Gabriel's Message: One Thousand Years of Carols
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One Thousand Years ofCarols
The medieval carol had its origin in dance-songs. The texts tackle avariety of subjects, but are often associated with religious festivals and,above all, with Christmas. There was, of course, a distinctly secular element,whether at court or among the people. The unfortunate fate of the dancers ofKolbigk is well known, with those who preferred to dance and carol outside thechurch rather than go inside condemned to dance for a year without stopping.
Nowadays Christmas, always the subject of carolling, has claimed predominance,with earlier carol tunes adapted sometimes to new words and a host of popularhymns associated with the festival.
Henry John Gauntlett's setting of words by Mrs Cecil Francis Alexander, Oncein royal David's city, belongs firmly to the nineteenth century and hasbeen popularized as an opening processional hymn for the Festival of NineLessons and Carols initiated at King's College, Cambridge, and widely imitatedelsewhere. Trained as a lawyer, Ganntlett won a reputation as an organist andchurch composer, while as a scholar he was much admired by Mendelssohn.
Weather may change, but Gustav Holst's In the bleak midwinter, asetting of words by Christina Rossetti, has a firm place in the Christmasrepertoire. It is followed by the medieval In dulci jubilo, afourteenth-century melody here in the version harmonized by the English amateurmusician Robert Lucas Pearsall. Born in Bristol, he was able, as a man ofprivate means, to lead a varied existence, pursuing his antiquarian musicalinterests, notably at St Gall, to be received into the Catholic Church shortlybefore his death in 1856. His version of the carol dates from 1834, while hewas living at Karlsruhe.
Donald Hunt's arrangement of Away in a manger is based on thework of the American gospel-hymn collector William James Kirkpatrick. The CoventryCarol returns to the medieval. It was used for the pageant of shearmen andtailors in the fifteenth century as an element of their traditional miracle play, witha subject, the Massacre of the Holy Innocents, reflecting the nature of theircraft.
Good King Wenceslas brings together a thirteenth-century spring carolmelody with the now familiar words by John Mason Neale, whose translations andhymns formed an important element in the English Hymnal of 1906, which, underthe editorship of Vanghan Williams, drew on English Catholic traditions. Thepresent version is arranged by Reginald Jacques, for thirty years conductor ofthe London Bach Choir. The truth sent from above is a traditional carolarranged by Vaughan Williams, one of a set of eight published in 1919.
God rest ye merry, gentlemen, another traditional English carol, is arrangedby David Willcocks, whose name is associated not only with King's College,Cambridge and its famous choir, but also with that of the London Bach Choir, ofwhich he became conductor in 1960. His arrangement of Gabriel's Message, witha text derived from the Latin by John Mason Neale, is based on a melody from themedieval collection, Piae Cantiones. The holly and the ivy is atraditional English carol, its words and music collected by the indefatigableCecil Sharp. It is given in an arrangement by Walford Davies, conductor of theBach Choir from 1903 to 1907, who followed Elgar as Master of the King's Musickon the death of the latter in 1934.
O come, all ye faithful (Adeste fideles) is probably ofeighteenth-century origin. It remains among the most familiar of carols. It isfollowed by the delightful King Jesus hath a garden, with itsidentification of flowers and virtues. Silent night (Stille Nacht) waswritten by the organist Franz Xaver Gruber for performance at the ChristmasMidnight Mass at the Church of St Nichols at Oberndorf in 1818. It laterentered Austrian popular repertory.
Tomorrow shall be my dancing day is a traditional English carol. It is followedby Jesus Christ the apple-tree by Elizabeth Poston, the editor of anumber of important and practical collections of carols and folksongs. The textis taken from Divine Hymns or Spiritual Songs, compiled by JoshuaSmith and published in New Hampshire in 1784.
The composer of What sweeter music, John Rutter, enjoys anextensive reputation for his choral compositions and arrangements. His carol ishere capped by an arrangement by David Willcocks of Ding dong merrily onhigh, its melody from sixteenth-century France and its words by the editorof the Cowley Carol Book, George Ratcliffe Woodward.
Benjamin Britten's A Hymn to the Virgin was written in 1930,while he was still at school, and revised in 1934. A work of great sensitivity,it was sung at the composer's funeral in Aldeburgh in 1976. While Britten drew on Anglicantradition, John Tavener has derived inspiration from his Orthodox faith. HisChristmas proclamation God is with us was written in 1987.
The present collection ends with the very familiar Hark the heraldangels sing, the words by John Wesley, George Whitefield and others anddating from the eighteenth century and music adapted from Mendelssohn's Festgesangof 1840. The adaptation was made by W.H. Cummings who, as a chorister, sangin the first London performance of Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah andenjoyed a later career as a teacher, administrator, collector and churchcomposer.