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NARTHEN: HARK, HARK - Het Stuk, Leuven - 20 December 2019

Every winter, Fi Fraser and sister Jo Freya accompanied Coope, Boyes & Simpson on their annual Christmas tour. They continue the tradition with Barry Coope – Fi’s husband – and Jim Causley as Narthen – a good northern name. And they still sing the local carols that fell out of favour during the Victorian era, squeezed out of churches by the arrival of organs and the publication of Hymns Ancient And Modern.

This year, Narthen completed their Christmas tour with a trip to Belgium and the university town of Leuven, also the home of Stella Artois. I’ve never seen so many students, or so many happy ones. Narthen introduced themselves to an audience of university staff with a cheerful set of carol tunes, then put their instruments down to sing While Shepherds Watched in the four parts of the tune, Liverpool. The four voices made a glorious sound! Jim Causley contributed the Dunster Carol from Somerset and then came the Sussex Wassail, collected by Lucy Broadwood. More old carols followed; Old Hark from Barwell and Down In Yon Forest in a version that has returned from America.

Two sympathetic contemporary songs sat comfortably amongst the carols: Mary And Gabriel, written and performed by Jo, and Christmas Must Be Tonight from Robbie Robertson of The Band and sung by Barry. In contrast, My Christmas Day is a song devoted to excess, written by Mick Ryan. Jim performed it with unashamed gusto, to an equally indulgent saxophone accompaniment from Jo. The audience clearly recognised the symptoms and laughed in all the right places. Sobriety was quickly restored by a set of French tunes, including the melody of Ding Ding Merrily On High.

Shepherds Rejoice is a joyous West Gallery carol, with four voices weaving around each other, yet miraculously coming together at the end of the chorus. And While Shepherds Were Watching is a humble vernacular carol, learned from his father by George Dunn, a chainmaker from Quarry Bank, Dudley. He was in his eighties when Roy Palmer met him and collected it. Otherwise, the simple beauty of this song might have been lost for ever. Another popular Sheffield carol, Hark, Hark, What News, completed the concert.

In Leuven marketplace, the clock towers compete to mark each passing hour. And over them stands the University Library tower with a carillon of 63 bells. So, when the audience demanded more, Sweet Chiming Bells – yet another arrangement of While Shepherds Watched – was the perfect carol for the encore. The audience happily joined in the chorus.

Outside, the Christmas Fair was in full swing and lights bathed the ornate Town Hall in colour. The sheep were restless in their fold while, in the stable, Mary and Joseph, the Magi and a shepherd patiently awaited the arrival of the infant Jesus on Christmas Day. “I went to behold him, I asked them his name” - the words of George Dunn’s carol still rang in our ears. It had been a memorable day.

Henry Peacock