Grateful audiences for Sussex Harmony Christmas concerts

In the autumn of 2021, Sussex Harmony really looked forward to performing again after a bleak eighteen months or so. Back to our usual meeting place in the 17th century church at Malling,  Lewes, we joined in gusto, practicing for four concerts leading up to Christmas. All of them had been postponed from the previous year or two due to Covid restrictions.

The first was held to a select masked audience in Greyfriars, an upmarket retirement complex in the centre of Lewes. Thanks to our 90-year-old clarinetist who lives there, we had been able to hold outdoor practices in its garden during the summer. So, it was only right that we should give them a short carol concert before some zimmered off to bed with their Horlicks. Interspersed with a couple of seasonal readings and ending with an enthusiastic rendition of William Seal’s “Shepherds Rejoice,” we then spoke to some appreciative and fascinating elderly folk. I will always remember the Lithuanian lady whose army officer father had perished at the hands of the Russians in Siberia whilst she and her mother landed up in a displaced persons’ camp in Germany before starting a new life in London.

Our next well organised socially distanced concert was for Hassocks Field Society, a well- established group based in the village next to Vera Lynn’s Ditchling. In the first half before wine and nibbles, we concentrated on the Sussex year with a “Funeral Hymn” from Catsfield, a drinking song for the farmer and from beyond the pond, William Billings upbeatEaster Anthem.” The second half was devoted to Christmas music. There was no escaping “While shepherd watchedbut at least we used three tunes, Cranbrook, Pentonville and Leicester, to add a bit of spice to things. We also sang a local carol “Now Christmas is come” collected by Lucy Broadwood from Sam Willett, the singing baker of Cuckfield. Quite pleasant but not in the same league as Shepherds Rejoice which marked the end of this concert also.

Concert three was in Brighton where the 13th century flint-built church at Preston Manor is adorned with 14th century wall paintings. Appropriately one is of the nativity with a bowl-shaped crib and the infant Jesus. We mixed and matched the carols from the earlier two concerts. Rachel, our indefatigable quire mistress, was delighted that our efforts paid off as proved by appreciative emails thanking us “So much, for the lovely concert last night…the quire were fantastic!”  The limitation on numbers had worked to our advantage, both as regards the quality of the sound and “with fewer people in the audience, and without people coming in late and finding nowhere left to sit”.  We’ll be back next Christmas and the organisers also want a concert in the summer.

Concert four in Hurstpierpoint was cancelled at the last omicron infested moment but we will be back there too.

But my biggest musical disappointment was not being able to sing the Burwash Carol in that village which I had introduced to the parish choir after it was last heard there in the 1930’s. This rather odd carol was composed by James Fleming, who was the choirmaster and organist at St Bartholomew’s from 1837 – 1872. At the end of this period, the Rev John Coker Egerton who played the fiddle in the choir kept any unruly boys in order by cracking his bow over their heads – not that I’m suggesting any present- day music directors do this!

The carol was dug out of the archives held in Lewes of the papers etc. of the Rev Kenneth MacDermott. He wrote to two hundred parish choir masters in the Chichester diocese about 1917 asking them to send him music, anecdotes etc. of the music that had been played by the village bands that disappeared with the sanitisation of church music by the Oxford Movement. Burwash had a gallery from 1685 which was enlarged in 1720. Known as the singing gallery, this suggests that the choir used it; in fact, the choirmaster John Lawrence contributed towards the cost. 

Next year, we live in hope that we’ll be able to honour all our quire commitments and I’ll be able to sing the Burwash carol which would have been heard in the parish church by Rudyard Kipling who lived nearby.

Sussex Harmony at Hassocks

SH Hassocks

Our covid summer Practice place - Greyfriars, Lewes