We’re incredibly lucky in Yorkshire to have a venue like the venerable Leeds Town Hall that attracts many of the world’s finest artists.

On December 21, when many of us were beginning to tire of the festive build-up (which commenced on August Bank Holiday), two linchpins of the UK’s creative community joined forces in Leeds to offer a unique and special antidote to the worry of sourcing that perfect gift for Granny: the premiere of The Emily Brontë Song Cycle.

The Unthanks don’t require any introduction. Although you may be forgiven for labelling them as one of the most important folk bands of our time, their diverse collaborations with the likes of Orbital, Maxine Peake (as part of Northern Soul Award-winning Hull’s 2017 City of Culture celebrations), Kathryn Tickell and Sting mark them out as much, much more. Sisters Rachel and Becky from the band can also be seen presenting fascinating insights into our cultural heritage on BBC Four.

Emily Brontë celebrates her bicentenary this year and, as part of the five-year Brontë 200 celebrations, the Brontë Society approached The Unthanks to reimagine some of Emily’s poetry, much of which is less familiar than her magnum opus Wuthering Heights.

Yorkshireman Adrian McNally, who with Rachel and Becky is the third of the vertices that form the heart of The Unthanks project, was perhaps tasked with the greatest challenge to bring Brontë’s poetry to life in song. In collaboration with the team at the parsonage, he spent time immersed in the environment that was home to the Brontë family. Access to Emily’s piano, still in its original position, has undoubtedly added a further layer of emotion to an already supremely moving and poignant piece of work.

So, to the event itself. At this juncture I must declare my bias. My introduction to the sumptuous work of The Unthanks came many years ago when I first heard their recording of The Testimony of Patience Kershaw. Their own website succinctly encapsulates why I and many others are drawn to their music. “There is a socially conscious heart to much of The Unthanks’ work. The Unthanks see folk music less as a style of music and more as an oral history that offers perspective on our own time.” 

An opening piece of audio instantly transports the audience to 19th century Haworth. Rooks wheeling overhead, the slam of the parsonage front door and the sound of hurried footsteps to the backdrop of a ticking clock that Reverend Brontë no doubt inspected daily for its accuracy.

What followed was an atmospheric and haunting musical re-working of some of Emily’s poetry, hand-picked by The Unthanks. The melancholic theme of much of Emily’s work dovetailed perfectly with the ‘other-worldly’ vocals of Rachel and Becky. The sound created by the two, with Adrian at piano, bored into the soul. It’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination to say that as She Dried Her Tears and They Did Smile drifted across the heads of those assembled, Emily’s ghost was sitting, quietly approving, in a corner of the Town Hall.

After the eloquent and moving interpretations of Emily’s work came words from another powerful young woman from the 19th century: Patience Kershaw. Her story is of child labour in a Halifax Pit. The song, originally penned by Frank Higgins in the 1960s, is now a much-loved Unthanks staple. “Even if a story is dated, perhaps about an industry or community which died years ago, or a war long forgotten, doesn’t the past help us to understand the context and perspective of our own lives better?”. I think so.

The final song of the evening was an unaccompanied Tar Barrel in Dale. The song was written by Rachel and Becky’s dad in celebration of a Northumbrian New Year tradition. The chorus, sung by everyone in the hall, made for a wonderful end to an exceptionally special evening.

By Colin Petch