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A new album bringing classic carols to life under the expert direction of conductor and author Andrew Gant, marking the release later this year of his new book Christmas Carols, from Village Green to Church Choir. Everyone loves a carol—in the end, even Scrooge. They have the power to summon up a special kind of midwinter mood, like the aroma of mince pies and mulled wine and the twinkle of lights on a tree. It’s a kind of magic. In this new accompanying recording, Andrew Gant’s choir Vox Turturis bring these carols to life with captivating performances of classics such as ‘The Angel Gabriel’, ‘Adeste fideles’ and ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ as well as less-known gems like ‘Célébrons la naissance’, ‘Les anges dans nos campagnes’ and ‘Tempus adest floridum’. The CD booklet also includes a short essay by Gant highlighting some of the fascinating stories behind these works. Christmas Carols brims with anecdote, expert knowledge and Christmas spirit. It is a fittingly joyous account of one of our best-loved musical traditions.
This collection is a celebration of a rich pudding, a glorious muddle, the English carol tradition. It’s also, partly, an exercise in stripping away some, though not all, of the layers of accretion which these much-loved tunes have gathered over the centuries. Some are folk songs, some are hymns. Almost all have evolved and changed as each generation has used them for its own purposes. Sometimes it is possible to see how this happened, and to find and compare original sources with the work of later translators, editors and arrangers. Often there are no original sources, just an oral tradition stretching back into nothing. That is part of what makes Christmas carols such a rich part of who we are, and why they deserve to be celebrated.
The carols on this disc are arranged roughly in the order of the events of the story of the nativity, a sort of journey in song through the liturgical meaning of Christmas. We begin at the Annunciation, the Angel Gabriel appearing to Mary with “wings as drifted snow”.
Advent is the season of preparation for the fulfilment of that promise. Veni Emmanuel is an ancient meditation on the themes of Advent, arranged by two English Victorian clergymen, Thomas Helmore and John Mason Neale. The version here sets verse one to the Latin as they found it, verses two and three to two of their several versions, verse four to a new setting, a kind of truncated 500-year history in four verses.
Many of the tunes featured here have had lots of other words sung to them. Few more so than O Tannenbaum. Its German origins and American associations are reflected here in an early version of the text set to the harmony printed in the famous 1858 “Yale songbook”.
Two of the best-known and, in some ways, most mysterious of English folk carols follow. The imagery of The holly and the ivy abounds in mediaeval folk lyrics, as much to do with pre-Christian midwinter rituals as with the “sweet singing in the choir”. I saw three ships has a fascinating and complex history, its curious image of watching Christ and his mother sailing into Bethlehem happily mixing together several disparate and colourful strands of folklore and Christian iconography.
The tune of the next song, O little town of Bethlehem, was also originally a folk song, about a delinquent plough boy who beats his oxen to death (and gets his come-uppance from a blue genie. Quite right, too). The words are by an American bishop who lived through the Civil War, and credit for the idea of combining words and tune goes to one of the most important figures in the story of English folk music, Ralph Vaughan Williams.
We approach the sleeping Christ-child with a German Lutheran chorale, In dulci iubilo, in an arrangement here by the early twentieth century composer Carl Thiel. Europe has a hand in the origins of Adeste fideles, too, though the process by which this hymn got from eighteenth century France to the Anglican choirstalls is a detective story worthy of Poirot or Morse (and may or may not be connected with the Jacobite rebellion of 1745).
Next, the shepherds. Three variants of their homely story reveal, in their different ways, how the English carol tradition draws on Reformation psalm-singing, folk song and pretty much everything else, including tunes you may well recognise from quite different contexts. The fleecy care is, probably, a genuinely unique (and ravishing) local variant, from Northamptonshire.
Tracks 12-14 have a common origin in French folk tunes or “Noëls”. The tune of Ding, dong, merrily is from a handsome dancing manual assembled by Jehan Tabourot in 1589. The words are a good example of an English clergyman co-opting a fine old tune for some archaically jolly words of his own. The tune is at least as much fun if you read the original (sideways down the page), and try to do the “Branle” to it. Célébrons la naissance is an exercise in how something becomes a carol at all. The music is in Tabourot’s book as a rather melancholy love song. The twentieth century English composer Peter Warlock used a number of Tabourot’s tunes, including this one, in his orchestral “Capriol Suite”. I have taken a traditional French carol text, probably from the eighteenth century, and put it to Tabourot’s love song, using Warlock’s harmonies, arranged for voices. This little item probably therefore contains the work of four composers and two lyricists, some of them unidentifiable, spread over more than 400 years. That’s how carols work. Les anges dans nos campagnes is a real French folk carol, the origin of our “Angels from the realms of glory”.
We stay with the angels for Hark, the herald, with words by Charles Wesley (well, the first word, anyway) and music by Mendelssohn (which he wrote in praise not of the baby Jesus but of the printer Johannes Guttenberg). The Christ-child’s lullaby is a gem. Collected by one of our greatest folklorists, Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser, in the Western Isles of Scotland, it (typically) exists in a number of different versions. Unlike most carols, it has survived more in the repertoire of folk groups and bands than in the choir stall. It has a gorgeous, if slightly creepy, tale attached about how it first came to be sung in Eriskay.
Three more lullabies follow. Still, still, still is a folk song from Germany. Away in a manger is sung here first to the tune (and with the words) which its author first intended, then to the two tunes to which it is best known today in, respectively, the UK and the US. The mystery surrounding the authorship of this text wasn’t helped by the original publisher claiming it was by Martin Luther in order to drum up business for a play about his life. Whoever it is by, it certainly isn’t him.
Personent hodie is one of many familiar tunes arranged from a rare and beautiful sixteenth-century school hymnbook from Finland called “Piae Cantiones” by Neale and Helmore. It became immensely popular in the hands of English arrangers and editors, who for some reason added an extra note to the tune. It is taken out here.
The text of Personent hodie takes us beyond Christmas Day into the territory of the boy-bishops, St Nicholas and the Three Kings. Our next carol takes us right through the Twelve days of Christmas to Twelfth Night, with not even a passing reference to the Christian themes of Christmas. This is the carol as nonsense song, children’s song and counting song, part of a splendid tradition which defies rational explanation (though there are some ingenious ideas about how the partridge got up the pear tree).
What child is this? is the only example on this disc of a “composed” carol, a setting of a nineteenth-century poem originally published to the tune “Greensleeves”.
Appropriately, two folk carols finish. We wish you a merry Christmas is an example of the carol as “wassail”, visiting the neighbours and giving them good cheer and a song in return for some warming victuals, a tradition with many fascinating and colourful stories attached.
Tempus adest floridum reminds us that, originally, the carol was never just for Christmas, even if, like this one, the tune has been appropriated later on to become a well-known Christmas carol. This entirely secular Spring carol is from “Piae cantiones”, set here with a nod to the kind of canons and inversions which some composers of the time liked to lace through their choral textures, and just a touch of earlier sounds like the “pendulum-bass”.
So, which tune was intended for Away in a manger? Answer: “Home, Sweet Home”. And do you know who wrote Away in a manger? No, me neither.
Andrew Gant © 2014