“THE best things in life are free,” sings Kitty Kane in the 1956 American musical of the same name, but in the cynical 21st century we might expect that the best things in life nowadays are sometimes extortionately expensive.
So it was appropriate that, at the end of the old year, the splendid church of St Peter in St Albans should host a free event, with donations for its churchyard improvement project — “All Hayle to the Dayes” — a full-length concert presenting music for a Baroque and Georgian Christmas and New Year, described as “being a most Effective ANTIDOTE to the Excesses of the Season, sure both to clear the Head & lift the Heart in Festive Celebration of CHRISTMASTIDE”.
Three groups — the singers of Hengrave Voices and the players of the Stonesfield Consort of Viols and the Willson Recorder Consort — joined together to form the Pastime Ensemble, which performed for the good company that filled this large church on an unpromising evening when it would have been all too easy to indulge at home in further “Excesses of the Season” with a glass or three and a book or the telly, and not venture outside.
What a treat would have been missed. The programme was the idea of the Royal Opera’s excellent bass, Jeremy White, and, yes, he did sing, but mostly directed the ensemble from the violin, though once also straying to the shawm. This was a characteristic of the evening which made it so enjoyable; for here was a group featuring several distinguished professional performers appearing as amateurs, frequently performing on their third or fourth instruments, so that singers took up a viola here, a french horn there, and recorder and string players lent their voices to both solos and ensembles. The result was wonderful.
Mr White was a most agreeable host (but he must remember not to turn his back on the audience while still speaking), and provided a printed programme (also free — as indeed were the interval refreshments) that wore its learning lightly, and yet guided us gently and informatively from 17th-century France and Germany to the 19th-century West Gallery choirs of England — shades of Thomas Hardy — and the wassailers, and the intriguing information that wassailing customs and tunes have relatives “as far away as Bulgaria”.
During this period, we were told, “church services and their music became more formal, and the celebration of Christmas as it used to be is left more and more to the urban and rural working classes.” Little was recorded, until the tradition emerged again just in time to be caught by the carol-collectors of the early 19th century, such as William Hone, Davies Gilbert, William Sandys, John William Parker, and John Broadwood.
The Gallery tradition was illustrated by a performance of “While shepherds watched” in which each verse was sung to a different tune, or variation on that tune (six in all), including Cranbrook — better known as “On Ilkla Moor bah’t ’at” — a tune that deserves to be more widely used.
Before this, we were treated to a little Italian pastoral sequence illustrating the tradition taken up by Handel in Messiah (the “Pifa”), Bach in the Christmas Oratorio, and the Christmas cantatas/concertos of Scarlatti and Corelli. The traditional Neapolitan melody that opened the sequence must have been known by Handel; for it bears an unmistakable resemblance to the Messiah “Pastoral Symphony”.
Also in the programme was Bach’s cantata no. 122, “Das Neugebor’ne Kindelein”, wintry excerpts from The Faerie Queen and King Arthur by Purcell, and music by Marc-Antoine Charpentier and Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, with appropriate references to Pepys, and readings from Thomas Hardy and Philippa Pullar’s rather misleadingly subtitled “history of English food and appetite”, Consuming Passions.
The ending, presumably the work of Jeremy White himself, was a potpourri of Christmas carols, with Chestnut (“God rest you merry, gentlemen”) as its base, tunes superimposed one on another, resulting in the emergence of “a rather nostalgic, melancholy harmonic atmosphere”, which the company sees as “a lament for an England which we are instructed nowadays to believe never really existed. Some of us, more fortunate, know differently — we have been there and have seen it and seek to recover it, particularly perhaps at this time of year.” The audience in St Peter’s, by their enthusiastic response, was clearly convinced.
Before we left the church, an encore: the opening of Bach’s First Brandenburg Concerto cleverly transmogrifying into “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire”) of Tormé and Webb. More rapturous applause. We emerged into 21st-century St Albans with heads clear and hearts uplifted.