One BBC programme that I've had the time to listen to closely in recent days has been Jeremy Summerly's wonderful A Cause for Carolling on Radio 4 - a ten-part history of the Christmas carol.
As Christmas carols fascinate me, I took a few notes about particular Christmas carols and, in the spirit of of Christmas, I thought I'd share them with you here.
The title of the series comes from Thomas Hardy's poem The Darkling Thrush, though it's another Hardy poem I think most about at Christmas.
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel,
"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
A lovely example of a 'choir carol' (the type where the congregation just listens at the choir does its stuff), setting very old English words (probably from the 15th Century) but with newly composed 20th Century music by Basil Ord, organist and choirmaster at King's College, Cambridge. It was the famous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's which made his setting so famous.
Inspired by the example of Mrs C.F. Alexander's Once in Royal David's City, several American hymn writers began writing other carols for children, such as this one. There's some uncertainly about who wrote its words though - an uncertainty partly helped by what seems to have been a marketing ploy which originally attempted to present it as having been written 400 years earlier by Martin Luther himself. The tune by which we know it, 'Cradle Song', was composed by schoolteacher William J. Kirkpatrick.
No ancient carol this - neither its lyrics nor its music - but still a beautiful and well-loved Anglican anthem composed in the winter 1927 by the dissolute Peter Warlock (aka Philip Heseltine). The words were thought up by a journalist friend of his, Bruce Blunt, as he walked between a couple of pubs one night. They wrote it to help finance a heavy Christmas booze-up and got it published in the Daily Telegraph. That does seem rather in the old spirit of Christmas carols, though rather less in the spirit of Mrs C.F. Alexander!
This, "the quintessential Medieval carol" (in Jeremy Summerly's words), dates back to Tudor England (isn't that "Renaissance" rather than Medieval"?) and The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors. Ah, but that play was performed in Medieval Coventry. Old and new in Tudor England. It's a song from a show then - specifically the bit of the show which deals with Herod and the Massacre of the Innocents as the mothers sing lullabies to their ill-fated infants while Mary and Joseph exit stage left.
Jeremy Summerly's favourite Christmas carol. As a kid, I enjoyed it too - especially that long, falling sequence ('burden') on 'Gloria'. Can anyone resist that? Originally a dance (from 16th Century France), a 20th Century bell-ringer called George Woodward decided to set it to some words of his own devising. His composer friend Charles Wood then gave it new harmonies.
Jeremy Summerly: "Don't worry so much about the lyrics. Listen to the drive and energy. It has the feel of a West Country wassail about it and if the 14th Century Franciscans had been around today they'd have tweaked the words and brought it firmly into the fold."
Quite how old this folk carol is no one seems quite sure but it became known through the pioneering collections of antiquarians Davies Gilbert and William Sandys (in the 1820s and 30s) who took it to be a Cornish carol.
This is the only Christmas carol mentioned by name in Dickens's A Christmas Carol. It seems to have been around since the latter half of the 17th Century, though no one knows who wrote it.
This is also known to Classical Music lovers as 'In dulci jubilo', and originated in Germany in the 14th Century (or even earlier). Luther may have added a verse to it, and J.S. Bach arranged it. The Victorians translated it into English (taking it from the Finnish 17th Century collection Piae Cantiones) and arranged it anew, making it a popular British carol. A couple of short notes were mistranscribed into long notes creating an extra bar in each verse, leading J.M. Neale to write the hymn's most memorable phrases 'News! News!' and 'Joy! Joy!' in an attempt to cover up the mistake. Arrangements continued thereafter, with Mike Oldfield taking In dulci jubilo to No.4 in the charts in 1976.
Apparently this has something to do with Medieval fertility rituals. Also, apparently, Wenceslas was 'Good Duke Wenceslas' and 'Good King Wenceslas' and, anyhow, was only 'good' in comparison to his bad boy brother. The tune is based on a 13th Century spring song called Tempus adest floridum ('The flowers are springing/and the time is burgeoning') and gained a new lease of life in mid 19th Century when the high church Oxford Movement hymnwriter J.M. Neale gave it new lyrics (again taking it from Piae Cantiones). The Oxford Movement, with its keen antiquarian interests, played a key role in bringing back medieval music into the Anglican Church.
Do you know, I've know this carol since I was a wee nipper (my dad couldn't stand it) yet I still wasn't fully conscious of the fact that this hymn isn't in fact called 'Hark the Herald Angel Sing' (a singular mistake - and minus the '!' too).
The words were written by Methodist founder John Wesley's hymn-writer-extraordinaire brother Charles - though, as often seems to be the case with Christmas carols, the original words weren't quite what we know today: "Hark! how all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings".
It went through a few tunes before, a century later, finding its famous match with Felix Mendelssohn's music. Strangely enough, Felix had originally written the tune to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the printing press, but his tune was soon pressed into a new, Christmassy use.
Cecil Sharp, the leader of England's folk song revival at the start of the 20th Century, collected the words and music of this carol from a Gloucestershire folk singer. It seems to have had old English roots. Sir Henry Walford Davies arranged it and made it popular.
A 1985 piece by Judith Weir which Jeremy Summerly feels is likely to last and which has already been taken up quite widely - a thoroughly modern setting of a medieval Scottish text.
Setting an 1871 poem by Christina Rossetti found in a posthumous collection of her works, Gustav Holst wrote this carol for the English Hymnal in 1906. Some say that the alternative setting by organist/composer Harold Darke, written in 1909, is more beautiful but I'm sticking with the great Gustav's version.
An unusual carol in being in triple time. It's English, from the 17th Century, possibly from landlocked Derbyshire.
The quintessential American carol? Ah, no. The words are by Englishman Isaac Watts, dating from the 1710s, and the tune is an English Methodist one dating from the 1830s. The influence of Handel's Messiah has been strongly detected (especially the chorus Lift Up Your Heads).
A 1956 carol written by American composer Jester Hairston. Its original calypso rhythm has been smoothed out over the years by its many pop interpreters, but it's still a winner.
This - every sniggering teenage schoolboy's favourite carol - came into being around 1740 to the Latin words 'Adeste fideles'.
Given that European composers like Liszt wrote pieces based on it I assumed that the tune may have had a European origin. Shame on me for that! There's a decent possibility that it may have been written by Thomas Arne of old England - the very same Thomas Arne famous for Rule Britannia and an early form of God Save the Queen - at least according to this BBC programme.
Oddly, Wikipedia fails to mention Arne, suggesting a more likely candidate to have been John Francis Wade.
Was it a Jacobite rallying-call though - the "faithful" being the followers of Catholic Bonnie Prince Charlie, summoned to arms? Well, at least one modern academic thinks so.
I was inclined to be sceptical but Wikipedia says John Francis Wade was a Jacobite and fled our shores when the rebellion failed. Given that Wikipedia is universally acknowledged to be 100% infallible (is it possible to be less than 100% infallible?), then maybe it's true after all!
This one - perhaps better considered an Advent carol - has mixed origins. It's based on the plainchant Veni, Veni Emmanuel. The words fuse various 8th Century sources and the tune derives from a 15th Century French melody.
Quintessentially English? Not quite, as the words were written in 1863 by an American Episcopal priest the Rev. Phillips Brooks whilst on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The tune, however, couldn't be more English. It's based on a Surrey folk tune collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1903. One night Rev. Brooks was sat astride his horse in the fields outside Bethlehem, He looked south towards the Church of the Nativity and found himself admiring the darkness and stillness of Bethlehem's streets.
The words of Once in Royal David's City were written by the queen of Victorian hymnody Mrs C.F. Alexander (known for such gems as All Things Bright and Beautiful and There is a Green Hill Far Away) and come from her collection Hymns for Little Children. It elucidates the line from the Apostles' Creed "Conceived of the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary". The music was written by an organist called Henry Gauntlett. This child's carol is now used as the processional hymn in the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.
A carol composed by the Victorian organist/composer Sir John Goss at the invitation of the king of Victorian carol arranging, Sir John Stainer. It appeared in Stainer and Bramley's landmark 1871 collection Christmas Carols New and Old as one of the new ones.
Lots of people are aware that this is early 19th century German ('Stille Nacht') and written by church organist Franz Gruber. I've got something in the back of my head that church mice are involved in some way, though I can't remember quite how. Maybe Franz used to soothe them to sleep with his beautiful hymn, thus counteracting all the cheese they'd eaten that day (sparing them nightmares about cats)!
Pop? Classical? A category-defying carol from John Rutter full of jazz harmonies and lively syncopations which has entered the modern choir stalls.
First appearing it William B. Sandys' Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern of 1833, this is believed to be a traditional English folk carol though its pre-Sandys origins are shrouded in mystery.
An American carol, written by the Reverend John Henry Hopkins Jnr for his nephews and nieces to perform in a Christmas pageant.
Did you know that only one Christmas carol was legally permitted to be sung in the Church of England following the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660?
That carol was When Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night.
They weren't singing the tune we all know so well though - or at least not only that tune. No, they sung dozens and dozens of tunes (possibly well over a hundred of them) to the words of that approved hymn.
The tune we associate with those words, however, doesn't come from that time but from even earlier - the Renaissance (specially the England of young Edward VI). The tune appears to have been composed by the Tudor composer Christopher Tye, and soon took on a life of its own.
The familiar words of 'While Shepherds Watched' were matched with this old tune in the early 1700s. It is possible, though not certain, that Irish-born poet laureate Nahum Tate wrote them.
Only in 1782 was the legal monopoly of When Shepherds Watched revoked as Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and O Come all ye Faithful joined it in the licit embrace of the Anglican communion.