A collection of old carols, many written by an 18th century Yorkshire blacksmith, are the inspiration behind a new oratorio, A Yorkshire Nativity by composer Ben Crick.
Dubbed a ‘modern day nativity’ the piece will have its world premiere at Skipton Town Hall this December. It takes the 300-year-old tunes written by working-class Yorkshire artisans and combines them with new music by Ben Crick to form a 45-minute piece that tells a contemporary Christmas analogy.
Ben Crick, composer and conductor, said: “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.”
Ben 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.
The libretto for the oratorio is written by the Bradford playwright, Sally Edwards.
Ben said: “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 said: “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.”
The carols were written by working people from the 1700s onward, and around the late 1700s, someone started writing them down. Several were written by John Hall. As with many working men, little is known of him as; other than his music, the only mention we can find of him is a one-line obituary that states he ‘worked at the anvil and died in the poorhouse’.
Ben said: “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.”
Ben is quick to acknowledge 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, and conducted extensive fieldwork on folksong.
The piece will be performed by the Clothworkers Consort of Leeds choir and Skipton Building Society Camerata, with Crick conducting.
Ben added: “In the past, big local employers offered philanthropically supported brass bands and choirs amongst the workers. Today, the Skipton Building Society is helping us deliver national-level art in a rural area, it’s a similar financial model.”
Last week, Arts Council England revealed the portfolio of cultural projects from around the country that it will be funding from 2023 to 2026.
Ben said: “The announcement left the country’s biggest county, North Yorkshire, with only seven regularly funded groups. Nationally, we’ve also seen some shocking reductions in funding across music. As grant money becomes scarcer, I think more organisations may look to funding models nearer to the one we use in Skipton; it feels like we’re looking backwards to go forwards.”
The concert will also feature perennial favourites, Corelli’s Christmas Concerto and Bach’s Wachet Auf, alongside the new oratorio.
A Yorkshire Nativity is at Skipton Town Hall on Saturday December 10 at 7.30pm. To book: SC | A Yorkshire Nativity (skiptoncamerata.com)
Photo shows Ben Crick, photographer’s credit Lorne Campbell / Guzelian
Composer and conductor Ben Crick works on his new oratorio, A Yorkshire Nativity, in the surroundings of Malham Smithy, Malham, North Yorkshire. Behind him is blacksmith Annabelle Bradley.
The piece of music is inspired by a collection of 18th and 19th century carols and aims to represent the 300-year-old tunes written by working-class artisans, such as blacksmiths, joiners and candlemakers.
A Yorkshire Nativity will be premiered at nearby Skipton Town Hall on Saturday 10 December 2022.
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Ben is also the founder of the newly revived Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra read all about it here.