Even with the multifarious activities of a typical Dales village, the days of deep winter following the Christmas festivities can seem rather empty and melancholy. An annual event now established almost as a tradition helps to counteract some of the depression of these dark days in the villages of North Craven. Every year, on a Saturday in early January, the famous choir of Leeds Parish Church visits one of the villages in North Craven to give a concert of music appropriate to the season of Epiphany. These recitals are organised by the North Craven Heritage Trust which joins with the incumbent and parishioners of one of the towns or villages within its area in promoting the recital, providing an invariably large audience, and entertaining the members of the choir together with its Organist and Master of Chorister, Simon Lindley. Since 1978 the choir has sung in the churches of Kirkby Malham, Clapham, Settle, Horton-in-Ribblesdale High Bentham, Long Preston, Giggleswick, Burton-in-Lonsdale, Ingleton, Hellifield, Thornton-in-Lonsdale, and in the chapel of Giggleswick School. Proceeds from the recitals are shared between the "home" church and the North Craven Heritage Trust's Historic Churches Fund.
Leeds is one of the few major cities in England with no Anglican cathedral within its boundaries and thus the Parish Church of St Peter has always been of particular importance and, from the time of its rebuilding and reconsecration in 1841, has also been famous for its music. The Parish Church has had a succession of distinguished organists and choirmasters, known far beyond the Yorkshire borders, from that time right up to the present day. During the tenure of the first of these, Samuel Sebastian Wesley, Leeds was, ironically for a Parish Church, setting the pace for a widespread and much needed revival of the old cathedral musical traditions together with much higher performing standards. Music was generally very run down in the first half of the nineteenth century in English cathedrals. Wesley had come to Leeds from being organist of firstly, Hereford, and then Exeter Cathedrals.
There is the story of the first performance of his well-known "Blessed be the God and Father" on an Easter Day at Hereford when the choir consisted of the trebles and a solitary bass, reputed to be the Dean's butler. This particularly illustrates the situation that Wesley was trying to put right. At Leeds, where a large choir already existed, he had the opportunity to introduce much of the finest English church music of the past, from Byrd to Purcell, and also more recent pieces by such composers as Crotch and Attwood. After 8 years at Leeds, Wesley moved on to Winchester and then, later, to Gloucester Cathedral, It has been noted, however, that "it is probable that the only adequate choir he ever had at his disposal was... at Leeds Parish Church".
Wesley's work in both extending the repertoire and further improving standards of performance was consolidated throughout the second half of the century by such composers as Robert Burton, William Creser and Alfred Benton. A very full and fascinating account of music at Leeds during these times and, indeed, up to the present day is given by Donald Webster in his "Parish" Past and Present—275 years of Leeds Parish Church Music published by the Old Choirboys' Association and available from the Parish Church.
This century has been an equally distinguished period for the choir and its organists. Sir Edward Bairstow before his long period of service as organist of York Minster was at Leeds for seven years. Just after he had resigned from the Leeds post, the Musical Times wrote "No cathedral in the country has so large a musical establishment as Leeds Parish Church". Other fine organists at Leeds this century have included Herbert Williams, Dr Albert Tysoe, Dr Melville Cook and Dr Donald Hunt (now of Worcester Cathedral). The present organist and Master of the Choristers, Simon Lindley, was already regarded as one of this country's leading organists and was also widely experienced in training choirs when he was appointed to Leeds in 1975. His dynamism and indefatigable energy and enthusiasm rapidly became apparent in an extraordinary variety of music making throughout (West) Yorkshire. The Parish Church Choir under his leadership has continued its very busy programme of recording, broadcasting and concert giving both in Leeds and on tour at home and abroad whilst at the same time, of course, fulfilling its prime role of providing daily choral services in the Parish Church. And this is achieved without the benefit of a choir school! The choristers travel to the Parish Church every day not only from every corner of the city but also a few from places beyond.
Christmastide is always a very busy time for any choir and is particularly so for the Leeds choir, with many events extending over a three week period, including Lunchtime Carols at the Town Hall, several Lord Mayor's Carol presentations, a Carol Procession through Leeds Markets, and culminating on Christmas Eve itself, in carol singing around the wards at the Leeds General Infirmary. Following a short break after all this hectic activity, it is the annual visit to the Dales that heralds the New Year for the choir.
Any regular events tend to create their own patterns and traditions, and this is certainly the case with the Epiphany concerts in North Craven. Following the journey from Leeds to the appointed village, the boys in the choir immediately sit down to a lunch of soup provided by the ladies of the village. What the variety of soup might be has been a matter of great speculation on the way. The gentlemen of the choir usually ward off (with great moderation, it must be said) the effects of the often bitter weather by repairing to the local hostelry. The weather, of course, can be a great problem in transporting a choir of up to 20 boys and 16 men together with their robes in January. The sight of the boys of the choir lined up in their two unbroken ranks of Decani and Cantoris in a howling blizzard on Clapham Station platform in 1979 reminded one more of a harrowing scene from "War and Peace" than of a choir simply returning home after a successful afternoon concert. After each concert, members of the audience together with the choir and their supporters from Leeds gather in the village or church hall for tea provided again by the ladies of the village and Heritage Trust. The food is always of enormous variety and quantity and it is on these very congenial occasions that many links have been forged between the visitors and the many regular attenders of the concerts.
There is not a vast amount of musical material specifically written for the season of Epiphany, and Simon Lindley has made a point of searching out the unfamiliar. As well as such well-known pieces as Cornelius's "Three Kings", we have heard at these concerts a work such as the Epiphany sequence from Mendlessohn's uncompleted oratorio, "Christus". The concerts generally comprise groups of carols and other music encompassing the feasts of Christmas, its Octave, and the Epiphany. These groups, introduced by the conductor with a unique blend of erudition and wit, have such attractive titles as "Continentat Christmas" or "Expressions of Epiphany". A tradition has now grown at these concerts of including a Procession of Kings -always a most moving experience. Every year the choir obviously has to adapt to singing in a church tiny in comparison with their normal habitat and, in spite of the inherent difficulties of this and the necessarily limited time available for preparation in the particular church, the processions and "stage management" are as effective as the excellent singing. The concerts always end with a hymn in which everyone joins. The choir of Leeds Parish Church combining with a large audience from North Craven in singing "As with gladness men of old" makes a fine start to the year in this most westerly area of Yorkshire.
Leeds Parish Church Choir will give a recital of music for the feasts of Christmas and Epiphany in the Church of St John the Evangelist, Langcliffe on 6 January 1996 at 2.30 pm.
This article, suitably amended by the author, first appeared in the Dalesman Magazine in 1989.
St. Margaret's of Antioch, High Bentham.