiding in the field [03:22]
Samuel WESLEY (1766-1837)
Rondo on God rest you merry, gentlemen* [06:18]
William MATTHEWS (1759-1830)
Angels from the realms of glory [05:24]
George Frideric HANDEL, arr Thomas TAYLOR
Hymning seraphs wake the morning [03:01]
John FOSTER (1762-1822)
While shepherds watched their flocks by night [04:48]
Psalmody; The Parley of Instruments/Peter Holman; Timothy Roberts (fortepiano*)
rec. 18-20 July 1996
Experience Classicsonline

This disc is a model of creativity and intelligent programming. It is not only musically rewarding, but also historically very interesting. It sheds light on a little known aspect of the English musical heritage.

These days Christmas is the most popular Christian feast; that wasn't always the case. As Sally Drage and Peter Holman write in their programe notes, during the Commonwealth the celebration of Christmas was forbidden. It returned with the Restoration, but never regained its popularity until the 19th century. And it is therefore music of that time - and especially the latter half of the 19th century - which is mostly performed today. This disc presents music written between 1750 and 1850 and mostly performed in parish churches in the countryside. That is the main reason this repertoire has been virtually ignored. The other reason could be that the largest part of this music was written for amateur performers.

Peter Holman writes that the performances don't pretend to be an exact reconstruction of how this music was sung and played during the 18th and early 19th century. He refers to what we know about the technical standard of the performances in those days, which is certainly not something to copy. On the other hand there is too little information about exactly how this music was interpreted, and that includes the pronunciation of English. These arguments make sense. But I wonder how much of this tradition has been preserved. Are the pieces performed on this disc still sung and played somewhere in Britain? And if so, how are they performed? Listening to this disc makes one curious about how much of this tradition is still alive.

This music may be written for amateurs and therefore technically not too demanding, but it is very nice to listen to. As one can gather from the tracklist a number of well-known texts can be heard here, but it’s seldom that one hears them with the music to which they are sung today. There are no less than four different settings of 'While shepherds watched their flocks by night', but none of them is sung with the melody in common contemporary use.

The connection between text and melody is very different. Often music is used which was originally written for another text, like a Psalm. The disc opens with Michael Beesly's setting of 'While shepherds watched their flocks by night', whose music was originally written to the text of Psalm 8. For his setting of the same text John Arnold took the music from an anthem by John Christopher Smith, Handel's associate. Handel himself also figures in this programme. 'Hymning seraphs wake the morning' is set to his famous air called 'The Harmonious Blacksmith'. Thomas Taylor adapted the music to fit the text and scored the piece for solo voice and keyboard (here tenor and fortepiano). And Edward Miller set the text of 'Hark! the herald angels sing' to the equally famous chorus 'See, the conqu'ring hero comes' from Handel's oratorio Judas Maccabaeus.

The scoring also varies quite dramatically. There are pieces for solo voice with keyboard or basso continuo, like 'Hymning seraphs' just mentioned, and Butts' arrangement of the anonymous 'Hush, my dear' (here with soprano), sometimes with an additional melody instrument, like the setting of 'While shepherds watched' with the music by Smith, set here for alto, transverse flute and basso continuo. Samuel Arnold's 'Hark! the herald angels sing' has a trio texture for soprano, alto, bass and organ.

But there are also pieces with a full choir, sometimes with short solo parts. The first item is an example of a 'fuguing tune', in which a chordal passage is followed by a series of contrapuntal entries. These contrapuntal episodes are performed here by solo voices from the choir. 'There were shepherds abiding in the field' is on a text from the gospel, and here the tenor is acting as an Evangelist, with a soprano as the angel and the choir as the heavenly chorus. It is one of the pieces on this disc which require a pretty large ensemble, with wind and strings plus basso continuo. In the last item the accompaniment is like a full classical orchestra, with transverse flute, two oboes, bassoon, two horns, trumpet, timpani, strings and organ.

This disc has many qualities which make it highly recommendable to anyone who likes to listen to Christmas music of a different kind. The performances - although not in any sense reconstructions - have much authenticity through the use of period instruments. The inclusion of a 'congregation', whose members are drawn from five, presumably amateur, choirs greatly contributes to the impression of listening to a tradition which is still very much alive. And a disc like this makes one wish to hear more of this kind of repertoire. The music performed among common people, either in parish churches or at home, is a part of our Western musical heritage which so far has been very little explored.

Johan van Veen



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