About this Recording

Lullabies and Carols for Christmas


The art of the Christmas carol extends back to the Middle Ages, producing a rich and complex tradition over the centuries which continues to the present day. The carol genre covers a variety of styles, often related to the secular dances of each epoch and involving poetic forms both popular and courtly. The international nature of the carol brings together a vast array of diverse characteristics, each expressing similar religious sentiments but created in a wide spectrum of musical idioms ranging from polyphony to simple straightforward melodies, from folk-song to the music of Britten or Holst.

From the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries, the French carole was a courtly dance song of great influence on the subsequent English development of the form. Thus it is entirely appropriate that this recording also includes a selection of traditional French carols.

The Garden of Jesus was originally a traditional Dutch carol under the title Heer Jesus heft een Hofken, printed in a work called Spiritual Harmony, of 1633. A translation by the Reverend George R. Woodward (1848–1934) appeared in the third edition of Songs of Syon, published by Schott & Co. The flowers of the garden mentioned include lily, violet, damask–rose, marigold, and crown imperial, while dulcimers and lutes, harps and cymbals, ‘trumpets, pipes and gentle soothing flutes’ play in the background.

It is not widely realised that Christina Rossetti (1830–1894), the acclaimed and prolific poet of both religious and secular verse in the nineteenth century, wrote the poignant words of In the Bleak Mid-Winter, published posthumously in Rossetti’s Poetic Works (1904). The music here is by Harold Edwin Darke (1888–1976), the English composer and organist who was briefly Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge in the 1940s. His setting of the words is still performed at the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in King’s College Chapel every Christmas Eve.

Balulalow (Lullaby), from sixteenth century Scotland, is a translation by one of the Wedderburn family of Aberdeen of Martin Luther’s hymn for children ‘Vom Himmel hoch’. This setting of Balulalow is by Peter Tiefenbach, a performer, composer, and teacher from Regina, Saskatchewan, who studied music in Canada, the United States and England, before settling in Toronto in 1986.

Lullay My Liking, an English traditional carol from the fifteenth century, is featured here in an arrangement by Gustav Holst (1874–1934). The homely simplicity and intimate personal tone of the verse have endeared this carol to countless generations.

The Coventry Carol was first performed as part of a sixteenth century mystery play entitled The Pageant of the Shearman and Tailors, and refers in the second stanza to Herod’s attempt to kill the newborn Jesus by a massacre in Bethlehem of all babies under the age of two. The melody was written down by Robert Croo in 1534 and published in 1591. The only extant manuscript copy was destroyed by fire in 1875 causing problems in ascertaining the precise words of the text.

Benjamin Britten (1913–1976) wrote A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28, when returning by sea from the United States to England in 1942. The composer used a harp to accompany his carol sequence, aware that this would be acoustically resonant in a church context. His Interlude allows the solo harp to speak for itself in a lyrical mood appropriate to the entire work described by Britten’s biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, as radiating ‘relaxed joyfulness’.

Noël nouvelet (New Christmas) urges the people to welcome a new Christmas by praise and thanks to the ‘new king’, making reference in later verses to the familiar ingredients of the biblical story, including the shepherds and the angels, the Holy Family in Bethlehem, and the visit of the kings led by the ‘bright star’. Avec les séraphins du ciel (With the heavenly seraphim) welcomes the advent of ‘hope in the heart’ and salutes the ‘divine Infant who wins our hope’. Entre le boeuf et l’âne gris (Between the Ox and the Grey Ass), speaks lyrically of the Holy Child surrounded by a thousand angels, in the arms of Mary.

Quelle est cette odeur agréable? (What is that sweet fragrance?) takes a form characteristic of much medieval verse, that of question and answer. Thus the mysterious fragrance is defined as the ‘scent of heaven’s glory’. The second stanza asks ‘What is that light?’ and this turns out to be the bright star itself. Finally to the question, ‘Where can we find God’s holy glory?’ the response is that this will be found wherever people gather to worship God.

The last of this group is the traditional carol Il est né le divin enfant (The Divine Infant is Born). The verse calls on musical instruments and choirs to ‘sing his accession’ and refers to the early prophecies, the stable and the patch of hay which is the Infant’s little bed, and the contrast between the humble circumstances of the Nativity and the infinite power of God.

Marcel Lucien Tournier (1879–1951), a French composer and eminent harpist who taught at the Paris Conservatoire, wrote stage works, a cantata, chamber music, piano solos, and a number of pieces for harp. The six Noëls of the Christmas suite show his impressionist roots and a finely expressive use of the harp’s versatility.

Margaret Rose (b. 1936) wrote The Little Road to Bethlehem, a carol inspired by the sight of lambs in the field at sunset in North Weald, Essex. Michael Head (1900–1976), the English composer and professor of piano at the Royal Academy of Music, set the words to music. This piece is considered the most popular of the hundred songs he wrote.

The composer, singer and folklorist from Louisville, Kentucky, John Jacob Niles (1892–1980), renowned as the ‘dean of the American balladeers’, first heard I Wonder as I Wander at a meeting of Evangelicals in Murphy, North Carolina:

A girl had stepped out to the edge of the little platform attached to the automobile. She began to sing. Her clothes were unbelievably dirty and ragged, and she, too, was unwashed. Her ashblond hair hung down in long skeins…But, best of all, she was beautiful, and in her untutored way, she could sing. She smiled as she sang, smiled rather sadly, and sang only a single line of a song.

The girl, named Annie Morgan, sang the song several times, being paid for each repetition. From this impromptu performance Niles retrieved ‘three lines of verse, a garbled fragment of melodic material, and a magnificent idea’, and went on to compose the familiar version of I Wonder as I Wander popular today. Niles put together three stanzas of the carol and a refrain. The first performance of the piece took place on 19 December 1933, at the John C. Campbell Folk School, in Brasstown, North Carolina. The carol was published in his anthology, Songs of the Hill Folk, the following year.

Eleanor Farjeon (1881–1965), the English author, poet, playwright, journalist, and broadcaster, was particularly esteemed for children’s stories, her best known book in this genre being Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard. She also wrote the words to the hymn Morning has Broken as well as the Advent carol, People, Look East! The carol mixes elements of the sublime narrative of Christmas with down-to-earth observations such as Make your house fair as you are able/Trim the hearth and set the table, a feature characteristic of seventeenth century religious verse. The music here is from the Christmas cantata, A Spotless Rose, by James Whicher (b. 1931), singer, teacher, and choir director.

Norman Gabriel Nurmi (b. 1948), the Canadian writer, composer, singer, and teacher, also integrates the intimacies of the stable with the wider vision in his carol, In Bethlehem Tonight. Here ‘the bed of hay’ and the ‘tiny cradle’ are contrasted with the waiting world which evolves from being ‘darkened’ and ‘mourning’, then ‘angry’ and ‘raging’ towards ‘awe and wonder’ as the mystery is revealed and ‘love is born in Bethlehem’.

Carlos Salzédo (1885–1961), American harpist and composer born in France, became first harpist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, New York, under Toscanini in 1909. He was extremely influential, in company with Varèse, in promoting contemporary music as well as becoming one of the foremost composers for the harp and an eminent teacher at the Curtis Institute and the Juilliard School of Music. The hymn tune of Adeste Fideles (O Come All Ye Faithful) was written by John Francis Wade (1711–1786), the English plainchant scribe and publisher, whose superb melody was printed in his Cantus Diversi (1751). The text of the carol is believed to have originated in the thirteenth century.

With the famous carol In Dulci Jubilo (In Sweet Rejoicing) we move back into the musical and literary art of the Middle Ages. Here German and Latin verse were united to create a powerful message believed by some scholars to have been written by the German mystic poet, Heinrich Seuse. The theme attracted J.S. Bach who wrote a Chorale Prelude (BWV 729) founded on this melody as well as an organ solo (BWV 608). Dietrich Buxtehude also set the work in 1683 as a Chorale-Cantata and as an organ prelude in 1690.

Another special favourite among traditional Christmas repertoire is Away in a Manger, which as an unaccompanied solo by a boy treble always opens the Festival of Nine Carols and Lessons at King’s College, Cambridge. This piece appeared in an anthology of hymns, The Little Children’s Book for Schools and Families, edited by James R. Murray (1841–1905), published in Philadelphia in 1885. It is not known who originally wrote the words though at one time it was believed that the carol was based on a hymn by Martin Luther.

Father Allan MacDonald (1859–1905), priest and poet, was fascinated by the beauties of folkloric literature. Thus his version of the traditional Scottish Gaelic carol, Tàladh Chrìosda, rendered as The Christ-Child’s Lullaby, combines religious faith with linguistic skill. The atmosphere of the poem is strongly reminiscent of the Spanish mystic, Juan de la Cruz, and speaks in immediate, intimate tones, leading climactically to the final triumphant Hallelujah.

Wexford Carol, from the Irish Carúl Loch Garman, dates from the twelfth century, originating in Enniscorthy, County Wexford. The author of the English version is unknown, but the text exhorts the Good People at Christmas time to ‘Consider well and bear in mind/What our good God for us has done’. The four stanzas summarise on two particular aspects of the Nativity story, the lodging in the crude stable and the shepherds who visit the Holy Family ‘With thankful heart and joyful mind’.

Graham Wade

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