Hark! ’Tis angels singing
Traditional Cornish carols collected from across the region will be sung in venues around Redruth this month
In the winter of 2017 Hilary Coleman and Sally Burley (pictured) produced a book called Hark! The Glad Sound of Cornish Carols. They had spent the previous two years travelling around Cornwall, recording stories, memories and local versions of carols in order to explore the continuity and revival of the Cornish carolling tradition. Funded by the Cornish Heritage Trust, The Federation of Old Cornwall Societies and the Red River Singers, the resulting book and accompanying CDs immediately virtually sold out within a month.
As well as being popular in Cornwall, the book has now received national recognition. The Folklore Society of Great Britain (a learned society devoted to the study of all aspects of folklore and tradition) administer the Katharine Briggs Book Award. Last month Hilary and Sally travelled to London for the awards ceremony and were delighted that, out of ten shortlisted entries, Hark! The Glad Sound of Cornish Carols was placed third.
Earlier this year the book, published by Francis Boutle, won the Holyer An Gof award, which is organised by Gorsedh Kernow and known as “the Cornish Bookers”. Dr Tamsin Spargo, cultural historian and section co-ordinator for the awards, said: “This follow-up to the authors’ Holyer an Gof award winner of 2016, Shout Kernow: Celebrating Cornwall’s Pub Songs, combines prodigious and meticulous scholarship on Cornish carols with stories, images, lyrics, and scores that capture a vital part of our culture and heritage. The authors’ research took them into the heart of Cornish communities who still sing these carols and the scores and CDs of more than thirty live recordings included in Hark! The Glad Sound of Cornish Carols allow readers to become singers. This combination of research into a vital aspect of our musical heritage with practical material for community choirs and individuals makes this an outstanding contribution to Cornish culture.”
Hilary Coleman said: “Cornish carols are very special and have a long history which deserves recognition. These carols are part of Cornwall’s rich communal singing. We hope the book will raise awareness of them and will preserve this heritage as well as increasing knowledge of Cornish history through the background of the carols and the local stories.”
Sally Burley added: “On our travels we heard and saw strong community pride in the local carols. In places such as Padstow, St Ives, Bude and Penzance people were celebrating Christmas with the traditional carols from their own towns out in the streets or in the pubs.”
However, both Sally and Hilary, who come from the Redruth area, discovered that although Redruth has its own similar carols and ones which certainly contributed hugely to the carol tradition within Cornwall and abroad, there was little knowledge in Redruth itself of this legacy and of the carols.
“The Four Lanes Male Voice Choir and Canoryon Troon still do a sterling job in their nearby villages,” said Hilary. “But there is very little opportunity to hear these carols in Redruth outside of the Methodist Merritt services held annually in honour of that particular composer. And now with the last Methodist Church closing there is a risk of them disappearing altogether.”
Redruth was recognised by many collectors of carols as the crucible in which this style of carol-hymns was forged and are mostly from the mid to late Victorian period, although some go much further back than that. Redruth was described in 1887 as a “musical metropolis” and many of the composers of favourite Cornish carols came from this area. Once there were four big Methodist churches in Redruth providing a well spring of carols which spread from the churches and into the community. A pocket book of carol words from 1891, printed in Redruth, has 147 carols and anthems. In The West Briton of 1889, the writer of its Notes from Redruth section wrote: “Carol singing this season promises to be well to the fore. Bands of young men sometimes known by the not too euphonious soubriquet of ‘hedge choirs’ have been promenading the streets singing the time-honoured carols in a more or less melodious manner This has been going on for several weeks past, principally on Sunday evenings.”
Not surprisingly some of the great composers of these carols came from the Redruth area. Many were miners and self-taught.
The greatest perhaps was Thomas Merritt, from Illogan, whose carols are still sung around Cornwall and in the Cornish Diaspora.
“We were pleased that we sold 700 copies of Hark! The Glad Sound of Cornish Carols in December 2017 but Merritt’s first set of carols sold 4000 in the same period in 1899.”
So Sally and Hilary decided to do something about reviving this tradition and have now been running rehearsals, led by Hilary on Sunday afternoons at Redruth Methodist Hall, to learn a core set of carols from the local composers; some well known and some less common from the old Redruth Carol Books.
“We have been delighted that over 50 people have regularly turned up to learn these mixed voice, four part harmony carols which shows how popular they still are,” said Hilary.
Throughout December they will go on “singing visits” to places around Redruth where people have expressed an interest in hearing them. At these events leaflets about the songs will be given out, including the words to enable others to join in. They hope that this will become an annual event and plan next year to involve the schools too.
“We believe these carols are an important part of our Cornish cultural identity and we hope through this project to help increase the knowledge of Redruth’s amazing heritage, to contribute to a sense of community pride and engender once a again a strong feeling of ownership and love of these uplifting carols,” added Hilary. “The times were when these carols could be heard sung by hundreds of miners gathered in Fore Street near the old clock, during the Christmas season.”