A South Yorkshire Christmas
Sheffield Cathedral is preparing for a real South Yorkshire Christmas. This Sunday (19 December) at 18.30 hrs, the Cathedral’s choir will combine with Ella Taylor, BBC Radio 2 Young Chorister of the Year 2010, to sing local, traditional carols, as well as pieces from Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols.
Ella, 16, now a student at Lancing College, but formerly chorister in Sheffield Cathedral Choir, where her father is Director of Music, won the prestigious competition at the end of October 2010, in its special twenty fifth anniversary year.
The programme includes the well known carol “While shepherds watched their flocks by night,” to the tune Cranbrook (now more commonly used for “on Ilkley moor bah tat”), as well as Andrew Carter’s “A maiden most gentle,” and the eighteenth century favourite, “Hark, hark! what news the angels bring,” composed locally by John Hall, a blacksmith of Sheffield Park.
Britten’s work is itself based on Middle English texts, and captures the essence of a freezing, atmospheric English Christmas time.
The local carols have their roots in the vernacular tradition of playing musical instruments to accompany carols and other sacred music in churches prior to the introduction of the organ. On becoming redundant these church “bands” and “quires” did not, however, disappear altogether, they simply moved their music into their community, visiting houses and hostelries for example. Although this tradition has largely died out it still survives in some villages around Sheffield, usually, though not exclusively, centred at a village pub. The style of the playing and singing is typically robust and assured, the participants taking great pride in maintaining an important local tradition.
The carols themselves derive from various sources. Some, such as Hall’s Good News (“Hark, hark! what news the angels bring”) were composed locally. Some appeared in broadsheets circulating around the country and became favourites, for example “Cranbrook” by Thomas Clark, a Coventry shoemaker. Some would travel by “word of mouth,” sometimes undergoing a change to the words or tune or even a change of name in the process.
The style of performance may also vary. At the Black Bull in Ecclesfield, the carols are unaccompanied. An organ accompanies the carols at the Royal Hotel in Dungworth, whereas it is a piano at the Blue Ball in Worrall and the Traveller’s Rest in Oughtibridge. In Grenoside (Old Harrow and Old Red Lion) a string band leads the singing. These carol sessions begin in early November and run on a regular weekly basis up to Christmas Day. Many other events at this time of year include some input of local carols.
Whatever the performance style, and whatever the venue, these local carols form an important part of our local history, cultural tradition and identity. Sheffield Cathedral is committed to preserving local musical traditions, and to interpreting the history of our region through contemporary liturgy.