Workshop Led by Eddie Upton

Leigh, near Sherborne; 25th January 2020

This workshop, organised with admirable efficiency by Alison Suter, took place in the beautiful and well-equipped village hall in Leigh (pronounced ‘Lie’) near Sherborne.  This was a new venue for SWEMF, and the repertoire for the day was also new to us, being drawn from the rich heritage of West Gallery music – the tuneful and accessible music, often very specific to a locality, which could be heard in churches before the advent of ‘Hymns Ancient and Modern’ imposed a nationwide uniformity.  Although this is an area SWEMF hasn’t explored before, there are many groups in our region which focus on the West Gallery repertoire, and it was good to have non-SWEMF members from some of those groups joining us for the day.

Eddie proved the ideal guide not only to the music, but also to the insights it provides into social history.  It is clear that he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the topic, but he never lectured at us, instead dropping fascinating pieces of information as we worked on the music.  For example, we learned that some of these tunes are still in use in Australia, where they were taken by emigrating Cornish miners.  And it seems that, far from being untrained, many of the agricultural workers and shopkeepers who wrote these tunes were more musically educated than most people today.

The slightly motley group of instruments – ranging from fiddles and viols to sackbut, bassoon and accordion! – was just the kind of ensemble which might have got together in a village church in the late 18th or early 19th century to support the singing.  Eddie had prepared a well-balanced programme for the day, including five of the 600+ (!) settings of ‘While Shepherds Watched’ which are known to exist (did you know that it fits to ‘The Archers’ theme tune – Eddie gave us a demonstration!).  While some were straightforward strophic settings, others were more extended anthems showing considerable musical sophistication; one popular device was ‘fugueing’, where, as the name suggests, the parts enter in turn in an imitative fashion.  Eddie reminded us that carols were intended to be danced to as well as sung, and encouraged us to keep up a brisk pace and not settle into an ecclesiastical tempo.  In fact these tunes were by no means confined to the church – indeed, there are villages in our region where still today parties of carollers will visit each house to sing the traditional carols and wish the occupants a Happy Christmas.

The music is enormous fun to sing and play, and not technically demanding, and this combined with Eddie’s thoughtful manner of directing led everyone to agree, at the end of the day, that this was one of the most enjoyable and relaxing workshops we could remember.  The ‘bring and share’ lunch (an experiment which we might repeat) contributed to the relaxed atmosphere – though Alison’s provision of local cider might have something to do with that!

For anyone who was unable to attend the workshop, you can watch a performance by The Exmoor Society of one of the versions of ‘While Shepherds Watched’ which we sang, to the tune ‘Tom’s Boy’, here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7bbzZjLudCs.

Clare Griffel

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