#12 Because you’re rehearsing
Lewes, 26th Oct, 2016
Derrick is tuning the serpent, the heckling from the tenors has begun, and it’s cold enough to have coats to hang on the back of our chairs in the village hall. This can only mean one thing – rehearsals for Shepherds Arise! have reprised once more.
This gathering of Sussex folk, meeting over the past three years to sing old Sussex carols, was occasioned by a chance remark during a singaround in Lewes, 2012. The subsequent discussion sparked a revival based on a group Dr Vic Gammon assembled in the 1970s, Hope in the Valley, to accompany a lecture on old Sussex carols, which grew into regular performances over a ten-year period. Steered by director Stuart Walker’s steady hand, a number of local singers and musicians were assembled, and rehearsals for Shepherds Arise! commenced in 2013.
I joined the choir last year and have become an enthusiastic member ever since, particularly as it brings into harmony the three joys of singing, social research, and historic buildings. We have performed in various beautiful Downland Sussex churches, and the magnificent Elizabethan Great Barn at Michelham Priory. In 2015 we were invited to perform at St Laurence Church, Falmer, singing The Falmer Carol (See Seraphic Throngs) as part of our concert. We believe this is the first time that this piece of music has been sung at that venue in many decades, and leaving my questioning, performance researcher brain behind, that is simply an extraordinary feeling.
The carols are sourced variously from village church manuscripts, collected folk carols (arranged both by Vic Gammon, and Stuart Walker), and tunes from traditional Sussex musicians. Our repertoire includes carols such as Blow ye the Trumpet, an anthem from a book belonging to John Bailey of Ringmer (1842), Shepherds Arise, from The Copper Family of Rottingdean, The Ditchling Carol, written by Peter Parsons, shoemaker of Ditchling (1825 – 1901), and the aforementioned Falmer Carol ( c 1860s), communicated by Frederick Jones to the Rev. K H Mc Dermott (published in The Church Gallery Minstrels of Old Sussex ). The first half finishes with a performance of the ever-popular (and evolving) Ovingdean Mummers’ play (1870). Our merry band is currently formed of twenty-three singers and seven instrumentalists, comprising flute, fiddle, clarinet, English concertinas, bassoon and last but by no means least, the serpent (one of a kind in Sussex).
Akin to the first glass of mulled wine of the season, Shepherds Arise! provides both a warming and cheering link to the past (with some ingredients unearthed at the back of the cupboards thrown in), and a treat for the audience and members alike to look forward to the following year when ‘the trees are all bare’ (Christmas Song, The Copper Family). As Frederick Jones remarks in his reminiscence A Church Choir Visits the Gentry Christmas Eve (1847), ‘it is difficult to say who has the greater pleasure, the hosts or the guests’ (McDermott, 1922). I’m popping a link to our rehearsal from this evening, and also the performance dates below – come, crush a cup of wine!