O Come, All Ye Faithful

29th November 2008

Jill Glenn investigates the history of Christmas carols

There’s something about Christmas Carols... even amongst those for whom the season has no religious or spiritual significance, the notes of Hark the Herald or We Three Kings can set the spine tingling and the heart singing. Maybe it’s just simple anticipation of the imminent festivities – but maybe it’s also because Christmas Carols have always been the people’s music...
In the Middle Ages, church music was restricted to priests and monks, and the congregation took no part in the singing in church. In everyday life, however, people sang about their religion and its traditions; troubadours danced – round dances called ‘caroles’ – and bystanders improvised words and tunes. Enhanced by the Nativity Plays of St Francis of Assissi, begun in 1223, the custom spread throughout Europe. Eventually the word ‘carol’ came to mean the song rather than the dance, with the subject matter usually focusing on the birth of Christ and the events surrounding it. Many of the carols still sung today probably date from this time – The First Nowell, for example (Nowell being the old English spelling of the more usual French Noel) and The Holly and the Ivy, with its roots in pagan imagery and its vivid chorus: O the rising of the sun, and the running of the deer, the playing of the merry organ, sweet singing in the choir.
The medieval desire to free the Christmas story from its liturgical straitjacket can be seen strongly in ballads like The Coventry Carol (Lullay, thou little tiny child) and I Saw Three Ships, integrating the sacred story with the everyday experience of the lay people. Such religious folksongs flourished in England until Puritanism in the 17th century attempted to suppress them. It was only partially successful; carols were sung less widely in public, but in small gatherings they remained popular, and then in the 18th and 19th centuries they enjoyed a revival. Many new carols were written, and new words or melodies were applied to old.
Paul Hillier, Professor of Music at Indiana University, a specialist in folk music from the 11th century to the present, comments on the way melodies and words were adapted: “Many times in folk music you’ll find the same tune with different words. And many times Christmas words were laid on top of the tune later. The connecting thread is a conflation of different things.”
The carol What Child Is This? demonstrates this sort of evolution perfectly. The melody derives from the Elizabethan Greensleeves, of which the original lyrics were neither religious nor respectable. In1865 William Dix wrote The Manger Throne, of which three verses developed into What Child Is This? The cheerful Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly has a similarly convoluted history – the music is an old Welsh melody (once used by Mozart in a piano and violin duet) while the words are believed to be American, dating from the 19th century.
There was a great burgeoning in carol-writing in the 1800s and the birth of many of the most familiar of today’s seasonal tunes. Many of these ‘feel’ far older and are often assumed to be English – but We Three Kings, for example, was composed in 1857 by John Henry Hopkins for a Christmas pageant in New York City, and It Came Upon a Midnight Clear was written by a Unitarian minister in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1849.
An unscientific survey (I asked my colleagues) revealed Hark the Herald Angels Sing as the most popular carol (closely followed by Silent Night). Hark the Herald has a chequered history – and there is every possibility that neither the composer (Mendelssohn), nor the writer (Charles Wesley) would be happy with the result. The music was written in 1840 in memory of Johan Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press. The words are a hundred years older, and originally began ‘Hark, how the welkin (heaven) rings’. The now familiar opening line was substituted over the protests of the author. In 1855 Dr. William Cummings put the words and music together, in spite of evidence that neither author nor composer would have approved: Mendelssohn had stressed that his music was for secular use (‘something gay and popular… soldier-like and buxom’), while Wesley had specifically requested slow solemn music for his words.
According to popular belief Silent Night was written on Christmas Eve 1818, in Oberndorf, Bavaria. The church organ was broken (literally a silent night) and the town was snowbound. Parish priest Joseph Mohr was inspired to write the lyrics while organist Franz Gruber composed the original melody just in time for midnight mass. Evidence suggests that this version of events is almost certainly untrue – but, nevertheless, by 1955 Silent Night had become the most recorded song of all time.
The next time you’re in your local shopping centre and the not-so-tuneful rendition of While Shepherds Watched or God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen threatens to become irritating, rise above it. It may seem like a crude commercialisation of Christmas, but in reality it’s simply a modern extension of the medieval practice of incorporating seasonal songs into daily routines and adapting them to changing lifestyles…

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