Offertory for the Second Sunday in Advent
Wilt thou not turn again, O God, and quicken us, that they people may rejoice in thee; show us thy mercy, O Lord, and grant us thy salvation.
A Manual of Catholic DevotionFor Members of the Church of England (Revised 1969)
In 2011 and I posted a series on Christmas carols and included several of the carols that Sir John Stainer and Henry Ramsden Bramley had compiled in their Christmas Carols Old and New. Published in 1871 that slim volume contained twenty carols, many that are sung today - by the last edition in 1878 it had expanded to over seventy. As we approach Christmastide I thought I'd celebrate the Sunday's in Advent by seeing if I could find versions of some of the lesser known carols in their collection and sharing them with you.
Though better known than some of the other carols, A Virgin Unspotted is heard more often these days performed by choirs in concert than as a congregational hymn. Perhaps it is feared that its jaunty tune will lead to dancing in the pews ... or worse!
It is possible that it derived from A Virgin Pure that appears in several collections prior to the Stainer-Bramley collaboration. In his introduction to this earlier carol in his Songs of the Nativity William Henry Husk notes that this version was first printed by Rev. Arthur Bedford around 1734. He finds the Reverend gentleman rather suspect in his knowledge of Christmas music or language:
Mr. Bedford, in the title of the carol, has given us a singular etymological derivation of the word carol from Carolus; viz. "A Christmas carol, so called because such were in use in K. Charles I. Reign."! The reader of the present volume will not, it is feared, entertain a very high opinion of Mr. Bedford's antiquarian learning, at least on the subject of Christmas carols.
Until recent times both variations were sung at Christmas in various Gloucestershire villages though A Virgin Pure was often set to the tune of Admiral Benbow, a popular ballad. The tune most commonly used and included by Stainer and Bramley is Herefordshire.
This version of Herefordshire by the Riga Dom Cathedral Boys Choir brings out the dance like rhythm of the carol. The choir's recordings of Christmas music is quite enjoyable and features both the sacred and secular - including a rollicking Jolly Old St Nicholas.
Many carols were brought to the New World and sung in community celebrations at Christmastide. A Virgin Unspotted was a well known carol in colonial America and there are variations recorded as far as Appalachia. The tune was also used in a variation known under the title In Bethlehem City.
In 1778 William Billings published his The Singing Master's Variations and included the carol set to a new tune: Judea. The carol was to appear in various forms in at least four other collections of shape-note song books however of the American settings Billing's remains the favoured.
No matter the version used the refrain always exhorts us:
December 8 - 1596: Luis de Carabajal the younger, one of the first Jewish authors in the Americas, died in an auto-da-fé in Mexico City.Therefore be merry
Set sorrow away!
For Jesus our Savour
Was born on this day!