..when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and very uneven..

Sussex Harmony managed to fulfil two regular commitments in the lead up to Christmas, despite most of the county doing a good impression of a Good King Wenceslas film set.  The first was at St Peter’s, Preston Park in Brighton.  In a small, wooded area adjoining the manor house, this 13th century flint church is memorable for its wall paintings, one of which is appropriately of the Nativity.  We are used to the cold in this church but with outside temperatures below freezing this year, it was a wonder there were no cases of hypothermia amongst our depleted quire and audience.

1900 nativity

1900 picture of the nativity – thanks to the Friends of St Peters

The programme was made up of well -known West Gallery carols, some of which were composed or found in the county.  “A Christmas Hymn” by the prolific and accomplished Nathaniel Cooke of Bosham was an early number, before the audience were invited to join in “Hark the glad sound” to Thomas Jarman’s Lyngham. A clutch of angel themed carols followed – including Dave Townsend’s arrangement of Newtons, to the words of “Hark the Herald Angels sing” and “Bright angels” from the Bundell manuscript which was fortuitously found in a car boot sale. 

The seasonal activity of wassailing has been revived in Sussex thanks mainly to Morris sides, so we sang “The Sugar Plum Wassail” which is a miserable little begging ditty requesting money and food from those more fortunate than the cold, hungry wassailers.  This was followed by the imaginatively named “Christmas Hymn”, this time by John Hall and found in a manuscript in nearby Tarring church.  The audience then joined with as much enthusiasm as the cold allowed in the first three verses of WSW (or Wild Shepherds watched to the uninitiated) to Cranbrook before we showed off by singing the following three verses to Otford, Pentonville and Leicester. Our anthem was Rachel Jordan’s arrangement of one of John Barwick’s based on Luke 2 where the angels appeared again. Yet another “Christmas Hymn,” this time by Samuel Wakely was the penultimate number before William Seal’s blockbuster “Shepherds Rejoice” finalized our near polar experience.

Our second concert was at Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint.  Although there was a church at the bottom of the South Downs in Domesday times, the present one is a huge but quite tasteful Victorian re-build now graced with – yes – a new large West Gallery – and better heating than St Peter’s.

Although we were only nine singers and four instrumentalists, we made a good balanced sound and had an appreciative audience. Needless to say, many of the carols performed three days beforehand were “recycled” but we did inject some more locally found numbers.  There was “The Ditchling Carol” that was collected at the beginning of the 20th century by the Rev MacDermott from Peter Parsons, a shoemaker of the village.  This is another miserable number where the carol singers beg for clothing, fuel, food and wine from their richer audience but enliven the tone with a jolly chorus. Another local offering was “Now Christmas is come” which Lucy Broadwood, the folk song collector and researcher, obtained from the “singing baker of Cuckfield,” Sam Willett.  This is a lot more chirpy but not up to the standard of Nathaniel Cooke who at least, had a music training unlike Willett who originally trained as a cobbler. A further two Sussex sourced numbers found in the county’s Archaeological Society’s archives were “Mortals Awake,” a very short number entreating folk to sing along with the angels in three-part harmony before a four-part chorus and secondly, “Carol” another rousing encouragement to sing Hallelujahs to celebrate Christ’s birth. This was collected from Fred Jones rather than Neil Sedaka.

Our concert was interspersed with readings, sacred and secular.  A great favorite is George Bernard Shaw’s denunciation of the commercial side of Christmas and his wish to escape from it. Most of Sussex Harmony can sympathise with this view but we annually enjoy taking the county’s carols back to where they were found.

Paula Nicholson