Track One: Sayings & The Holly And The Ivy
This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham.
You have just heard an extract from a collection of traditional Somerset lore, Calendar Of Somerset Customs and Superstitions , written by WG Willis Watson in 1920, and traditional carol, The Holly and The Ivy. The melding of Christianity and pagan narratives and rites has been strong for hundreds of years in Britain and the rest of the world.
This is our Christmas Edition, and, presented to us as a message in a bottle from Mike Burrows, would you believe it, it comes from the manorhouse of Numbleigh-On-The-Hill, the charming, decluttered home, for the past four years, of the Nabital-Crashe family. Numbleigh, you may remember, is one of the more haunted houses in the West Country, with a knack for being A place of tragedy, treachery and inexpiable sin.
Here, for centuries, the seasonal sounds of sweet-voiced carol-singers taking to their heels in terror amid a hail of seigneurial shot or rock-salt have told the village that Christmas has come and is best observed in famine and despair on the one hand, and interminable feasting and debauchery on the other.
Let’s hear a traditional song, the Stocklinch Wassail. Wassailing – calling in on neighbours’ homes to celebrate the fertility of orchards and also Christmas in music, and requesting company, food and drink as an observance of gratitude to nature or to God - was invariably regarded by Numbleigh’s magistrates either as a form of beggary or civil disorder tantamount to revolt, depending on the political situation, and on whether the offenders called in at the big house. The composer of the Numbleigh Wassail went into hiding and For some centuries, the hiding-place of his masterwork has defied the efforts of folklorists and even cryptologists to discover.
Track Two: Stocklinch Wassail, Trad.
For some, Christmas is a feast against Winter. Once, many landowners and other employers gave generously in kind – in food and drink and a place to enjoy them together - to their employees.
Mrs Nabital-Crashe has left us now, to return to the kitchen; she has to order Christmas from various suppliers, most of them in London and Paris. The servant-problem is vexing as ever. She tells us that the housekeeper, two maids and cook have all gone down with scurvy, leaving the butler and strange girl with piercings to cope as they can with a mountain of meat-produce from the GM-fed home-farm . They’re having difficulty telling which end of the lamb, pork and beef carcases is which, where the animals in question developed two heads. The potatoes scorn those who try to peel them, and brussels sprouts have united in bringing a class-action against their landowner. Onions, damsons, apples and medlars play I Spy. The apple brandy ginger-snap (a liqueur), glows uncannily on being poured, and asks if its glass suits it (the trick is to drink from a schooner, should you dare drink at all).
You may think that all this trouble is owing to managerial inefficiencies, even ineffectivenesses, at the hall, but in fact the finances of the household at Numbleigh have never been in such health, at any rate, not since Sir Morton de Hoote agreed to pay his grateful servants and labourers a starvation-wage in 1640, the first de Hoote to pay his serfs any wage whatever. Now that the workforce are on zero-hours contracts, have to reapply for their positions every year, face eviction if sacked - and agreed to a 20% pay-cut at the outset of Austerity – overheads are startlingly low.
Undoubtedly, giving over three fields and a wood to affordable housing in 2013 helped. Sadly, the wind-turbine erected on the hill-top in 2012 blew up, owing to demand from the electrical systems in the Nabital-Crashe children’s bedrooms.
As we sip our Kenco Really Rich and dunk Asda Jammie Dodgers before an empty hearth, enjoying the seasonable chill that radiates from a large, empty, limestone fireplace, and the Green Man andirons glare with a hint of old brass because someone polished them, we can feel exactly what Christmas, the Season of Goodwill has ever meant in this ancient house. Here is a German carol, O Du Frohliche, O, You Happy. The performance gets in as it is from a live occasion.
Track Three: O Du Frohliche
A carol whose tune and words were originally written by Martin Luther in the 1530s, now. It is generally known as Vom Himmel Hoch – from heaven above. Here, as a traditional carol from Finland, it is called Enkeli Taivaan, An Angel From On High. The message is the same: the announcement of the birth of the Christ-child, sung to the shepherds on Christmas Night, when, to quote another carol, glory shone around.
Track Four: Enkeli Taivaa, Luther
Another Christmas song now, Gesu Bambino, Jesus, Boy-child, written in 1917 by Pietro Yon. Born in Italy, Yon emigrated to the US in 1907 and, from then until his death in 1943, held the post of organist at New York’s Cathedral of St Patrick. This indelible piece, with its gentle, quietly fervent melody and adroit inworked reference to Adeste Fidelis, has been sung by many great soloists, singers and choirs, often accompanied by large orchestras.
It has to be said that it been performed with as much effectiveness as a purely instrumental piece, or by a solo singer with piano-accompaniment.
When we hear opulent arrangements of Christmas music, we should bear in mind that, at its most heartfelt, it can – and does - come all too often from a mouth-organ played on a street-corner where no-one else hears - let alone listens - and the performer plays against cold, desolation and despair. Christmas tells us that a loving Christ is present to listen – as should be any true Christian who can be.
Track Five: Gesu Bambino, Yon
Down In Yon Forest is a symbolical, traditional carol noted down by Vaughan Williams. It has possible connection with Arthurianism, the spring and hawthorn at Glastonbury. Here it is, performed with deep expressiveness by folk-musicians, Magpie Lane.
Track Six: Down in Yon Forest, Trad
Four pieces bringing before us stages in the Christmas story, now. The Annunciation to Mary, a Magnificat – Mary’s song of gratitude; news of The Birth in a cradle-song, and a Bell-carol of praise, including shepherds and wise-men!
Here is a contemplative setting of the Ave Maria from the England of the 15th Century, obviously written with a large stone-bounded acoustic in mind. The counterpoint and harmonies are sparse.
Track Seven: Ave Maria, Anon
Now, a setting of the Magnificat made by a shortlived, highly-gifted composer who entered the service of three monarchs in the space of a few years of almost unimaginably contortionist yet brutal change within the church in England: John Sheppard, circa 1515-1558. Edward The Sixth and Mary The First made use of his talents – he served both dutifully. He was awarded livery by Elizabeth The First in her ignorance of his death. This ornate, beautifully spacious work in English comes from his First Service (c1549). It is of a style that would inspire much imitation in the 20th Century.
Track Eight: Magnificat, Sheppard
A beautiful carol by the New Englander, Charles Ives, setting his own words. An intimate nocturnal picture of the nativity, beginning with the star that stood above Bethlehem, it ends with the angels who sing, “Venit adoremus Dominum.” that is, – “He comes that we may adore God.” A Christmas Carol, by Charles Ives.
Track Nine: A Christmas Carol, Ives
A lively Bell-carol, of rejoicing and praise, now, words and music again by its composer, in this case, the Welshman, William Mathias. This piece for choir, organ and percussion was commissioned by the Bach Choir to celebrate conductor Sir David Willcocks’ 70th birthday, and first heard at the Royal Albert Hall in December 1989.
Track Ten: The Bell Carol, Mathias
So, to Christmas parties, which carry on riotous in spite of Oliver Cromwell and Queen Victoria. Here is a thumbnail sketch of the generous celebrations afforded by some squires in the country, from an 18th century Spectator article by the essayist and politician, Joseph Addison – Sir Roger de Coverley’s Christmas. Tory sentiment is not what it was, even on paper.
Track Eleven: Sir Roger de Coverley’s Christmas, Addison
An Overture on French Carols by Philip Lane, next. The carols are, Il est Ne le Divin Enfant, Pat-a-pan, Noel Nouvelet Quele est Cette Odeur Agreable, Masters In This Hall and Quittez,Pasteurs. The work arose from the effect of shopping in France to the accompaniment of various stores’ public-address-systems…
The treatment of appealing tunes is brisk and light as in most modern, picturesque, pleasant and development-light overtures, and the feel of its colourful harmonies and scoring is tres agreeable!
Track Twelve: Overture on French Carols, Philip Lane
By Dulcie M Ashdown’s anthology, Christmas Past, a description of a Christmas game rarely now played. It was popular at Numbleigh as, down the years, no fewer than 3 lords and ladies of the manor died in separate flash-fire accidents involving flaming brandy.
Track Thirteen: Snapdragon
(Music under following passage from Ivor Gurney’s Gloucestershire Rhapsody).
There’s a good reason why Christmas is for children. They still believe in people. They want something for nothing, and so should we all. To be without something for nothing throughout life is actually a form of hell. If we do not receive, the last thing that we want to do is give. We’re trapped in feeling niggardly; in feeling put-upon by the less-fortunate, ungrateful for any blessing that we receive because we think that we were put through some kind of mill for it. Why should we be the ones to fall for hard luck stories? All morning, in the distance, we’ve heard Mrs Nabital-Crashe’s impromptu disquisitions on the subject.
When those who could give but don’t are the ones who divert blame for poverty from themselves by speaking bitterly of the chance that someone else somewhere gets something without contributing, how may anyone else do as he wishes? It enforces mean survival , greedy self-seeking – or giving as one can. What can we afford, when earth stands hard as iron, water like a stone, and Christmas is consumerist or neo-liberal? Our hearts? Not likely!
Ex Nihilo, out of nothing, still comes…Christmas. The season of sharing, of gratitude, of goodwill and good company, of faith, hope and love; it remains true that it is arranging one’s life about anything other than commonwealth that is silly. In fact, if Christmas can survive long enough to bring its usual blessings to most this year, it is all that it is cracked up to be.A short song for baritone, setting Thomas Hardy, by the young Gerald Finzi: The Oxen. The words are perfectly straightforward and touching, the poem of an atheist trembling momentarily on the brink of agnosticism, imagining the sight of oxen on their knees by the stall in which Mary laid her baby... The style that Finzi adopts is akin to something of the 16th or 17th Century with imitational accompaniment from a string quartet that seems to impersonate music for a consort of viols. The result is, itself, infinitely touching.
Track Fourteen: The Oxen, Finzi
So, here we are outside the gates of picturesque Numbleigh Manor, three miles from the nearest bus-stop (which is at Vobster), as Mrs Nabital-Crashe had forgotten that she was entertaining a few City-chums today. We wish you all a very happy Christmas. Wassailing around here is out of the question, but we’ll get home somehow. Join us again, soon. Goodbye!
Credits: Track 1 (Sayings), taken from FSW/Halsgrove 1 CD
Tracks 11 and 13 taken from The Christmas Collection, Naxos Audiobooks, 214912