While Shepherds Watched

LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Christmas Music from English Parish Churches & Chapels, 1740-1830
PERFORMER: Psalmody; Parley of instruments/Peter Holman


‘The Lord is my shepherd’, saith the Psalm; and Jesu, of course, his holy lamb. No wonder that shepherds, not kings, hold highest place in our Christmas affections. Is it not, after all, in memory of the socks they washed by night that children still hang out their stockings on Christmas Eve?

In Anglican circles, those shepherds and their ‘socks’ have always been held in especially high regard: between its first publication in 1700 and the advent, almost a century later, of Charles Wesley’s ‘Hark! the herald angels sing’, Nahum Tate’s ‘Song of the Angels at the Nativity of Our Blessed Lord’ (‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks’ to you and me) was the only Christmas hymn authorised by the C of E (hence, presumably, the origins of the phrase ‘Baa-ch humbug’).

Devised with dutiful pastoral care, While Shepherds Watched, Peter Holman’s seasonal survey of the unpretentious ‘gallery music’ that was once the pride of England’s parish churches presents no fewer than four different settings of Tate’s hymn.

Between them, they span some three-quarters of a century, ranging from the muscular ‘fuguing tune’, with ad hoc instrumental accompaniment devised by the peripatetic singing teacher Michael Beesly (of Blewbury in Oxfordshire) c1746, via an 1805 setting by one Thomas Clark (cordwainer, of Canterbury) – to a tune better known as ‘On Ilkley Moor baht’at’ – to the grandly Haydnesque, fully orchestrated version (trumpets and drums to the fore) which a certain John Foster (coroner, of High Green in Yorkshire) worked up around 1820 for one of the great choral festivals which were once so popular in the North of England.

Interspersed with a couple of purely instrumental numbers – including a Corelli-like ‘Pastorale’ concerto, complete with imitation bagpipes – and a pair of organ-led congregational hymns, Holman’s collection, ably realised by the singers and period players of Psalmody and the Parley of Instruments, touchingly recaptures the honest, homespun fervour of the ‘English mastersingers’, those humble tradesmen (cobblers, tailors, stocking-makers, et al) whose heartfelt music-making so enlivened England’s country churches before the purging zealots of the Oxford Movement moved in.


Rich, warm, russet-coloured and (metaphorically) mud-bespattered, here is just the sort of Christmas music which Jane Austen, that daughter of the manse, might have heard in childhood, or Thomas Hardy’s ‘tenor man’ have sung (to the sound of ‘viols out of doors’) before ‘The Choirmaster’s Burial’ (so memorably set by Britten as one of his utterly un-‘seasonal’ Winter Words).