A Christmas Choral Spectacular

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A Christmas Choral Spectacular

(arrangements by Peter Breiner)

A staple of the Christian choral tradition, the carol is mostaccurately defined as a religious seasonal song, of joyfulcharacter, in the vernacular and sung by the commonpeople, and indeed the time-hallowed annual Christmasritual of carolling, always close to the hearts of ordinarypeople, is essentially of peasant rather than aristocraticorigin. Several of the most enduring carol-tunes date fromthe Middle Ages or even earlier, having first been eithersacred or secular, particularly pastoral melodies,frequently of French or German origin. The latter groupoften have lilting rhythms, betraying their former linkswith courtly dancing, not infrequently out of doors, andsome of these are as pagan in origin as our Christmas hollyor the candles on our cake. Others may relate morespecifically to, or have been at least in part inspired by thecrib that from the time of St Francis of Assisi in thethirteenth century has traditionally been installed inchurches at Christmastide.

The medieval carol, which as often dealt with earthlytopics as with the Nativity, the Blessed Virgin or StNicolas, usually favoured a Latin or vernacular textarranged in simple, easily memorised stanzas withrepeatable refrains, or 'burdens'. While many ancientcarol-tunes are extant in manuscript, the earliest printedcarols, in the collection of Caxton's pupil Wynkyn deWorde, first appeared in England in 1521. After theReformation carols inclined in their message and mood ofChristmas toward a more modern idiom. In 1833 WilliamSandys' seminal Christmas Carols Ancient and Modernappeared and the Victorian era saw the publication ofother influential collections, including Bramley andStainer's Christmas Carols New and Old and by the latenineteenth-century revival movements, analogous to thoserelating to folk-song and dance, were active in preservingancient oral carol traditions from extinction. The trendcontinued into the twentieth century through variouschoral anthologies.

Another, sadly now all but faded strand in the fabricof choral Christmas, is the nostalgic English custom ofopen-air carol-singing, performed by 'waits'. This, asPercy Scholes reminds us, 'had long become a matter ofdoor-to-door visitation, often of a very picturesque nature[which] tended to be degraded into a petty beggary: inevery district little children paraded from door-step todoor-step, from the end of November onwards, buildingup a Christmas fund by the extortion of what may veryfairly be called \hush money".'The distinctive lilt of Ding dong! Merrily on high,with its now familiar English text by G.R. Woodward(1848-1934), betrays its history, for it was originally not acarol at all but a courtly dance-rhythm. Attributed to thepseudonymous Thoinot Arbeau (1520-1595) it wasgleaned from the Orchesographie of 1589, a manual ofmusic and choreography by the French ecclesiastic JehanTabourot.

The Coventry Carol, Lully, lulla, thow little tynechild, deals with the slaughter of the Holy Innocents byHerod and is drawn from the Pageant of the Shearman andTaylors, one of the cycle of medieval mystery playsperformed annually around the streets of Coventry onCorpus Christi, included in the edition by Robert Croo(1534). The song, one of only two surviving vernacularsongs from English mystery plays, was added to Croo'smanuscript by Thomas Mawdycke in 1591 and it is thistune which has come down to us, by way of a bowdlerisedversion preserved in Thomas Sharp's 1825 Dissertationson the Coventry pageants.

A rhythmic tune in the Welsh tradition of penillion, inwhich singers improvise on a melody from the harpist,Deck the hall was originally a carol for dancing rather thana Festive one. As Nos Galan (New Year's Eve) itappeared in Musical and Poetical Relicks of the WelshBards (1784), by the Merionethshire-born harpist andfolk-song collector Edward Jones (1752-1824). Itsoriginal Welsh verses were subsequently translated asSoon the hoar old year will leave us, while the nowfamiliar Deck the hall version apparently originated in J.P.

McCaskey's Franklin Square Song Collection of 1881.

In mid-European and Teutonic pagan traditions thefir-tree was a token of the life-force surviving winter'sfrost long before it symbolized renewal at the birth ofChrist, and the Christmas-tree later became synonymouswith Martin Luther who, many Germans formerlybelieved, was the first to use it in the context of theNativity. In the 1820s, by which time Christmas-trees hadassumed a domestic connotation in Germany, it acquiredwords drawn from a sixteenth-century song, now with apopular tune known, at least, by 1799, with the words Eslebe hoch, the carpenter's song. The student songbeginning Lauriger Horatius quam dixisti verum used thesame melody. The result was the well-known O ChristmasTree (O Tannenbaum).

Variously rendered in its original as Oi Betleem! andOh, mi Belen, the traditional Basque The Infant King wasfirst transcribed by Bordes in 1895. Its English words wereadded soon afterwards by Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924), the noted folk-song collector, editor andhymnodist, who was also sometime squire and rector ofthe Devonshire parish of Lewtrenchard. It has undergonevarious subsequent arrangements.

The origins of O come, all ye faithful, the mostfamous of all Christmas carols, are obscure, but both theLatin text Adeste, fidele and the tune, which mostprobably date from the eighteenth century, exist in amanuscript of circa 1740 by the English Catholic teacherand music scribe John Francis Wade (c.1711-1786), of theEnglish College at Douai. In 1910 it was suggested thatthe first part of the melody was an adaptation of anoperatic aria by Handel, but more recent scholarship hasattributed it to Wade's friend Thomas Arne (1710-1778).

Whereas the carol was popular in its Latin original in theUnited States from about 1795, the now widely knownEnglish version was the work of the mid-Victorianhymnodists F. Oakeley, F.H. Murray and W.T. Brooke.

The words of O little town of Bethlehem, an Americancarol, by Bishop Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) of HolyTrinity Church, Philadelphia, were reputedly inspired byhis trip to Jerusalem in 1865. It was first set to music byhis organist, Lewis Redner, in 1868 and since then it hasoccupied a special niche in the carol repertory. It hasretained its popularity in various arrangements. The textwas also famously set by Ralph Vaughan Williams andsubtitled Forest Green, based on the old English tune ThePloughboy's Dream.

The text of Puer nobis nascitur, rector angelorum(Unto us is born a son, the ruler of angels) is that of afifteenth-century German carol, an offertory of thanks toGod. One of the finest of medieval cantiones (songs) thetune was also heard in France, in the form of a Latin no?½l,from the sixteenth century onwards.

With original music, in the folk-song mode, by theAustrian Franz Xaver Gruber (1787-1863) and words byJosef Mohr (1792-1848), Silent Night, Holy Night (StilleNacht, heilige Nacht), one of the best loved of carols, isnow known in English-speaking countries in a translationdating from the 1870s by John F. Young (1820-1885).

Supposedly written at short notice for a midnight Mass atOberndorf parish church on Christmas Eve, 1818, it waslater popularised in Germany by Tyrolean singers and bythe 1840s several variants of the original had found theirway into print. The carol's earliest printed English version,Holy Night! Peaceful Night!, by Jane MontgomeryCampbell (London, 1863) was introduced to the UnitedStates in the early 1870s by the Episcopalian hymnodistCharles Lewis Hutchins.

Probably the best known of traditional Czech carols,Hajej, nynej, Je?Åi%ku (Little Jesus, sweetly sleep) firstgained currency in the English-speaking world throughThe Oxford Book of Caro
Disc: 1
The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy
1 Ding Dong! Merrily on High
2 Coventry Carol
3 Deck the Hall
4 O Christmas Tree (O Tannenbaum)
5 The Infant King (Oh, mi Belen)
6 O come, all ye faithful (Adeste, fideles)
7 O Little Town of Bethlehem
8 Puer nobis nascitur
9 Silent Night (Stille Nacht)
10 Little Jesus, Sweetly Sleep
11 Gloucester Wassail
12 Quem pastores laudavere
13 The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy
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