Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Carol for Christmas - Prologue

"Well what other sort of carols are there?" you may ask?  Well there are all sorts of carols - Advent, Easter or just for general rejoicing.  The word carol appears to have been derived from the French "carole" or possibly the latin "carula" but in either case it meant music to be played and sung during a circular dance at a festive time.   During the 1100s they were particularly popular as dance melodies but were gradually incorporated in to processions of a religious nature or as an accompaniment to the Mystery Plays that were popular throughout Europe.

After having heard the news the Shepherds carol the birth
of the Christ Child in this 12th century manuscript.

In France they became the folk-like noels heard in Provence and the countryside eventually finding their way in the 16th century into the music of Charpentier, Campra and other courtly composers.  In Germany the Lutheran church encouraged music at Christmas and Luther himself wrote several carols for use at Christmastide.  In England many of the carols were written to be sung outside the church as bands of carollers went awassailing from house to house, a tradition which reached back to the pagan times and accounts for the secular sound of so many of the carols that are popular today.

Brady and Tate's New Version of the Psalms of David
included "While Shepherds Watched",
the first Christmas carol in an Anglican hymnal.
In the 17th century carols were banned in England by the Puritans as frivolous and an unsuccessful attempt was made to turn December 25th into a fast day.  It was revived as a feast day with  the Restoration of the Monarchy and the reestablishment of the Church of England however it didn't regain its full significance until the 19th century.  Though many carols and Christmas songs were written the only hymn accepted at Yuletide in the Anglican church in 1700 was "While shepherds watched" when it appeared in a supplement to the New Version of the Psalms of David by Nicholas Brady and Nahum Tate.  It was to be joined by two other carols in 1782 - Wesley's "Hark the Herald Angels" being one of them.  More carols were introduced in English country churches and by the 1870s had become a part of Christmas services throughout England and the colonies.

A wealth of Christmas text and music was added to Hymns Ancient and Modern in the period from 1850s onward and many of the popular carols we know and love today were composed at that time.  It was also a time when many of the earlier carols were arranged or reset to new tunes often having been translated from the Latin.

A band of children in Yorkshire, carrying greenery as symbols of rebirth, go from house to house singing carols in the tradition of wassail.  In exchange for their song and blessings on the house they would receive food, drink and sometimes small coins.

As I was growing up in the 50s and 60s a few popular standards - Silent Night, O Come All Ye Faithful, Joy to the World, Hark the Herald Angels and While Shepherds et al - seemed to be the only ones heard.  But during the 70s  I had the good fortune to be introduced to a treasury of Christmas music every week day afternoon by Bob Kerr on his programme Off the Record.  Much of what I enjoy today as music at Christmas I can trace back to his incredible eclectic mix of music for the season that encompassed so many periods, cultures and languages.  At the same time I became involved at St Thomas Anglican Church in Toronto and there discovered  Christmas carols that were part of a vital music tradition in the parish.  

Though I still love the old familiar carols there are so many beautiful songs that sing to the heart of the season and that make my Christmas a rich and happy time.  Over the next few days I'm planning to post a few of my favourites from those less well-known carols.  Hopefully they will bring you as much joy as they do me.

15 dicembre/December - Santa Maria Crocifissa di Rosa

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Debra She Who Seeks said...

I adore Christmas carols and I'm really looking forward to your next few posts!

Anonymous said...

I've been introduced to a wealth of French carols since singing in a bilingual parish and some of them are wonderful. Some are used for more than one event. For instance, "Noel Nouvelet" is used both for Christmas and Easter, just with different words.


lynette said...

This is wonderful. Thank you for sharing. One of the things I miss about our little Mexican village is the children who come around caroling at Christmas. It's a sweet tradition, not one common to Tulsa. I think I'm feeling the quivering of perhaps a molecule of Christmas spirit, thanks to you.