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Wednesday, 23 December 2009
Christmas Carols X

I’ve barely scratched the surface of the history of Christmas Carols because I’ve allowed myself to be diverted into a few interesting side-channels, so in this penultimate post of the series let me rapidly fill in some of the major historical points and give you all the occasional link to some lovely recordings of a Carol or two. I’m going to concentrate on the period from about AD1300 to the present day since I’ve already speculated quite enough about the many, many centuries of singing before that early date and about how many musicologists and text analysers link our Carols back into our ancient ages.

The earliest written works in English to record Christmas Carols, well carols in general, at any rate, appear to be the poems of Father John Awdelay, a Chantry Priest at Haughmond Abbey in Shropshire. We don’t know when he was born but we think that he died sometime around AD1430. His works are preserved in a manuscript in the Bodleian Library in Oxford (Douce 302). One of his poems – There is a Flower – has had tunes composed for it by Dr. J.M. Rutter and by Dr. W.S. Vann.
We know, as I wrote here, that there is a twelfth century record of Christmas Carols by Adam of St. Victor and I pointed out here that Christmas Carols were very popular in Medieval times. The Protestant Reformation and the Churches which arose from it, however, regarded the celebration of Christmas as far too Roman Catholic and did their best to eliminate any celebrations linked to Our Lord’s Birth – although, to be fair, Martin Luther made Carols and actively encouraged their use.
Despite the Reformation, Carols continued to be sung – usually in rural areas – and composed. "Adeste fidelis" (‘Oh come all ye faithful’) was written by John F. Wade (with additional verses by the Abbe Etienne J.F.Borderies) sometime in the early seventeen-hundreds. Frederick Oakeley translated the Latin into the English version we all sing today but there is some doubt as to how old the original Latin text might be with some authorities believing that it could be early eleventh century. The music, however, was indisputably written in the early eighteenth century but, again, some people claim that one can hear vestiges of a much older tune therein – and that’s perfectly possible given Wade’s, and everyone else’s, comprehension of his musical heritage at the time he wrote it. There is some argument that Wade, a Jacobite, meant this Carol as a paean to the birth of the pretender but I doubt that for it discounts entirely the movement of Faith within a man and we do know that after he fled England he lived amongst the Catholic exiles in France and worked on devotional music for the rest of his life.
Moving on, in AD1833, W.B. Sandys FSA published his Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (London (UK), Richard Beckley, 1833) which featured many old Carols of Christmastide – as the title implies – as well as much that was recent at the time of publication. The First Noel, an ancient Cornish Christmas Carol that Sandys, or someone around him, modernised, was included in this collection. We don’t have the original but the text and the music, if one attempts to take out Sandys’ reworkings, sound very early, and very West Country indeed, because all three phrases end on the third of the scale which is a characteristically Cornish musical idiom in the early folk tunes.
In the second half of the nineteenth century composers like Arthur Sullivan (he of Gilbert & Sullivan fame) added impetus to the Christmas Carol’s rediscovery by rewriting much of the ancient music in a form which was easier for their contemporaries to play and sing. To this period such Christmas Carols as Good King Wenceslas and It came Upon the Midnight Clear belong. The latter is a modern Carol from new England (USA) written by Edmund H. Sears, with music by Richard S. Willis called, simply, ‘Carol’, but in the UK the tune most often sung is one adapted from an ancient carolling folk tune in 1874 by Arthur Sullivan and is called ‘Noel’ – a synthesis of modern words with ancient music which was common in nineteenth century in England as our ancient musical and literary heritage was rediscovered.
Good King Wenceslas today ports the much loved words, for us English speaking folk, by John M. Neale (AD1818-AD1866), Warden of Sackville College (with the assistance of Thomas Helmore), which are actually a very, very imaginative ‘translation’ of Vaclav Alois Svoboda’s poem about Wenceslas written in AD1847 which he, or so he claimed, based on old Czech folk stories and traditions about Saint Wenceslas I, Duke of Bohemia (c.906–c.933AD). The tune, however, is the Tempus adest floridum (‘It is time for the flowering’) from the Piae cantiones ecclesiasticae et scholasticae veterum Episcoporum (‘Devout ecclesiastical and school songs of the venerable Bishops’) which is a Swedish collection of medieval Latin songs compiled by Jacobus Finno and published in 1582 in Griefswald (now in Germany but, at the time that work was compiled, part of Sweden) by Theodoricus P. Nylandensi.
Traditionally, the tunes for Christmas Carols – indeed, most carols – are written using the medieval chord structure – and that’s easily faked by most competent composers in any era so it’s hard to be certain of the provenance of any tune, but researchers can trawl through Libraries of ancient manuscripts and follow the clues and tantalising references and at least we can give you some idea about our musical past and our ancient Christmas Carols. That Medieval structure is based on the Roman chord structure (as far as we can determine from our Libraries) which seems to be based on a much more ancient understanding of music. The unique sound of Christmas is at least as ancient as our Faith and, it seems, maybe even older.
The tradition of English Christmas Carol singing is still alive and well – and new Carols are still being written and the old Carols are still being sung and enjoyed by millions of us. It is that depth and richness of culture and tradition which this site, NER, seeks to protect and nurture and define and defend. Know your history, say I, for without that knowledge you cannot defend yourself against the infidel hordes.
If you don’t know who you are, how can you define what you want to become? Our ancient Christmas Carols tell us who we are, where we’ve come from; but they don’t necessarily tell us where we are going to go – that’s a journey which is solely up to us to plot.
By the way, the tune to Hark, The Herald Angels Sing is Mendelssohn’s, adapted to Charles Wesley’s words by W.H. Cummings, and it first appeared in AD1861 although it was written in AD1840. Given Felix Mendelssohn’s incredibly profound knowledge of ancient music we can only guess as to whether or not he adapted an early tune or composed something entirely new, but in the tradition! A great Christmas, Christian Carol with music by one of the great, perhaps the greatest, Jewish (Austrian) composers! We live in a Judeo-Christian society and ours is a fantastic and great culture, and I rest my case!
Posted on 12/23/2009 7:07 AM by John M. Joyce
25 Dec 2009
Send an emailJohn M. J.


Thank-you for your comment and question - keep reading for I do give you some starting points after I make the following general observations.

I've drawn my ideas from many disparate sources - and from that which I was taught as child and teenager - but the Christian tradition is that much of what we use is ancient and if one follows, step be step, the words and the musics back into history (tiny step by tiny step) then one can trace the unbroken links into the furthest reaches of our past.

This process is part of what is called the Archaeology of Music - more below, keep reading.

That idea is not only true for Christmas Carols but is true for most of what we do today. We do not live, today, cut off from the past, divorced from it simply because we live today and our ancestors lived in the past. We are the product of that past and everything we have, and everything we do, and everything we say (and the ways in which we say and sing them) are born from our past. Our science and our technology, our art and our literature, our language and our music, and our morality and our beliefs are exclusively ours but all born from the past actions and discoveries of our ancestors.

In this day and age it seems to us that the pace of change is very fast and we assume that it was always so: that's not true. Up until two-hundred and fifty years ago the pace of change in all the fields of human activity and culture was very slow indeed - and music was no exception to that rule.

It is by no means inconceivable that many of our older tunes are very old indeed and musicologists are hard at work uncovering our ancient musical history. Start by reading:

Kilmer, Anne Draffkorn, Journal of Cuneiform Studies, xxxviii (1986), 94-98

and follow that with:

West, M. L., The Babylonian Musical Notation and the Hurrian Melodic Texts, Music & Letters, Vol. 75, No. 2. (May, 1994), pp. 161–179.

Now, for a recording of some 2,500 years old ancient Greek music you need to get hold of Musiques de l'Antiquité Grecque by the  Ensemble Kérilos. I have a copy but I don't think that it is currently available excepting through your Library service. Try using a well-known search engine and see what that throws up at you.

For the Archaeology of Music you should also follow the Proceedings of the ISGMA, their website is over at

Do email me at [email protected] if you would like to know more or want to chat about this subject or want or need further references or starting points for your own researches.

The CD by Daimonia Nymphe - Evi Stergiou and Spyros Giasafakis (aka Daimonia Nymphe) - although fanciful and not in any sense to be trusted as historically accurate, does, for me, convey something of the excitement and, perhaps, the sound of ancient music. They use the ancient instruments and are therefore constrained by those intruments' capabilities. They are human and play them: those who originally played them three thousand years ago were also human. That's all that can be said.

Reconstructing the music of our ancient past is turning out to be a lot easier - but still very difficult - than we originally thought. So many written records have been left that all we have to do today is decipher them. Sounds easy, doesn't it? Actually it's d***ed difficult - but not impossible!

24 Dec 2009

 Mr Joyce  I've greatly enjoyed your posts.  Where can one turn for additional reading on this topic?  I'm especially fascinated by the suggestion some carols go back thousands of years -- I've never heard this posited anywhere before,