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Sunday, 20 December 2009
Christmas Carols VII

Some people seek to make a distinction between Christmas Carols and Christmas songs. I believe that such a distinction is spurious because originally all Christmas Carols were merely songs which celebrated Christmas and were sung by the laity or the choir inside, and outside of, Church services at Christmastide. They were often, as I have demonstrated earlier in this series of posts, teaching songs – they taught the unlettered the meaning of Christmas in an easy to remember way – or were songs of celebration and joy sung to honour the Birth of Our Lord and Saviour. Sometimes they were songs from our ancient, pagan past which were given a Christian twist or two in order to make them acceptable and to allow a harmless tradition to continue uninterrupted into the Christian ages (as I argued here, yesterday).

There is a modern myth that it was St. Francis of Assisi who first introduced Carols at Christmas into Church services, but there is ample evidence to indicate that specifically Christmas Carols were known and sung by Christians at Christmas Services as early as the 300s AD in imperial Rome and its provinces. Often the words of such Hymns (Carols) were deliberately set to known tunes of the time – we have every reason to believe that even St. Ambrose’s starkly simple and very beautiful Veni redemptor gentium (a Christmas Carol composed by that Saint of Milan to counter the influence of the Arian heresy and explain the truly Christian view of the Incarnation of Christ – a teaching song again, it seems) used a much older, well-known and haunting tune.
The Roman imperial Latin poet and lawyer Aurelius Prudentius Clemens, 348(?) – 413(?) AD, composed the very popular Corde natus ex Parentis (‘Of the Father's love begotten’) which is still sung at Christmas in many Churches today and you can listen to it here (he also composed that great Hymn of the Epiphany which we still sing sing today: O sola magnarum urbium (‘Earth Has Many a Noble City’), but that’s another story and the tune we all know to that Hymn is probably a much more modern creation, I think!). I’ve no reason to believe that the surviving and ancient tunes, in general, no matter that they have been ‘modernised’, do not carry with them some relationship to the originals for there is copious evidence in many collections and ancient libraries which demonstrates the persistence of musical tradition.
However, let’s move the story on a bit. The Saxons came into England after the fall of Rome and they brought their traditions of worship of their pagan gods with them. They were, as you all know, gradually Christianised and many of their ancient traditions were incorporated into English Christianity and then disseminated throughout the world over the next many centuries as England grew to be an imperial power and an important player on the world stage. Long before that process began to happen a Cistercian monk, St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 to 1153 AD), championed the developing Christmas music in the cloisters under his control and such music was usually sung by his chorister monks at Christmastide. It has to be remembered that the Monastic Churches were often, indeed usually, also Parish Churches and the Parish priest often lived within the cloister and that this meant that whatever the monks in a particular locality practised the laity usually followed. Where Monasteries emphasised, once again, Christmas music and songs, as the Bernardine Cistercians did, then a rich tradition of such songs sprang up very easily amongst the local laity.
Encouraged by the cloistered ones, ancient tunes and dimly remembered lyrics were pressed by the lay peoples into the service of their Christian Faith and the choirmasters in the cloisters fed off the ancient musicality of the laity also. Much of the ancient Roman musical tradition of Christmas that was on the very edge of extinction in England and Northern France was resurrected and rewritten – just as the Victorian collectors resurrected and rewrote that which the idiot Puritans of the so-called Reformation sought in killjoy fashion to suppress – by those Cistercian music masters in their Monasteries. We owe those many un-named and unremembered musicians of the Cistercian cloisters of England a debt of gratitude for without them there would have been nothing left for the great scholars of the Victorian era to collect and we would have been, this Christmastide, frighteningly bereft of our ancient Carols.
However, we do know the name of one very prominent monastic musician who fed from common pool – Adam of St. Victor (a Monastery just outside medieval Paris) – and we know that he wrote (in the twelfth century) many great Hymns, and great Christmas Hymns, based on vernacular words and music. He wrote, to name but a few, Laudes crucis attolamus, Verbi vere substantivi and Stola regni laureatus, which are all still sung today.
Moving on, again, I must ask why so many of us believe, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, that St. Francis initiated the modern Christmas Carol singing tradition in our Churches. Well, simply put, that’s because he revived the musical legacy of the Bernardine Cistercians and the early Roman Church’s music which they revived, and he was the last great Saint to do so. His revival of the great songs (Carols) of Christmas is still with us today – and salvaged for us by the great collectors of Victorian England as it almost died out once again in our country because of the Puritans. But St. Francis was merely reviving the legacy of Bernard of Clairvaux and the impact that the Cistercians made on the Yuletide musicality of Northern Europe – and on England – and they, the Cistercians, in their turn, were merely reviving a much older Roman tradition which, in England, had previously melded with the songs of the Saxon conversion. The music masters of the Franciscans found easy and rich pickings in England!
And the Ancient Roman Christians in whose time all this Carolling business started? Well they were merely rewriting in Christian terms the ancient pagan Hymns which were in turn based on something which musicologists suggest was even older. We are connected to this ancient past through an unbroken line of singers – monks and laity – and we forget that at our peril.
But new tunes and new words have been born from our ancient past, and a new musicality for our age has arisen from all the ancient tunes and much loved words – but that’s for later.
Posted on 12/20/2009 7:01 AM by John M. Joyce
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