The history of the traditional Christmas carol

Gramophone Wed 20th December 2017

Jeremy Nicholas reveals the intriguing history of the traditional Christmas carol and speaks to conductors, composers and clergy about why carols remain so popular

Wells Cathedral Choir (photo: Geoffrey Robinson/Alamy)

Wells Cathedral Choir (photo: Geoffrey Robinson/Alamy)

What exactly is a carol? You’d think the answer would be simple: they are the songs we sing at the annual carol concert in churches, schools or concert halls – aren’t they? When I carried out a modest vox pop in the village where I live, ‘O come, all ye faithful’, ‘Hark! the herald angels sing’, ‘Once in royal David’s city’, ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ and ‘Away in a manger’ were nominated most frequently. And you can bet that you’ll get the same response from the person sitting next to you right now – unless, that is, they’re a choral scholar, a choral conductor or a choral composer. Then you’ll get a different answer. ‘Carol’ is a very catch-all word.

Percy Scholes in The Oxford Companion to Music described the carol as ‘a religious seasonal song, of joyful character, in the vernacular and sung by the common people’. Stephen Cleobury (director of music for the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge) states that: ‘The echt carol is a series of verses punctuated by refrains. They are not always about Christmas – there are Easter carols and so forth. And then there’s a whole body of what are hymns rather than carols. “Hark! the herald”, “Once in royal”, “O come, all ye faithful” are strophic hymns.’ Matthew Owen (director of music at Wells Cathedral) agrees, pointing out that ‘a lot of the carols we sing at Christmas are not carols at all. We [at Wells] sing carols throughout the church year from Advent to Trinity. We had a service here a few years ago consisting of Ascensiontide carols, Easter carols and Trinity carols.’ And John Rutter: ‘If you’re going to define a carol narrowly, it should be all about song or dance or lullaby. Those are the roots of the carol, historically. It’s just that in the last 100 years it has broadened out, so it doesn’t necessarily have to be a choral composition with a strong tune. That’s fine. There’s room for everyone at the inn.’

The word ‘carol’ is derived from the Old French caroler, which came from the Latin choraula, which itself came from the Greek choraules (a flute-player for chorus dancing). In medieval times, ‘carol’ meant a round-dance with song. A soloist often sang the verse with everyone joining in the refrain, during which the singers might hold hands and dance round in a circle.

Carols were composed in every country in Europe, the earliest dating from the 14th century. But though there were many songs written about the birth of Jesus, about Mary and Joseph, and about the Shepherds and the Wise Men, it is not until 1426 that we come across the first reference in English to a specifically ‘Christmas’ carol: John Audlay, a Shropshire poet and clergyman, listed 25 ‘caroles of Cristemas’ among his works. One of the oldest printed English carols is the ‘Boar’s Head Carol’, dating from 1521. It’s also among the earliest of many carols associated with Christmas good cheer: some were drinking songs (‘wassails’) to celebrate Christmas and the New Year; others, such as ‘Coventry Carol’, were intended to be sung in Nativity plays. Germany’s Weihnachtslied (‘Christmas Eve song’) and France’s noël contributed many notable carols to the repertoire in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In the early 19th century, as Christmas became more of a public holiday and grew increasingly commercialised (with the introduction of Christmas trees, Christmas cards and the like), the old form of the carol, almost forgotten in England since the Puritan banning of Christmas in 1647, gave way to solid, foursquare Christmas-themed hymns about the Nativity. In his 1928 preface to The Oxford Book of Carols, Percy Dearmer expressed his disdain for these newcomers, most of which, paradoxically, form the backbone of today’s annual carol services. Inveighing against the then current trend of churches ‘flooded with music inspired by the sham Gothic of their renovated interiors’ and ‘“carol services”…at which not a single genuine carol is sung’, he quotes approvingly the educationalist and musicologist Sir Henry Hadow: ‘There has probably been no form of any art in the history of the world which has been so overrun by the unqualified amateur as English church music from about 1850 to about 1900.’ Even carols as popular as ‘Good King Wenceslas’ do not avoid Dearmer’s censure: ‘a delightful tune, which is that of the Spring carol Tempus adest floridum’ but with verses by JM Neale (1818-66); he describes it as one of Neale’s ‘less happy pieces…doggerel…poor and commonplace to the last degree. We reprint it [here] not without hope that it may gradually pass into disuse and the tune be restored to spring-time.’ One wonders if the prolific and eccentric Dearmer was one of those clergymen – they still exist today – who forbade the singing of any carols before December 25. Such liturgical and musicological concerns have largely been swept away, and the narrow definition of ‘carol’ no longer means anything to the average person lustily singing at a carol concert.

It so happened that I spoke to Cleobury (carols at King’s) and Rutter (the King of carols) in connection with this article the very day after they had finished judging a carol competition. There had been 340 submissions in a variety of categories. Apart from the (given) technical accomplishment of proficient vocal writing, what were they looking for? ‘It was not’, reveals Cleobury, ‘a question of “does it fit this or that criterion?” but more “does it feel like a carol, like a Christmas celebration?”’ Rutter answers: ‘Something that could stand alongside the great procession of carols written over the centuries and add to that stock of what I think is a rather wonderful body of vernacular choral literature, and which may still be sung in 100 years’ time.’

‘I personally love a tune, and a melody will find its way into people’s hearts and stay with them. It will carry the mood and the message of a text pretty well better than anything’ – John Rutter

For the past 30 years, Cleobury has commissioned a new carol for the annual King’s College Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. How many have had a decent life after King’s? ‘Well, John Rutter’s “What sweeter music”, of course,’ he says. ‘All John’s music is so beautifully wrought, but because he wrote that one for us, it’s a real gem. Judith Weir’s “Illuminare Jerusalem” and Jonathan Dove’s “The Three Kings” have done well. Some of them are a bit more esoteric, but when people say, “Shouldn’t you commission more from the popular end?” I say, “Well, there’s a lot of that going on already and I try to approach composers at the serious end because I think church music should be ready to engage with music of that kind as with any other kind of art.”’

What price, I ask Rutter, do you put on melody? ‘Oh gosh, what a question that is! What a question! I personally love a tune, and a melody will find its way into people’s hearts and stay with them. It will carry the mood and the message of a text pretty well better than anything. Having said that, you have to enlarge that definition to include pieces that don’t have a hummable tune but where all the voice parts are in some sense melodious and have a shape to them – even though the whole thing might not add up to a tune you can whistle. I did say to my fellow judges “a good tune doesn’t hurt”, and they both readily agreed with me; but we all know that sometimes successful composition is not all about writing tunes, particularly not, of course, in the past 100 years, during which time it’s sometimes been more about texture, harmony and rhythm.’

Isn’t it true, though, I suggest, that the only carols that have caught on and stayed with us over the centuries are ones with strong tunes that everybody can pick up fairly readily? Rutter laughs, and replies diplomatically: ‘You must write that in your article.’

Matthew Owen (at Wells) tends to programme carols that are familiar, ‘because people like to come and have a good sing. We counter that by putting in some less well-known pieces for only the choir to sing. It’s good to make people think when they come to church, but I’d be cautious about putting more than one item in that could be described as “challenging”. John Rutter, Bob Chilcott and Philip Ledger all write in a familiar language, and audiences love them, whereas Eric Whitacre and John Tavener represent the more spiritual end of the market – people are utterly absorbed by their music.’

There is hardly a carol service in the land in which the congregation will sing a genuine carol in the formal definition of the word. ‘Adam lay y-bounden’, ‘Coventry Carol’, ‘Past three o’clock’ and the like are now the preserve of the choir. The majority of what most of us call Christmas carols – the communal ones – were either originally composed or arranged after 1840. Their composers and lyricists are rarely celebrated. Of the few pre-Victorian exceptions in the small canon of congregational Christmas songs, the most popular are ‘The first Nowell’, a genuine folksong carol (from the early 18th century), and ‘God rest you merry, gentlemen’, published in 1833; ‘Silent night’ is a German interloper dating from 1818.

‘Once in royal David’s city’, written by Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander (1823-95), was published in 1848; its tune, Irby, was composed the following year by Henry John Gauntlett, the same Dr Gauntlett whom Mendelssohn chose to play the organ in the world premiere of Elijah at Birmingham Town Hall. The original words of ‘Hark! the herald angels sing’ (‘Hark, how all the welkin rings’, with ‘welkin’ meaning ‘heaven’) were written in 1738 by Charles Wesley, but it was not until the early 20th century, after several additions and changes, that the lyrics we sing today became established; the tune was appropriated in 1856 by Dr WH Cummings (1831-1915), organist of Waltham Abbey, from the second part of Mendelssohn’s Gutenburg Cantata, which was composed in 1840 to celebrate the invention of printing. Likewise, the original Latin verses of ‘O come, all ye faithful’ (‘Adeste fideles / Laeti triumphantes’) by Anon, though they first appeared in France around 1743, were not translated into English until 1841, when Canon Frederick Oakeley came up with the opening line, ‘Ye faithful, approach me’; after several further changes, the final version arrived, ‘joyful and triumphant’, in 1852. ‘While shepherds watched their flocks’ is sung in the UK to Winchester Old, dating from the 1590s, and has words from 1700, but the two were not published together until 1861.

The (apparently) most English of carols ‘It came upon a midnight clear’, ‘O little town of Bethlehem’, ‘We three kings’ and ‘Away in a manger’ are all American in origin, written respectively in 1850, 1868, 1857 and 1885. The first was given an English folk-tune arrangement by Arthur Sullivan; the second was hardly known in England before it appeared in The English Hymnal in 1906 with the words set to an arrangement by Vaughan Williams of the traditional English tune Forest Green; the last two have words and music by obscure American clergymen.

Only a handful of Christmas hymns has been added to the canon since the end of the 19th century. ‘Ding dong! merrily on high’ has a tune from the 16th century with lyrics from 1924. ‘Angels from the realms of glory’ has a lyric from 1816 and Iris as its old French carol tune; Dearmer combined the two in 1928. ‘In the bleak mid-winter’ was written by Christina Rossetti some time before 1872 as the Christmas poem for the American illustrated magazine Scribner’s Monthly. It was first used as a hymn when it was included in the 1906 English Hymnal by Vaughan Williams with a tune, Cranham, written specially by his friend Holst. It became popular very quickly, despite the irregular verse pattern (which can make it difficult to sing). A second setting was composed only five years later by the long-lived English composer and organist Harold Darke (1888-1976). In a poll of choral experts and choirmasters published in December 2008, it was Darke’s ‘In the bleak’ that was voted the greatest Christmas carol of all time.

Why are carols and carol concerts so popular? Rutter conducts the annual RPO concert at the Royal Albert Hall. He tells me: ‘It sells the place out twice. It’s just wonderful that people will flock to a Christmas concert who might never come to a classical concert the rest of the year.’ People who might otherwise not set foot in a church never fail to turn up for the carol service. So what is the essence of its appeal? My friend The Dean offers one answer: ‘Singing is among the most basic human responses to what is going on around us. Even those with no deep religious faith enjoy community singing at Christmas. Going to church for a carol service, Midnight Mass or a Christmas concert allows people – with some anonymity – to connect with something deeper and, like the oxen on Hardy’s Christmas Eve, to worship the Lord “hoping it might be so”.’

 

 

This feature was originally published in the December 2012 edition of Gramophone. To explore our subscription options, visit gramophone.co.uk/subscribe.

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