Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Carol for Christmas III - The Watchman's Cry

Before the creation of the unified Metropolitan Police in 1829 the twisting alleyways and dark streets of London were guarded at night by watchmen. In medieval times the watch fell to local householders who, as part of their civic duty, were required to serve a watch, patrolling the streets from 8 or 9 o'clock at night until sunrise. Unpaid and unarmed they were expected to challenge any villainous characters lurking in the boundaries of their parish.  As the city grew so did the problems of urban unrest and the task of patrolling the streets and seeing to the disreputable and unruly fell to a salaried force of watchmen.  The rising merchant class saw an advantage to get a full night's sleep and in paying a small tax to have their homes and boundaries guarded by a paid force.

The Watchmen at St Marylebone prepare for their nightly duties.
The Microcosm of London published 1808-1810.

The watchmen were employed by parish and city councils and armed with little more than their lantern, a staff and their dogs their duty was to apprehend loose women, drunks, armed thugs and, perhaps worse, gentlemen out on a rout and take them to the local watchhouse.  They would then be turned over to the authorities to be seen to and punished - often harshly - for their criminal deeds or unseemly behavior.   The watchmen were often ridiculed in the playhouse and literature  - Shakespeare takes the mickey in Much Ado About Nothing with bumbling Dogberry and his coherts - but still to the average householder the watchman's cry of the clock and assurance that all was well - if indeed it had not disturbed them from their sleep - allowed them to rest easier. 

Though by 1924 the watchman's cry had long disappeared from the streets of London it was to reappear in the carol "Past Three A Clock and A Cold Frosty Morning" in The Cambridge Carol-Book, Being Fifty-Two Songs for Christmas, Easter and Other Seasons, published by the Society for Promoting Christian KnowledgeGeorge Ratcliffe Woodward wrote the text and the music was arranged by Charles Wood.  An Anglican clergyman, Woodward was fascinated by old carols and  known for his ability to write verse in a pseudo-Renaissance style and frequently Wood collaborated with him,  adapted his lyrics to old melodies or composed new tunes in the old style.  A teacher at the Royal College of Music Wood counted Ralph Vaughan Williams and Herbert Howells amongst his students.  His settings of the Anglican mass and various canticles and anthems can still be heard in many churches with traditional choirs in England and Canada.

The refrain that gives the carol its title is based on the actual cry of the watchman and appears as a refrain to a song in Playford's Dancing Master in 1665.  The tune itself is based on an old  melody used by Waites.  Like the watchmen the Waites or town pipers were paid by their local civic or parish council to play on special occasions and to awaken people on dark winter mornings with the shrill sound of their pipes and shawms.    

This version of Woodward and Woods' carol is performed by the Stairwell Carollers, an a cappella choir from here in Ottawa. 

Throughout the year the Stairwell Carollers raise money for local charities with concerts and the sale of CDs.  As the name suggests they specialize in "carols" in the old sense of the word - music for secular and sacred feasts.

18 dicembre/December - San Malachia Profeta

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Debra She Who Seeks said...

Great carol! It's new to me. And the Stairwell Carollers are delightful!

Shari said...

Maybe 20 years ago, I was introduced to John Rutter's "Carols from Clare" and this is one of my favourite carols on the CD full of favourites. I never quite understood the lyrics until now. Thank you! and Merry Christmas to you and Laurent!

lynette said...

I've never heard this, so thanks for the gift. It's lovely. Great post, too. You are such a smart man.