Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Carol for Christmas - A Hymn for Christmas Day

The cover of the last (1878)  "library" edition
of Bramley and Stainers Christmas Carols New and Old.
In 1871 Henry Ramsden Bramley and Sir John Stainer published Christmas Carols New and Old,  a book of hymns and songs that could to be said to be responsible for the revival of the Christmas Carol in Victorian England and the English speaking world.  The two had met at in 1860 at Magdalen College, Oxford where Bramely was a fellow of the College and Stainer had been appointed organist.  At the beginning of the 1870s they  collaborated on a book of Christmas music - Bramley acting as editor, translator and in some cases lyricist while Stainer saw to the music and included arrangements thought suitable for use in church and parlor.

That first slim volume was to be expanded to a series of three hymnals and from twenty to seventy carols by the time the last combined edition was published in 1878.  In those seven years Bramley and Stainer introduced most of the carols that we hear in concerts, office parties, on TV specials, in shopping malls and at church during Christmastide.

That first edition included carols which we now take as givens at this time of year but for their time were if not new were certainly not well known - God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, The First Nowell, What Child is This and Good King Wenceslas.  A wonderful interactive copy of that first series can be thumbed through at the Internet Archive - and notice the use of "f" or the "long s" in the lyrics.

The second book in the series included a carol which was often sung at Festal Evensongs during the Christmas season at St. Thomas and which  became one of my favourites.   "See amid the winter's snow" was published under the title A Song for Christmas and I particularly remember the wonderful descant and organ variations that Walter McNutt and his choir wove around it on those solemn evenings on Huron Street.  The text was by Edward Caswall, an Anglican priest who followed Newman's example and joined the Oratorians, and set to music by Sir John Gross who was known for the popular hymn Praise My Soul the King of Heaven.

I searched for a version that could perhaps bring back memories of those candlelit and garland festooned services at St Thomas's but came across this version by Annie Lennox that is as moving and memorable in its own way.  In 2010 Annie released an album of Christmas carols and songs and toured  extensively in North American during the time leading up to the holiday.  Though there are several postings on YouTube of the studio recording, one of which can be heard here, however  I choose a live recording that she did on a syndicated American morning show.  Despite the inanities of the hosts in the post performance segment - which can be fortunately avoided - there is a joy that shines through and illuminates the true meaning of this carol in her performance.  

The standard editions of Bramley and Stainers carol books (as in the Internet Archive edition) were simply the words and music.  However there was a more elaborate "library edition" published for the home archives.  The illustrations were done by famous engravers of the period - the winter landscape for Caswell and Gross lovely carol was created by Edward Dalziel  one of the four Dalziel brothers who were popular engravers and lithographers of the period. 

The first page of "See amid the winter's snow"
illustrated by Edward Dalziel.

The "library" editions were illustrated and
annotated with the history of the carol

In the introduction to the final combined volume in 1878 Bramley and Stainer wrote:
The following collection of Christmas Carols, new and old, has been formed with the purpose of providing a single source, easily accessible, from which those who are so disposed may make choice of songs, suitable in words and music, for the sacred and joyous season of our Lord's Nativity.

The time-honoured and delightful custom of thus celebrating the Birthday of the Holy Child seems, with some change of form, to be steadily and rapidly gaining ground. Instead of the itinerant ballad-singer or the little bands of wandering children, the practice of singing Carols in Divine Service, or by a full choir at some fixed meeting, is becoming prevalent.

Among the Carols here given are some which are best suited for the old simple mode of rendering; others which require more ample means for their performance. Some, from their legendary, festive, or otherwise less serious character, are unfit for use within the Church.

With this brief account of the purpose and nature of their undertaking they again submit the result to those orthodox lovers of music who desire to keep the Feast of Christmas with mirth which shall not overstep the bounds of reverence.

Henry Ramsden Bramley and John Stainer
London, 1878

I can't be alone in feeling that their stated purpose and nature was more than achieved.

15 dicembre/December - Beato Carlo Steeb

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Anonymous said...

Love it! I've been humming my way through the unfamiliar ones ( not always successfully). Thanks for posting.


Debra She Who Seeks said...

"See amid the winter's snow" is new to me, but quite lovely. And my fave Annie Lennox is still in fine form!

Minnie said...

They have a fascinating history, these carols. Thank you, Willy, for explaining some of it (especially the parts I didn't know!).

lynette said...

I am becoming educated on matters I knew nothing about. It's a good accomplishment for a dreary Sunday afternoon.