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8.554723 - Gabriel's Message: One Thousand Years of Carols

Gabriel's Message

One Thousand Years of Carols

The medieval carol had its origin in dance-songs. The texts tackle a variety 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 of Kölbigk is well known, with those who preferred to dance and carol outside the church 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 popular hymns associated with the festival.

Henry John Gauntlett's setting of words by Mrs Cecil Francis Alexander, Once in royal David's city, belongs firmly to the nineteenth century and has been popularized as an opening processional hymn for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols initiated at King's College, Cambridge, and widely imitated elsewhere. Trained as a lawyer, Ganntlett won a reputation as an organist and church composer, while as a scholar he was much admired by Mendelssohn.

Weather may change, but Gustav Holst's In the bleak midwinter, a setting of words by Christina Rossetti, has a firm place in the Christmas repertoire. It is followed by the medieval In dulci jubilo, a fourteenth-century melody here in the version harmonized by the English amateur musician Robert Lucas Pearsall. Born in Bristol, he was able, as a man of private means, to lead a varied existence, pursuing his antiquarian musical interests, notably at St Gall, to be received into the Catholic Church shortly before his death in 1856. His version of the carol dates from 1834, while he was living at Karlsruhe.

Donald Hunt's arrangement of Away in a manger is based on the work of the American gospel-hymn collector William James Kirkpatrick. The Coventry Carol returns to the medieval. It was used for the pageant of shearmen and tailors in the fifteenth century as an element of their traditional miracle play, with a subject, the Massacre of the Holy Innocents, reflecting the nature of their craft.

Good King Wenceslas brings together a thirteenth-century spring carol melody with the now familiar words by John Mason Neale, whose translations and hymns formed an important element in the English Hymnal of 1906, which, under the editorship of Vanghan Williams, drew on English Catholic traditions. The present version is arranged by Reginald Jacques, for thirty years conductor of the London Bach Choir. The truth sent from above is a traditional carol arranged by Vaughan Williams, one of a set of eight published in 1919.

God rest ye merry, gentlemen, another traditional English carol, is arranged by 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, of which he became conductor in 1960. His arrangement of Gabriel's Message, with a text derived from the Latin by John Mason Neale, is based on a melody from the medieval collection, Piae Cantiones. The holly and the ivy is a traditional English carol, its words and music collected by the indefatigable Cecil Sharp. It is given in an arrangement by Walford Davies, conductor of the Bach Choir from 1903 to 1907, who followed Elgar as Master of the King's Musick on the death of the latter in 1934.

O come, all ye faithful (Adeste fideles) is probably of eighteenth-century origin. It remains among the most familiar of carols. It is followed by the delightful King Jesus hath a garden, with its identification of flowers and virtues. Silent night (Stille Nacht) was written by the organist Franz Xaver Gruber for performance at the Christmas Midnight Mass at the Church of St Nichols at Oberndorf in 1818. It later entered Austrian popular repertory.

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day is a traditional English carol. It is followed by Jesus Christ the apple-tree by Elizabeth Poston, the editor of a number of important and practical collections of carols and folksongs. The text is taken from Divine Hymns or Spiritual Songs, compiled by Joshua Smith and published in New Hampshire in 1784.

The composer of What sweeter music, John Rutter, enjoys an extensive reputation for his choral compositions and arrangements. His carol is here capped by an arrangement by David Willcocks of Ding dong merrily on high, its melody from sixteenth-century France and its words by the editor of 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 Anglican tradition, John Tavener has derived inspiration from his Orthodox faith. His Christmas proclamation God is with us was written in 1987.

The present collection ends with the very familiar Hark the herald angels sing, the words by John Wesley, George Whitefield and others and dating from the eighteenth century and music adapted from Mendelssohn's Festgesang of 1840. The adaptation was made by W.H. Cummings who, as a chorister, sang in the first London performance of Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah and enjoyed a later career as a teacher, administrator, collector and church composer.

Keith Anderson

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