Durham Cathedral Choir Association

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The music on this disc has been chosen to illustrate both highways and byways of the Christmas repertoire. While it includes on 16th/17th century anthem (by Hassler), one 20th-century French anthem, one Lutheran chorale, and a prelude on a further Lutheran chorale, the great majority consists of carols or of organ pieces based on carol-melodies.

The carol probably has its origin in the French carole, or round dance. The derivation is significant, for carols often contain at least a suggestion of dance. Carols were not necessarily intended for use in church services, nor were they by any means confined to Christmas themes (or even specifically religious themes); their tunes tended to be strong and direct, often handed down orally from generation to generation. Similarly, the words tended to be relatively unformalised and theologically straightforward - as opposed to those of hymns, which tended to be written by “professional” theologians and intended only for liturgical use. Over the centuries the distinction between hymns and carols has tended to become blurred (so that some of today’s most famous carols are in fact hymns); on the other hand, carols have tended to become more or less exclusively associated with Christmas in the common mind.

The earliest carols often alternated verses (maybe sung by solo voices) with refrains or burdens sung by all; their texts were sometimes macaronic, the verses being in English with the refrains in Latin. Something similar is seen here in Nowel! Owt of your slepe, where there are separate English words to each verse, but a common text to the refrain (the single, technically French word Nowell). The strophic element is common also to The Coventry Carol - a relic of a medieval mystery-play or Pageant acted by one of the professional guilds, in this case that of the Shearmen and Tailors of that city. Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child is sung in the play by the mothers of Bethlehem before the murder of their children on Herod’s orders. A mixture of secular lingua franca and Church Latin is also seen in Robert Carver’s All sons of Adam, a work from Scotland’s Roman Catholic era which incidentally, like I saw three ships, also introduces the historically-convoluted but frequently recurrent allegory of ships “sailing into Bethlehem” at Christmastide.

The Commonwealth, with its Puritanical influence, saw an attempt to put an end to Christmas festivities in Britain, just as the French Revolution put paid to them in that country (rendering temporarily obsolete such works as d’Aquin’s sets of organ variations on well-known French noëls, or carol-tunes). It was in the reign of Queen Victoria that there was a great resumption of festive Christmas customs in this country, encouraged by th writings of Charles Dickens, and to some extent admittedly clothed in a bogus air of antiquity (Thomas Hardy gives a nostalgic but probably truer picture of Christmas in rural England in Under the Greenwood Tree). The legacy of that era has been, and continues to be, an explosion of carol composition and arrangement, some of it ephemeral, but a significant part doubtless destined to stand the test of time. In the last 150 years or so, new writing has continued to go hand-in-hand with the rediscovery and rehabilitation of old words and tunes. For example, Once in royal David’s city is a child of the Victorian era, both words and music. Often, though, an old tune has been set to new words (for example, Ding dong! Merrily on high, where an earthy French dance-tune has been reclaimed from the devil for God’s work and given Victorian words); or a traditional carol has been arranged for modern forces (such as God rest you merry, just one of many arrangements by David Willcocks, who along with John Rutter has had a huge influence on the Christmas repertoire in recent years). Many modern composers have also explored old texts, as memorable Britten in A Hymn to the Virgin (a true macaronic, dating from around 1300) and Rutter in What sweeter music? (a setting of words by Robert Herrick). Christina Rossetti’s In the bleak midwinter is (with Once in royal) perhaps the most well-known Christmas text from a female pen; but it is Elizabeth Jennings in our present century who has perhaps best expressed a mother’s perspective on the birth of Jesus, her feelings of joy not entirely unmixed.

For, as we saw in The Coventry Carol, so the joy of the Incarnation is mingles also with pain and foreboding; and if carols down the ages have hinted at this, it is perhaps for our present age to explore more fully both words and music which will seek to shed light on the meaning of an implications of that Incarnation: the paradox that “the maker of the worlds is born a begging child; he begs for milk, and does not know that it is milk for which he begs” (Austin Farrer). Or, as Richard Crashaw has expressed it, so concisely yet so tellingly:

Welcome, all wonders in one sight;

Eternity shut in a span:

Summer in winter, day in night;

Heaven in earth, and God in man:

Great little one

Whose all-embracing birth

Lifts earth to heaven,

Stoops heaven to earth

© James Lancelot, 1997

Christmas Joy.mp3

Christmas Joy Volume 2

PRCD 604


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Christopher  Steel

People, Look East

Benjamin Britten

A Hymn to the Virgin

J.S. Bach

Vom Himmel Hoch, da komm ich her,

BWV 606

15th century

Nowel! Owt of your slepe aryse   

Traditional English, arr. D. Willcocks

God rest you merry, gentlemen

Harold Darke

In the bleak midwinter

Traditional Normandy, arr. R. Jacques

Away in a manger

Traditional French, harm. Charles Wood

Ding dong! Merrily on High

H.J.Gauntlett, harm. A.H.Mann

Once in Royal David’s City

Roger Hemingway

Mary’s Magnificat

Arr. David Willcocks

O come all ye faithful

Louis-Claude d’Aquin

Noël VI

Francis Poulenc

Quem vidistis pastores dicite

Attrib. Robert Carver

The Christmas Medley

John Rutter

What sweeter music?  

John Gardner

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day

Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors

The Coventry Carol

Arr. David Willcocks

Unto us is born a Son

Henry Walford Davie

O Little town of Bethlehem

Traditional English, arr. Richard Lloyd

I saw three ships

Traditional German, harm. J.S.Bach

O Little one sweet

Traditional English, harm. John Stainer

The First Nowell

Hans Leo Hassler

Verbum caro factum est

Felix Mendelssohn, adp. W.H.Cummings,

des. David Willcocks

Hark! the herald-angels sing

Johann Sebastian Bach

In dulci jubilo, BWV 729

Traditional West country, arr. A. Warrell

We wish you a merry Christmas