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English carols

The carol is in origin a secular round dance with singing, and the English carol is closely connected to the French carole, which flourished from the mid-12th to the mid-14th century. The stanzas, during which, as the word (from Italian stanze) indicates, all stood still, were sung by a solo voice, and all joined in the ‘burden’ during which the circle dance took place (on the connections between the carol and the goliard, see Goliards*).

The most accessible resources for those interested in medieval carols are the texts published in Richard Greene, The Early English Carols (Oxford, 1935; 2nd ed., Oxford, 1977), with a further collection in A Selection of English Carols (Oxford, 1962). The music of over 130 15th-century carols was published by John E. Stevens in Mediaeval Carols (Musica Britannica 4; London, 1952, revised ed.,1958). These carols were, in the main, textually and musically sophisticated productions sung at festivals and banquets, in several parts, by professional performers, to enhance the ceremonial or as an act of learned devotion. Some of these carols have a didactic and moralising focus, and are aimed at a wider audience.

In the context of hymnology, however, the carol to be discussed is a different form, inhabiting the world between the congregational hymn and the secular folk song and sung by, rather than for, the laity (the social context of the carole, with its overlaps between sacred and secular, Latin and vernacular, folk-song and polyphony, has been explored by Christopher Page, The Owl and the Nightingale, Cambridge, 1989, pp. 110-33). It is strophic, usually with a refrain, and sung to straightforward melodies. It is often narrative in form, and fanciful in its treatment of the story it is telling. Lullaby carols are common. It is mainly associated with Christmas and the seasons on either side of that festival, especially Advent; though there are some Easter carols, and some free of seasonal association. Some long carols cover much of the Bible, beginning with creation and continuing through the promise of a redeemer, the birth of Jesus, the Crucifixion, Resurrection, to the Second Coming (e.g. ‘This is the truth sent from above’ and ‘Tomorrow shall be my dancing day’).

The ordinary worshipper may often find the distinction between carol and hymn pedantic. However, hymns are generally more biblical, more sober in tone, more concerned with the expression of faith. The hymns above all celebrate the fact and the doctrine of the Incarnation, after the manner of St John’s Gospel, rather than dwelling on the details of the story, and even less on any fanciful matter that may be woven around the biblical narrative. There is a small core of Christmas hymns that worshippers have come to expect to sing at Christmas (e.g. ‘O come, all ye faithful’*, ‘Hark! the herald angels sing’*, ‘O little town of Bethlehem’*), and in so far as the hymn is the folk song of the people of God, these are now usually called carols.

Medieval sources refer to popular carols as well as the scholarly carols found in polyphonic settings. However, one can only conjecture that the texts found in manuscripts from the 15th century onwards are earlier in origin; the ten monophonic carols transcribed in Musica Britannica 4 are of this type. Carol texts occasionally appear in earlier manuscripts. For example, the bilingual ‘Of one that is so fayr and bright, Velut maris stella’ (‘like the star of the sea’) appears in the 13th-century manuscripts London, BL, Egerton 613, Cambridge, Trinity College, B14 and Oxford, Bodleian., Rawl. C. 510.

There is a considerable gap in the history from c.1515 to 1750, although Christmas pieces continued to be written, for example the ‘Lullaby’ by William Byrd (1542 or 3 - 1623). Robert Herrick* wrote words for ‘carols’ to be sung at court (such as ‘What sweeter music can we bring’ — ‘The Star Song: a Carol to the King; sung in the Presence at White-Hall’); and carols, or references to them, occur in Tudor and Stuart drama. During the Commonwealth (1642-1660) Christmas festivities were banned, but since other traditions of the season survived it is likely that the singing of carols survived too. Composers did not turn their attention to the carol again for some 200 years, but following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 the texts of popular carols, like those of the ballads which some of them resemble, circulated in broadsheet form, often decorated with woodcuts and specially printed for the Christmas trade. During the second half of the 18th century the influence of the Evangelical Revival started to be felt and Christmas hymns by some of the great hymn writers began to appear in this form alongside carols.

The first modern collection of carols, Some Ancient Christmas Carols, was published by Davies Gilbert* in 1822, containing eight carols with tunes. This was followed in 1833 by Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern, by William Sandys*, with 80 texts and 18 tunes. These two collections still form the basis of the modern repertoire, giving us ‘A virgin unspotted’*, ‘The first nowell the angel did say’* and ‘I saw three ships come sailing in’. Their work was the basis of a publication in 1864 by W.H. Husk*, Songs of the Nativity, from which many of the standard modern forms of carols are derived. He altered the tunes and texts to make them conform to current tastes. In 1847 there was published at Dudley in the West Midlands a valuable collection of traditional words entitled A Good Christmas Box, in which the anonymous editor preserved a number of folk carols still being sung in that area.

In 1853 John Mason Neale* and Thomas Helmore* published Carols for Christmastide, being translations and tunes from Piae Cantiones* (Greifswald, 1582). This included a version of ‘In dulci iubilo’* without the rhyming bilingual element. In 1854 they published 12 Carols for Eastertide, in the preface to which Neale wrote:

Everyone who possess the slightest acquaintance with hymnology is aware that [carols] for Easter were at least as common [i.e. as those for Christmas] in mediaeval times. The following carols are an attempt to revive the ancient practice. They do not profess to be translations of mediaeval poems...

Thus was introduced into English practice what Erik Routley* in The English Carol (Oxford 1958) called ‘synthetic carols’, in which newly arranged tunes are combined with translations of existing foreign texts, with texts previously associated with different melodies, or with new texts. It is a particularly English usage that hymn texts and tunes are not inseparably linked as they are in other hymn cultures (see under Tune names*).

In 1860 Edmund Sedding published Antient Christmas Carols, twelve pieces which included a translation of a Dutch carol usually known in English as ‘Lord Jesus hath a garden’. In the same year he also published twelve Easter Carols.

The most influential publication of all was Christmas Carols, New and Old (1871), edited by H.R. Bramley* and John Stainer*, containing 42 pieces, later enlarged to 70 (c1878). Of these, 28 had traditional words and 10 were from foreign sources, mainly southern European, in translations by Bramley. There were also texts by earlier English authors. The rest, nearly half, were by contemporary writers. There were 22 traditional tunes and 5 from foreign sources, with the rest by living writers. One of these, ‘See, amid the winter’s snow’*, a setting by John Goss* of words by Edward Caswall*, has become part of the regular repertoire. Many of Stainer’s arrangements of the traditional material have become standard to the ears of the majority of those who hear and sing them, not least his arrangement of ‘The first nowell the angel did say’.

In 1875 there appeared Carols for Use in Church During Christmas and Epiphany, edited by R.R. Chope*, and in 1880 Carols for Easter, Ascension, &c.. Chope used very little traditional material, so the contents of these books were for the most part from contemporary writers and composers, little of which commends itself for use today.

Writing at this point, presumably not long before his death in 1890, Thomas Helmore, in his long article on Carols for JJ (1892), expressed satisfaction at the revival of interest in carols from the past and that poets and composers were adding to the store of material. In his 1907 Appendix, Julian noted that in recent years carols had been produced in great number, and listed some of the publications. No awareness was shown, however, of the revolution in understanding of traditional music that was by then taking place.

In that same year there appeared English Folk Song — Some Conclusions (1907) by Cecil Sharp*. Sharp had been collecting folk songs by then for four years, and had already notated 1500 tunes, many of which were carols. From this time, traditional carols increasingly set the standard for carol composition, although for at least half a century the Victorian compositions continued to be sung, largely through the continuing widespread use of the Bramley and Stainer edition.

‘Synthetic’ carols continued to be produced. George Ratcliffe Woodward* published The Cowley Carol Book (Oxford, 1901) with 39 items, with a Second Series (London and Oxford, 1919) which added 37 items. He drew heavily on Piae Cantiones and made 21 of Neale’s translations better known. He introduced interesting items from early German, Dutch and English sources, and provided translations himself, as well as original texts. These tended to use archaic expressions and have not worn well. Charles Wood* became increasingly involved in the music, which is distinguished, and many of the tunes might well be re-used. The book introduced the Dutch tune VRUECHTEN to Woodward’s words ‘This joyful Eastertide’*, and Woodward translated ‘Puer nobis nascitur’ as ‘Unto us is born a son’ (see ‘Unto us a boy is born’*), maintaining its association with the Piae Cantiones tune of the same name.

Woodward and Wood returned to carols in 1924 with The Cambridge Carol Book. In this Wood arranged a dance tune from Arbeau’s Orchesographie (Lengres, 1588) for Woodward’s words ‘Ding! dong! merrily on high’*, which has become an essential part of the repertoire.

Martin Edward Fallas Shaw* and Percy Dearmer* edited The English Carol Book First Series (1913) with 32 carols, and Second Series (1919) with 22. This was the first publication to show the influence of the folk song collectors, and was the beginning of a collaboration in this field that led to The Oxford Book of Carols (1928) in the editing of which they were joined by Ralph Vaughan Williams*, who had published some of the folk carols that he had collected in versions for choirs, and also the Fantasia on Christmas Carols (1912) for baritone, chorus and orchestra, which has since become a standard part of the choral repertoire.

The Oxford Book of Carols was a fine, authoritative collection. Its five sections covered the possible combinations of words and music:

  1. Traditional Carols with tunes proper to them
    1. English Welsh and Irish, Nos 1-72;
    2. Foreign carols with their traditional words translated, Nos 73-113;
  2. Traditional Carol tunes set to other traditional words or to old texts, Nos 114-132;
  3. Modern texts written for or adapted to traditional tunes, Nos 133-167;
  4. Traditional Carol texts (together with some texts by earlier writers) set to tunes by modern composers, Nos 168-185;
  5. Carols by modern writers and composers, Nos 186-197.

The editors did not reject the synthetic carol, but they clearly gave the main weight to the traditional carols. The book appeared too early to do full justice to the medieval carols, and the three that were included needed to be newly edited when the book was reset in slightly larger format in 1964. For that edition the original words of many of the translated carols were given. OBC had a vigorous 15-page preface by Percy Dearmer which is still the best short introduction to the carol in general and the English Carol in particular: the notes on the individual carols are a mine of information. The editors were very critical of the Victorian arrangers, especially Stainer, but their own versions now seem dated, and many musicians have returned to the 19th-century arrangements.

Two other important editors were at work at the same period. Richard Runciman Terry* edited a series of pamphlets of traditional and original carols which were brought together in book form as Two Hundred Folk Carols (1933). Edgar Pettman* was also arranging, composing and publishing carols (see I.A. Copley, ‘Edgar Pettman and the Carol Revival’, Bulletin of the Hymn Society, 152, 1981, 225-229). These circulated in pamphlet form, and a number of them have become popular, especially those from Basque sources, the material for which almost certainly came from Sabine Baring-Gould*. Of these ‘The angel Gabriel from heaven came’* is widely sung and has appeared in a number of hymnbooks. The best material from these two sources was brought together by Erik Routley to be the core of the useful University Carol Book (Brighton, 1961). This draws on different sources from those represented in OBC.

The clearest voice raised against the style of arrangements in OBC was that of Elizabeth Poston* in The Penguin Book of Christmas Carols (Harmondsworth, 1965; The Second Penguin Book of Christmas Carols, Harmondsworth, 1970, is entirely devoted to carols from the USA). Her argument is that the arrangers have been pulling the traditional carols away from the ‘people’ to whom they properly belong. She aimed to provide a directness of expression in the arrangements and turned her back on the synthetic carol, the ‘illegitimate unions’ as she called them. However, the most popular carol from these sources is her own setting of an American text, ‘Jesus Christ the apple tree’.

While no particular policy has been declared, the movement in the other direction has been the arranging of carols for skilled choirs. The chief showcase for such arrangements has been the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols (see ‘Nine Lessons and Carols’*) on Christmas Eve in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, broadcast since the early years of ‘the wireless’, and now on the World Service of the BBC; the chief publications have been the successive volumes of Carols for Choirs (London: Vol 1, 1961; Vol 2, 1970; Vol 3, 1978; Vol 4, 1980), with other publishers using similar combinations of traditional carols (in elaborate arrangements for choir and organ) and original carols in similar style. There has been a tendency for these arrangements, particularly those in Carols for Choirs 1, to have become accepted as the standard versions for current use. While making highly attractive choral pieces, these arrangements do withdraw from ordinary people the possibility of participating in the music, moving it into the realm of music for listening only.

A different approach again was that of the Jubilate Hymns group in publishing Carols for Today (1986). The editors, Michael Perry* and David Iliff*, declare that they wish their book to provide ‘Christmas worship and Christian teaching’ for congregations, many of whose members may only attend church once a year. The result is a collection of hymns rather than carols, though there are some attractive new pieces and some good translations.

The same didactic aim, with a quite different outcome, can be perceived in the publications of the carols arising from the new folk movement, in which new folk songs have been written to be sung in folk clubs. The aim has been to move away from the sanitized versions of the old editors of folk songs, to sing the old songs as they really were, and to write new ones that, like the old, can have a great deal of contemporary reference. Among the singer-composers there have been those who have put across a Christian message. The most notable of these has been Sydney Carter*, who has often called his pieces ‘carols’ though he has moved a long way from concentrating on the Christmas theme. Representative of the movement is Faith, Folk and Nativity (Great Yarmouth, 1968).

Quite different is Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott’s The New Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford, 1992). This massive book takes a new look at the whole field, and devotes a great deal of space to the notes on each item. The book has two parts, ‘Composed Carols’ and ‘Traditional Carols’. Unlike the OBC of 1928 the emphasis is on the composed carols, often presented in a number of versions. The notes show how the study of congregational singing has developed in the second half of the 20th century, in particular the researches into the parish music of the 18th and early-19th centuries (see West Gallery music*). The Shorter New Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford, 1993) is the version intended for practical use by choirs.

Another development has been the arrival of new carols from the southern hemisphere. Some of them simply remove the ‘In the bleak midwinter’ element of the carols. The New Zealand writer Shirley Erena Murray* takes this further, and in her work the contrast with the Christmas pieces of the northern hemisphere is sometimes moving (as in ‘Come to this Christmas singing’) or amusing (as in ‘Carol our Christmas, an upside-down Christmas’*).

Hymnbook editors initially took the point of view that there is an essential difference between the hymn and the carol, just as the editors of carol collections omitted the Christmas hymns, often to the irritation of the general public in both cases. So while interest in the traditional carols was developing, they tended not to appear in hymnbooks. A&M from 1861 to A&MR (1950) was austere in its Christmas section, the nearest thing to a carol being John Mason Neale’s translation of ‘Corde natus ex Parentis’*, ‘Of the Father’s love begotten’* set to various versions of a tune from Piae Cantiones. In the Wesleyan Methodist Hymn Book (1904) the only difference was that the selection of hymns on the Incarnation was wider. EH (1906) did not include a single complete traditional carol, even though the editors were later to work together on OBC (only the tune, A VIRGIN UNSPOTTED, was included). SofP (1925) and SofPE (1931) were no different, nor was MHB (1933). A major change seems to have taken place with CP (1951), where the body of the book contains a good selection of hymns on the Incarnation, and then, almost as an appendix at the end, there is a selection of 23 items headed ‘Christmas and Easter Carols’. The 18 Christmas carols are largely English carols or are from other traditional sources in translation. Since then hymnbooks have either had a carol section or have included the carols in the body of the book. The problem is that of selection, since there is a large body of material now available.

The revival of the English traditional carol has continued, and shows no sign of weakening; and many carols of recent composition are proving worthy to be sung alongside traditional ones. Carol services and concerts abound. The constant sound of ‘Silent night’* and other favourite carols and Christmas hymns on the sound systems of shops in glutinous arrangements in the month before Christmas may be counted a mixed blessing. But the outdoor element of the carol has also survived, from small groups of children singing at the door, and the local church choir singing in the street, to organized groups of singers and instrumentalists singing and playing in shopping centres. Salvation Army bands are particularly good at performing carols in such places. All this shows that this colourful repertoire lives on, and has a powerful appeal.

See also ‘Welsh carols’*.

Alan Luff

Further Reading

  1. Erik Routley, The English Carol (London and New York, 1959).
  2. Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott, eds., The New Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).
  3. John Stevens and Dennis Libby, ‘Carol’, NGII.
  4. Percy Dearmer, The Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1928). See especially Preface, pp.v-xxvi.
  5. William E. Studwell, Christmas Carols. A Reference Guide (New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1985).
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