About this Recording
8.557585 - Christmas Choral Spectacular (A) (arr. Peter Breiner)
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A Christmas Choral Spectacular
(arrangements by Peter Breiner)

A staple of the Christian choral tradition, the carol is most accurately defined as a religious seasonal song, of joyful character, in the vernacular and sung by the common people, and indeed the time-hallowed annual Christmas ritual of carolling, always close to the hearts of ordinary people, is essentially of peasant rather than aristocratic origin. Several of the most enduring carol-tunes date from the Middle Ages or even earlier, having first been either sacred or secular, particularly pastoral melodies, frequently of French or German origin. The latter group often have lilting rhythms, betraying their former links with courtly dancing, not infrequently out of doors, and some of these are as pagan in origin as our Christmas holly or the candles on our cake. Others may relate more specifically to, or have been at least in part inspired by the crib that from the time of St Francis of Assisi in the thirteenth century has traditionally been installed in churches at Christmastide.

The medieval carol, which as often dealt with earthly topics as with the Nativity, the Blessed Virgin or St Nicolas, usually favoured a Latin or vernacular text arranged in simple, easily memorised stanzas with repeatable refrains, or ‘burdens’. While many ancient carol-tunes are extant in manuscript, the earliest printed carols, in the collection of Caxton’s pupil Wynkyn de Worde, first appeared in England in 1521. After the Reformation carols inclined in their message and mood of Christmas toward a more modern idiom. In 1833 William Sandys’ seminal Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern appeared and the Victorian era saw the publication of other influential collections, including Bramley and Stainer’s Christmas Carols New and Old and by the late nineteenth-century revival movements, analogous to those relating to folk-song and dance, were active in preserving ancient oral carol traditions from extinction. The trend continued into the twentieth century through various choral anthologies.

Another, sadly now all but faded strand in the fabric of choral Christmas, is the nostalgic English custom of open-air carol-singing, performed by ‘waits’. This, as Percy Scholes reminds us, ‘had long become a matter of door-to-door visitation, often of a very picturesque nature [which] tended to be degraded into a petty beggary: in every district little children paraded from door-step to door-step, from the end of November onwards, building up a Christmas fund by the extortion of what may very fairly 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 a carol at all but a courtly dance-rhythm. Attributed to the pseudonymous Thoinot Arbeau (1520-1595) it was gleaned from the Orchésographie of 1589, a manual of music and choreography by the French ecclesiastic Jehan Tabourot.

The Coventry Carol, Lully, lulla, thow little tyné child, deals with the slaughter of the Holy Innocents by Herod and is drawn from the Pageant of the Shearman and Taylors, one of the cycle of medieval mystery plays performed annually around the streets of Coventry on Corpus Christi, included in the edition by Robert Croo (1534). The song, one of only two surviving vernacular songs from English mystery plays, was added to Croo’s manuscript by Thomas Mawdycke in 1591 and it is this tune which has come down to us, by way of a bowdlerised version preserved in Thomas Sharp’s 1825 Dissertations on the Coventry pageants.

A rhythmic tune in the Welsh tradition of penillion, in which singers improvise on a melody from the harpist, Deck the hall was originally a carol for dancing rather than a Festive one. As Nos Galan (New Year’s Eve) it appeared in Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bards (1784), by the Merionethshire-born harpist and folk-song collector Edward Jones (1752-1824). Its original Welsh verses were subsequently translated as Soon the hoar old year will leave us, while the now familiar Deck the hall version apparently originated in J.P. McCaskey’s Franklin Square Song Collection of 1881.

In mid-European and Teutonic pagan traditions the fir-tree was a token of the life-force surviving winter’s frost long before it symbolized renewal at the birth of Christ, and the Christmas-tree later became synonymous with Martin Luther who, many Germans formerly believed, was the first to use it in the context of the Nativity. In the 1820s, by which time Christmas-trees had assumed a domestic connotation in Germany, it acquired words drawn from a sixteenth-century song, now with a popular tune known, at least, by 1799, with the words Es lebe hoch, the carpenter’s song. The student song beginning Lauriger Horatius quam dixisti verum used the same melody. The result was the well-known O Christmas Tree (O Tannenbaum).

Variously rendered in its original as Oi Betléem! and Oh, mi Belén, the traditional Basque The Infant King was first transcribed by Bordes in 1895. Its English words were added soon afterwards by Sabine Baring-Gould (1834- 1924), the noted folk-song collector, editor and hymnodist, who was also sometime squire and rector of the Devonshire parish of Lewtrenchard. It has undergone various subsequent arrangements.

The origins of O come, all ye faithful, the most famous of all Christmas carols, are obscure, but both the Latin text Adeste, fidele and the tune, which most probably date from the eighteenth century, exist in a manuscript of circa 1740 by the English Catholic teacher and music scribe John Francis Wade (c.1711-1786), of the English College at Douai. In 1910 it was suggested that the first part of the melody was an adaptation of an operatic aria by Handel, but more recent scholarship has attributed it to Wade’s friend Thomas Arne (1710-1778). Whereas the carol was popular in its Latin original in the United States from about 1795, the now widely known English version was the work of the mid-Victorian hymnodists F. Oakeley, F.H. Murray and W.T. Brooke.

The words of O little town of Bethlehem, an American carol, by Bishop Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) of Holy Trinity Church, Philadelphia, were reputedly inspired by his trip to Jerusalem in 1865. It was first set to music by his organist, Lewis Redner, in 1868 and since then it has occupied a special niche in the carol repertory. It has retained its popularity in various arrangements. The text was also famously set by Ralph Vaughan Williams and subtitled Forest Green, based on the old English tune The Ploughboy’s Dream.

The text of Puer nobis nascitur, rector angelorum (Unto us is born a son, the ruler of angels) is that of a fifteenth-century German carol, an offertory of thanks to God. One of the finest of medieval cantiones (songs) the tune was also heard in France, in the form of a Latin noël, from the sixteenth century onwards.

With original music, in the folk-song mode, by the Austrian Franz Xaver Gruber (1787-1863) and words by Josef Mohr (1792-1848), Silent Night, Holy Night (Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht), one of the best loved of carols, is now known in English-speaking countries in a translation dating from the 1870s by John F. Young (1820-1885). Supposedly written at short notice for a midnight Mass at Oberndorf parish church on Christmas Eve, 1818, it was later popularised in Germany by Tyrolean singers and by the 1840s several variants of the original had found their way into print. The carol’s earliest printed English version, Holy Night! Peaceful Night!, by Jane Montgomery Campbell (London, 1863) was introduced to the United States in the early 1870s by the Episcopalian hymnodist Charles Lewis Hutchins.

Probably the best known of traditional Czech carols, Hajej, nynej, JeÏí‰ku (Little Jesus, sweetly sleep) first gained currency in the English-speaking world through The Oxford Book of Carols. A lullaby with which all Czechs are familiar, its undulating rhythm harks back to the medieval German custom of cradle rocking.

Gloucester Wassail (Wassail, wassail, all over the town!) is a carol with traditional English text and melody, based on an eighteenth-century Gloucestershire wassailing song. This found new currency in Victorian times in Husk’s Songs of the Nativity (1864) and in an arrangement by Sir John Stainer (1840-1901).

Quem pastores laudavere (Him whom the shepherds praised) is a paean of praise to the Infant Christ the King. This fourteenth-century German carol was later included in both Catholic and Lutheran usage. Adapted by the Thuringian hymnodist and editor Michael Praetorius (1571-1621), it first appeared in print in his Musae Sioniae of 1607.

Although it has become a firm world favourite among Christmas songs, the calypso-style adaptation of a traditional Trinidadian carol, The Virgin Mary had a baby boy, is a comparative newcomer to the English repertoire. Included by the West Indian baritone and collector Edric Connor in his 1945 Collection of West Indian Spirituals and Folk Tunes, it was, he claimed, handed down to him by a 94-year-old plantation worker, in Trinidad in 1943.

Peter Dempsey


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