An Article for the WGMA Magazine

  Sussex Harmony Summer 2023

…the people that have sat in darkness have seen a great light ..

With members of Lewes based Sussex Harmony living as far apart as Littlehampton, Worthing and Henfield in the west to Heathfield in the east our concerts at Brighton and East Grinstead this summer resembled a survey of West and East Sussex potholes.

We had last performed a service at St Peter’s, Brighton in the depths of the winter.  That was a true polar experience.  Being a Christmas carol concert, “the people that have sat in darkness have seen a great light” would have been an appropriate text that day, but certainly not for this patronal festival evensong in June.  I’ll explain - the church’s halogen bulbs needed replacing so the big decision was where to sing and get enough light to read our music.  One option was the west end, maybe appropriate for the quire but it would have meant all the audience craning their necks or swivelling round their ancient cane bottomed chairs that resembled those found in the type of French transport café where the plat du jour is warmed up tripe.  We opted for the chancel.

Our opening voluntary was Isaac Watt’s Hymn 48, Book 1, to the appropriately named tune Brighthelmston, the old name for Brighton.  This was found in a manuscript book dated 1832 from John Bailey of Ringmer, now a dormitory village of Lewes. A Collection of Psalms and Hymns sung at the Parish Church of Brighton” (alias The Cooke Booke) provided us with Canon 1 by Nathaniel Cooke 1773- 1827.  This is a block buster, well up there with Tallis or Byrd and since Cooke had a musical education from an uncle who was the organist of St George’s Bloomsbury maybe this was not surprising.

The audience joined us with the opening hymn – Come let us join our cheerful songs (Isaac Watts again) to the tune Lyngham which was uncovered from one of several  manuscripts at Catsfield, deep in the Weald of East Sussex.   The audience of regulars joined enthusiastically.  We sang Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady’s metrical versions of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis to the tune of Lydia by Thomas Phillips 1735 – 1807, and Richmond by Samuel Webbe c1770 – 1843, respectively.  There was also a metrical version of The Lord’s Prayer by Nathaniel Cooke to the tune of Pulborough, another Sussex village after which he named his compositions, presumably in the hope of finding ready buyers for his compositions.

Sussex was well represented in our programme, which included Psalm 150, a unique setting again found at Catsfield. (This can be found in The Singing Seat - transcribed and edited by Edwin Macadam & Tony Singleton 1995 - which we have introduced to other West Gallery folk at the bi-annual Lewes Three Quires Days.) Another number with Sussex connections was Who would true valour see, to the tune of Monk’s Gate, named after the village where Ralph Vaughan Williams (RVW) transcribed it from Mrs Verrall’s singing in 1904. Many of you will know that this Songs of Praise favorite was included in RVW’s The English Hymnal (1906). Had we performed this service a year earlier, it would have been on the 150th anniversary of RVW’s birth.

As a closing voluntary, we performed John Ellerton’s Grant us thy peace, Lord, in the coming night to the rousing tune by William Seal (composed 1790) that is normally used for Shepherds Rejoice.  Then it was off to a welcome meal and drink at the nearby home of Cynthia Park, one of our stalwart members.

Two weeks later we gave another Sussex themed rendition, this time to the East Grinstead Society in the far north of the county. We took the audience through the year with items appropriate to Easter, Pentecost, Harvest Festival and Christmas plus events such as a funeral and a wake. Interspersed with the music were readings taken from such Sussex themed epistles as Bob Copper’s A Song for all

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Psalm 23 from the Pierce manuscript book


Seasons and The Church Gallery Minstrels of Old Sussex by the Rev. K.H.MacDermott (ISBN 1-901214-73-7).

Their Society’s usual venue had proved too small for our forces and the expected audience, so we performed in a new Methodist church, with well -appointed facilities and an enormous baptismal pit, although we chose not to include any Water Music. Our conductor, Rachel Jordan, had done her best to find any WG music that had any links with East Grinstead.  The only possible was by the aforementioned Nat Cooke.  We came up with a version of Psalm 75, a pleasing enough little ditty to words by T & B. to which Cooke had hedged his commercial bets by giving it the title Grinstead, which could have applied to either East or West Grinstead, which are miles apart. Well, we performed it.  The next nearest place to East Grinstead with music suited to our concert was Monk’s Gate, named after a village near Horsham, so we inserted RVW’s Who would true valour see  into this programme as well.

The Singing Seat (see above) provided us with Psalm 96 to the tune of Pentonville, Psalm 23 (see illustration above of the manuscript), Psalm 92 and the gloriously  lugubrious  Funeral Hymn 2 by William Tans’ur, senior.  With a name like that, he could get away with calling himself by the cod Latin name “Musico-Theorico”. On a jollier note, we sang the Sussex Farmer’s Toast which Rudyard Kipling vowed had come from the county and With my jug in one hand, which the dynamic Macadam duo had transcribed from a manuscript resting somewhat inappropriately in the library of the Royal School of Church Music. 

For an aural change, we had gleaned from the other side of the pond The Easter Anthem by William Billings of Boston, and his Psalm 68, known in Sacred Harp circles as Bear Creek.  Printing of this number had been  delayed until Billings could accumulate enough rags to make the paper in the United States, thus avoiding the pernicious taxes on imported British goods.

We finished most inappropriately for such a hot July night with a selection of Christmas carols with Sussex connections, most of which we had performed last winter in Brighton and reported upon in the spring WGMA magazine. Our final piece de resistance was Nathaniel Cooke’s Canon 1 which was greeted with loud applause. Then drives of up to 40 miles home, still with some light so we could avoid the suicidal deer of the Ashdown Forest.