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Crossing Boundaries

Historical English
Christmas music -
heard by

'... sheer "joie de vivre" ...'

While shepherds watched - Christmas Music from English Parish Churches and Chapels, 1740-1830. © 2008 Hyperion Records Ltd

It's the season when we dust off our old, remastered Jingle Bells CDs from the likes of Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Mariah Carey, James Galway, Celine Dion, Katherine Battle, Kiri, and choirs from here, there and everywhere.

Listen -- Beesly: While shepherds watched
(track 1, 0:03-0:59) © 1996, 2008 Hyperion Records Ltd

Here, however; 'While shepherds watch' -- we turn back the clock still further.

Among the fifteen items within this selection, four are settings of While shepherds watched their flocks by night, derived from Luke, Chapter 2, Verses 8-9; viz 'There were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.'

Words of the popular carol (written in 1700) are by Nahum Tate (born Dublin, 1652, died Southwark, London, 1715) and first appeared in Tate and Brady's 1702 'Psalter'. Tate was an Irish poet, hymnist, and lyricist. Furthermore, from 1692 until his death, he was England's poet laureate.

Though all four of Tate's settings are sourced to known composers three of Hyperion's remaining Christmas 'poems' are set to music of anonymous provenance. Futher background may be found via links on

Especially satisfying is Peter Holman's inclusion of non-choral interludes: fourth track from the start, a Pastorale from Concerto in E flat, Op 3 No 4 by Dutch organist, violinist and composer Pieter Hellendaal (1721-1799). Then, four tracks before the end, Samuel Wesley's Rondo on 'God rest ye merry gentlemen'; a 6'18" set of inventive keyboard variations.

Listen -- Samuel Wesley: Rondo on 'God rest you merry, gentlemen'
(track 12, 0:31-1:32) © 1996, 2008 Hyperion Records Ltd

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing is a Christmas carol written by prolific hymn-writer and poet Charles Wesley (1707-1788), brother of Methodism founder John Wesley (1703-1791). It first appeared in Hymns and Sacred Poems in 1739.

The original opening couplet was 'Hark! how all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings'.

The version known today is the result of alterations by various hands, most notably George Whitfield, Wesley's co-worker, who changed the opening couplet to the familiar one we know today.

Notewriters Holman and Sally Drage relate how seventeenth century Puritans downplayed Christmas observances in church, till their revival by Anglicans after the Restoration. While Shepherds watched ... was the only Christmas hymn accepted in the Church of England between 1700 and 1782. At that point, it was joined by High let us swell our tuneful notes and Hark the Herald Angels ....

The Parley of Instruments offers two versions in which the only textual dissimilarities occur after the line 'Offspring of a virgin's womb'.

Music for Hark the herald ..., track 8, is by Samuel Arnold (1740-1802), organist and Master of the Choristers of Westminster Abbey (1793-1802).

Listen -- Samuel Arnold: Rondo on 'God rest you merry, gentlemen'
(track 8, 0:31-1:01) © 1996, 2008 Hyperion Records Ltd

Music for Hark the herald ..., track 10, is by G F Handel (1685-1759). This tune is lifted from Handel's Judas Maccabaeus (1747) based on First Corinthians 15:57. The theme: Jesus Christ, His Resurrection.

The identical Handel setting accompanies Thine be the glory (1884), a text by Edmond L Budry written after the death of his first wife, Marie de Vayenborg. It was first published in Chants Evangeliques in Lausanne, Switzerland, 1885, then translated to English (1925) by Richard B Hoyle, appearing in Cantate Domino Hymnal, songbook of the World Student Christian Federation.

Labyrinthic complexities of hymnody are inescapable -- viz; it's possible that an Advent hymn by Friedrich-Heinrich Ranke (1798-1876), using the same tune by Handel, and published in Evangelisches Gesangbuch fur Elsass-Lothringern, could have been the basis for Thine be the glory.

The Parley of Instruments crosses boundaries, from the recording studio, the concert platform, to the classroom, village hall or parish church. Founded three decades ago to play the rich repertory of Renaissance and Baroque string consort music it subsequently created the first Renaissance violin consort in modern times.

With light internal construction, plain gut strings and short bows, the ensemble's Renaissance violins produce a more blended, viol-like sound than the more familiar Baroque models. The Parley now offers a complete orchestral Renaissance violin band.

In 1996 the Parley (parli or parlei -- a discussion or conference) moved into the nineteenth century with performances and recordings of English parish church music in the 'gallery' tradition.

Vocal group Psalmody (psalmody n pl psalmodies -- the act or practice of singing psalms in divine worship) was formed especially for this recording, and consists of professional singers, teachers and students drawn mainly from the Colchester area.

'Hymns (carols) must be acknowledged as theology,' writes S T Kimbrough Jr, author of Israelite Religion in Sociological Perspective (1978) and numerous scholarly articles on both biblical studies and church music. 'They should reflect a profound sense of the mystery of the incarnation and its effect on human life. In addition they should affirm a theology of newness and finally hymns should be a liturgical bridge to the enactment of faith.'

That's as maybe; what seems clear is the Hyperion programme must surely appeal to the avowed faithful and to lovers of late seventeenth to mid nineteenth century English church music.

Consider track 5, Hark how all the welkin rings, Hallelujah -- attributed to anon. Welkin is a Middle English term for the 'Vault of Heaven', occasionally found in poetry as late as the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714), last monarch of the House of Stuart.

Listen -- Hark how all the welkin rings, Hallelujah
(track 5, 0:35-1:13) © 1996, 2008 Hyperion Records Ltd

Among the remaining items, two more are to music of anon -- Let an anthem of praise (track 2) and Hush! my dear, lie still and slumber (track 6).

The others with their tracks (bracketed) are (7) As shepherds watched their fleecy care (Joseph Key), (11) There were shepherds abiding in the field (Thomas Jarman), (12) Rondo on God rest ye merry gentlemen (Samuel Wesley), (13) Angels from the realms of glory (William Matthews) and (14) Hymning seraphs wake the morning (G F Handel).

Throughout Parley's Yuletide programme one cannot fault its scholarship, historical verisimilitude, technical address and sheer 'joie de vivre' plus Hyperion's sonic acuity -- an unequivocal triumph.

So 'bring it on' -- ring out the strains of Christmastide.

Copyright © 3 December 2009 Howard Smith,
Masterton, New Zealand






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