In a selection of South Yorkshire pubs, carols written by a blacksmith in the 18th century are sometimes heard. Now, a broader audience will get the chance to hear them.
A Yorkshire Nativity will be performed at Skipton Town Hall on Saturday as 300-year-old tunes written by working-class artisans are combined with new music by Ben Crick to form a 45-minute oratorio that explores a contemporary Christmas analogy.
Crick, composer and conductor, says: “These carols are part of our history, and are still sang as an oral tradition in some pubs around Sheffield and Barnsley. They never found their way into the established church canon, which is dominated to this day by later Christmas music from the mid to late 19th century. You do end up wondering if the fact that it was working-class musicians writing these things that prevented them getting the recognition they deserved.”
The carols were written by working people from the 1700s onward, and near the end of that century someone started writing them down.
Several were written by John Hall. As with many working men, little is known of him, other than his music – the only mention those involved in the show could find of him is a one-line obituary that states he “worked at the anvil and died in the poorhouse”.
Crick was born in Huddersfield and now lives in rural Skipton. He’s held a BBC Music Fellowship, worked with orchestras around the world, and is artist director of Skipton Building Society Camerata, which joins the Clothworkers Consort of Leeds choir to perform the piece.
Bradford playwright Sally Edwards has written the libretto for the oratorio.
Crick says: “I hope what I’ve created with Sally honours these old tunes whilst surrounding them with a narrative that is absolutely of today. The carols talk about austerity, poverty, migration and hope all things that abounded in the 18th century and we’re not exactly short of now either, it’s a Christmas story for today.”
Sally adds: “We’ve set A Yorkshire Nativity in contemporary times. These old folk songs show how people, despite austerity and hardships, found universal good and brought humanity to the fore at Christmas. It’s a message of hope. It felt like a message that was very relevant, and needed, in today’s political and economic climate.”
Crick acknowledges the debt he owes to the work of Professor Ian Russell at the University of Aberdeen, who was originally from Yorkshire, and has conducted extensive research into the folk carols. He studied the singing traditions of west Sheffield as part of his doctorate.
Crick says: “Remarkably, these carols pre-date Dickens and the Victorian invention of Christmas as we know it. It’s a testament to the quality of his music that his compositions still live in the corner of pubs in Yorkshire today at Christmas time.”
A Yorkshire Nativity is at Skipton Town Hall on Saturday December 10 at 7.30pm. To book from a limited number of remaining seats, visit skiptoncamerata.com