While shepherds watched – Christmas Music from English Parish Churches, 1740–1830

While shepherds watched – Christmas Music from English Parish Churches, 1740–1830

Psalmody, The Parley of Instruments, Peter Holman (conductor)


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.

Behind The Cover

If you're staunchly resistant to all things festive—especially carols—we challenge you to listen to track 9 of 'While shepherds watched: Christmas Music from English Parish Churches, 1740–1830' and not surrender to the prevailing Christmas cheer. 'While Shepherds watched their flocks by night' (sung to the tune known as Winchester) may be one of the most familiar of Christmas carols, but isn’t it all just a little bit stately? Solemn, even? Wouldn’t it sound so much more uplifting, more cheerful, sung to the tune of, erm, 'On Ilkley Moor baht at'? Well, yes it would, and that's exactly what Peter Holman, Psalmody and The Parley of Instruments demonstrate in an album packed with this and similarly unhackneyed delights, bookended by two further settings of 'While shepherds watched'.

In his booklet note, Peter Holman makes the point that many of our best-known Christmas carols date from either the Middle Ages or from the Victorian period and after (read it—the explanation for this is fascinating), and this album offers an insight into how Christmas music might have sounded from the mid-eighteenth to the early, pre-Victorian, nineteenth centuries, written and performed by itinerant bands of amateur musicians.

If you listen to only one track of seasonal music this Christmas, it just has to be this.

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