The magical mix of Mary Webb’s delightful tale, based long ago in the Welsh Marches, the fascinating history of folk tradition and the inspiring writing of Village Quire conductor, arranger and composer Dave Newell makes for a wonderful show called Precious Bane – and The Quire are taking Precious Bane around the borders of Wales and England in the month of March.
The Village Quire are based in the border village of Glasbury, Powys, with the River Wye flowing through it. A bunch of like-minded choristers, the Quire have gained a tremendous reputation with a stunning programme of West Gallery singing, just as the eighteenth-century quires before them, spiced with full-on folk songs in harmony with newly-written material from Dave.
The story of Precious Bane goes like this: Prue Sarn is blessed – kind and gentle, loving and giving, bright and brave and strong, witty and sensitive and with a figure like an apple-blossom fairy to boot. But she is also cursed with a hare lip. If only her mother, pregnant with Prue, had not chosen that hour to walk in the woods; but the hare, familiar of witches, crossed her path, and the child was marked for life.
Precious Bane is Mary’s story of love and ambition, set in Shropshire’s Lakelands at a time just after the Napoleonic wars. It is a story of faith and folklore, of pantheism and personal advancement. But above all it is a love story: the love of Prue Sarn for Kester Woodseaves.
Dave says that the inspiration came from Quire singer Gill Bilsborough: “She suggested that Precious Bane might work well for a show. It is Gill’s friend, Erick Gaume, who has drawn the fantastic original artwork.”
Dave said: “I’m no expert on the life and works of Mary Webb, but Precious Bane is a smashing novel to my mind. A first read through might leave you with the impression that it’s a bit of a ‘bodice-ripper’ – but when you re-read the book, though, you begin to see all the richness of detail about folklore and rural life in nineteenth-century Shropshire.
“The influence of the Church upon the minds of country people is drawn out in the book, too, so there is good raw material for a group which sings both West Gallery music and folk harmony to work with. The story is also full of compassion and humanity. Even Beguildy, the villain of the piece, is described as being not wicked ‘but only empty of good, as if all the righteousness was burnt out by the flame of his fiery mind.’ Precious Bane is full of beautiful language and ringing phrases like that. Often Mary Webb’s prose needs very little adaptation and comes straight off the page into song – a gift.”
The songs are a fascinating mixture of Dave’s written work and traditional fare: “Two of the songs are arrangements that I made of traditional material that I had heard sung by Chris Wood – ‘Ploughing The Farm’ (based on ‘On Christmas Day It Happened So’) and ‘Hares on the Mountain’. Two of the songs are proper West Gallery pieces: ‘Egypt’, by James Leach, edited by Dave Townsend, and ‘The Shropshire Funeral Hymn’ by John Symons, edited by Gordon Ashman. The other 11 songs are my own.
“In style, the music draws a lot from folk harmony-singing and West Gallery music, but with a bit of a nod at shape note music, early vocal styles and a few other bits I have picked up along the way. I’d like to think that it all hangs together quite nicely, but I’m quite happy to let the Great British Listening Public be the judge of that – come and see the show and then let me know what you think.”
Dave finds working with the Quire fascinating for several reasons, including the brilliant harmony, the fascinating research, inspiring the audience to delve deeper into West Gallery quires and local folklore: “Well it’s all of that. The research – the background to it all – is fascinating. But it’s that spine-tingling thing you get with harmony singing that makes your hair stand on end that is so special. It’s the emotional clout, subtlety of expression and love of life that you get when voices are raised together in song. It’s also the cameraderie, the bond you get when you sing a lot together with people you like.
“I am really lucky to sing with The Village Quire. They are a lovely bunch of folks and they are always happy to give my new songs and arrangements a whirl. So what more could you ask for?”
The Village Quire tour Precious Bane to four venues:
March 1, 7.30pm: Marton Village Hall, near Welshpool SY21 8JT. Tickets £7 from Felicity Bevan on 01938 580116 or firstname.lastname@example.org
March 8, 7.30pm: Clun Memorial Hall, Guilden Lane, Clun SY7 8NY. Tickets £8 in advance/£10 on the door from 01588 640352 or email@example.com – bar and raffle
March 15, 7pm for 7.30 pm: Colwall Village Hall, Mill Lane, Colwall, Herefordshire WR13 6EQ. Tickets £10, in aid of Concern Universal from 01684 540300 (John Goodwin) or 01432 355111 (Beth Williams at Concern Universal)
March 28, 7pm: The Globe Arts Centre, Newport Street, Hay on Wye HR3 5BG. Tickets available from The Globe (01497 821762, firstname.lastname@example.org)