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Adeste fideles

Christmas Music from Westminster Cathedral
Westminster Cathedral Choir, James O'Donnell (conductor) Detailed performer information
Label: Hyperion
Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell
Release date: October 1993
Total duration: 69 minutes 13 seconds


‘An extremely well-sung traditional carol collection. The concert makes a great appeal by the quality of the singing and the beautiful digital recording’ (The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)

‘A model of its kind’ (The Times)

‘Celestial’ (San Francisco Examiner)

Other recommended albums

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The carol has had a long and varied history in all Christian countries in the west, particularly at Christmastide, but in its early days it had no connection with Christmas or even with Christianity. The French word carole means a round-dance, and the early carol consisted of verses and refrains, the former being entrusted to a soloist, the latter involving everybody present. During the refrain the singers would link hands, men and women alternately, and dance round in a circle. Some carols were used for secular purposes, others to celebrate pagan feasts. Needless to say, the medieval church frowned on this overt heathenry, but its leaders, acknowledging their powerlessness to put an end to the Roman Saturnalia and the winter solstice, took them over, lumped them together, and called them Christmas. Some of the old pagan carols, provided with new words and a Christian message, were also appropriated, and the genre of the Christmas carol was born.

Still, however, secular carols were sung. ‘The Agincourt Carol’, written to commemorate the victory of Henry V’s small army over the forces of France in 1415, has a solid strength and rhythmic vitality; while ‘The Boar’s Head Carol’, published in 1521, proclaims good cheer as a component of Christmas joy. In the first half of the seventeenth century, during the Civil War and the Commonwealth, the carol in Britain more or less fell into disuse, but two centuries later the Victorians revived it, producing foursquare hymn-like examples in which the congregation would join. In 1919, when King’s College, Cambridge, initiated the now familiar Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, the way was prepared for a gradual improvement of standards, and the carol was more specifically associated with Christmas. At King’s, as on the present recording, all types of carol are represented—the straightforward hymn tunes which appear in Victorian hymnals, but with new descants and sometimes alternative harmonies added; the traditional carol based on folk material or plainsong, more or less elaborately and imaginatively arranged; and the original composition.

O come, all ye faithful is a hymn on the Prose for Christmas Day and should properly be sung between the Gradual and the Gospel. The original words and melody are attributed to John Francis Wade (1711–1786) who was a member of the teaching staff of the Roman Catholic English College at Douai, a French town on the river Scarpe in the Nord department. The text was first printed in the 1760 edition of Evening Offices of the Church, the tune in Samuel Webbe’s An Essay on the Church Plain Chant, published in 1782. The present descant is by Philip Ledger.

The Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould (1834–1924) was a prolific novelist, a writer on travel and mythology, a collector of folk songs and, from 1881, the rector of Lewtrenchard in Devon. It was he who wrote the words of Onward, Christian soldiers, so solidly set to music by Arthur Sullivan, and he devised both the words and the music of the gentler Now the day is over. Baring-Gould seems to have had numerous children—though the delightful stories circulating about his forgetfulness in his latter years (“Whose little girl are you, my dear?” “Yours, daddy”) are almost certainly apocryphal. The tune of Gabriel’s Message is an old Basque noël, arranged here by Edgar Pettman.

O come, O come, Emmanuel is an Advent carol, a fervent plea to the Saviour to come and redeem mankind in accordance with the Old Testament prophecies, with, at the close of each verse, a brief refrain rejoicing in the message those prophecies convey. The words, written in Cologne in 1710 and translated by T A Lacey (1853–1931), are based on ancient Advent antiphons. The melody is from a fifteenth-century French Franciscan Processional kept in the National Library in Paris, adapted by Thomas Helmore (1811–1890) and freely arranged by James O’Donnell. The spirit is one of quiet assurance and timeless devotion.

Henry John Gauntlett (1805–1876) was a lawyer turned organist and organ designer, and an authority on Gregorian chant. In the late 1840s, when he was organist of the Union Chapel in Islington, north London, he ran a class in which, for due remuneration, he taught more than two hundred members of the thousand-strong congregation not only the musical items they were expected to sing, but also the choir anthems in which they regularly participated. His claim to have composed ten thousand hymn tunes is questionable, but he certainly wrote a vast number, of which a mere handful have found their way into the standard hymnals. They include ‘St Fulbert’ (Ye choirs of new Jerusalem), ‘St Albinus’ (Jesus lives! thy terrors now) and ‘Irby’ (Once in royal David’s city). The present harmonization is not Gauntlett’s, however, but that of Arthur Henry Mann (1850–1929), who was organist of King’s College, Cambridge, for more than fifty years and presided over the music in the first Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in 1919. The words are by the redoubtable Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander, wife of a sometime Primate of All Ireland. This is a striking example of Victorian hymnody. The descants and alternative harmonies are by James O’Donnell.

The present setting of Ding dong! merrily on high is the well-known one with words by G R Woodward and a catchy sixteenth-century French tune harmonized by Charles Wood. The tune is taken from a dance manual called Orchésographie, published in Langres in 1588 by a canon named Jehan Tabourot, who used as a pseudonym the anagrammatic form, Thoinot Arbeau. In the book the dance is described as a ‘branle de l’official’—implying particular vibrancy and exuberance. Charles Wood (1866–1926) was a product of the Royal College of Music and studied composition with Sir Charles Villiers Stanford whom he succeeded as professor of music at Cambridge in 1924. Vaughan Williams was among his pupils. His best-known pieces are his anthems, which include O Thou the central Orb and Expectans expectavi.

It was The Venerable Bede, the English divine who entered a monastery at the age of seven and later made his mark as priest, theologian, scientist and historian, who wrote the original words of A maiden most gentle. The present paraphrase is the work of Andrew Carter, who has set his version to a traditional French melody, adding a sparkling organ accompaniment to alternate verses. His arrangement perfectly catches the mood of the simple Christmas scene and accommodates unaccompanied singing and plenty of contrast between tenors and basses on the one hand and trebles and altos on the other.

In the first decade or so of the twentieth century John Jacob Niles was collecting songs of the North American Indians in and around the Appalachian mountains. He later published them in a book entitled Songs of the Hill-Folk. I wonder as I wander is from North Carolina, one of the original thirteen states of the Union, and its modality proclaims its folk origins. The present unaccompanied version is by Andrew Carter.

The words of O little town of Bethlehem are by Phillips Brooks, a nineteenth-century bishop of Massachusetts renowned for his inspired preaching. Vaughan Williams set the carol to an English traditional melody, ‘The ploughboy’s dream’, which he re-titled ‘Forest Green’. The last verse descant and alternative harmony are by Iain Simcock, at present Assistant Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral.

There are two popular settings of Christina Rossetti’s In the bleak mid-winter—Gustav Holst’s, which appears in the standard hymnals and carol collections, and the present one by Harold Darke (1888–1976). Darke, like several other composers represented on this disc, was a product of the Royal College of Music, studying composition with Stanford and the organ with Sir Walter Parratt, who had himself been a church organist from the age of eleven. Darke held the post of organist and choirmaster of St Michael’s, Cornhill, in the City of London, for fifty years from 1916, except for a wartime break when he stood in at King’s College, Cambridge, from 1941 to 1945. He founded the St Michael’s Singers and was an organ professor at the RCM from 1919 until 1969, by which time he was well past his eightieth birthday. Darke’s more substantial compositions include the cantatas Ring out, ye crystal spheres and An Hymn of Heavenly Beauty.

The original words of In dulci jubilo were a mixture of German and Latin and they have been translated a number of times from the fifteenth century onwards. Robert Lucas de Pearsall (1795–1856) was an educated English gentleman who studied law and became involved with music only when he moved to Germany in 1825. Thereafter he remained abroad, bought a castle by Lake Constance, and wrote madrigals in sixteenth-century style and partsongs like O who will o’er the downs so free? He added the ‘de’ to his name presumably as an affectation. A considerable linguist, he published English translations of Schiller and Goethe. His free, and imaginative, setting of In dulci jubilo, for unaccompanied double choir, is masterly in its treatment of the fourteenth-century German tune and in its constant variations of texture.

The German composer Peter Cornelius (1824–1874) began his professional career in Berlin as a newspaper critic and private teacher, but in 1852 he travelled to Weimar to meet Liszt, whose new ideas in music, together with those of Wagner, attracted him as much as they repelled the followers of Brahms. His comic opera The Barber of Baghdad was produced at Weimar, by Liszt, in 1858, but the furore surrounding Cornelius’s espousal of the Liszt/Wagner school resulted in the opera’s failure and in Liszt’s own resignation. Cornelius then went to Vienna, met Wagner, followed him to Munich and became professor of composition at the Conservatory there. The basis of The Three Kings is the chorale Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (‘How brightly shines the morning star’). To the fully harmonized chorale Cornelius added an additional line for baritone solo, for which he wrote independent words. The original German chorale text was by Philipp Nicolai (1556–1608).

The original Latin words of Of the Father’s love begotten were written by Prudentius Aurelius Clemens, a saintly and learned Spaniard who after a distinguished career in law and civil administration entered a monastery in his middle age. This is one of the great Mass hymns, translated many times. The plainsong melody is in Piae Cantiones, a collection compiled in Finland in 1582.

Away in a manger is one of the most popular of all the carols sung in the United Kingdom, yet both the words and the music are American, the words traditional, the music by William James Kirkpatrick (1838–1921). The descant to the final verse is by Philip Moore.

Peter Warlock was the pseudonym of the composer, critic and writer Philip Heseltine (1894–1930). His interest in music was encouraged during his schooldays at Eton, and a high point of his early life was his introduction to Delius by an uncle who lived near Grez-sur-Loing. He came under the influence also of Bernard van Dieren and in 1920 he edited the musical journal, The Sackbut. He is best known for his songs and for the Capriol suite for strings, the latter based on dances from Arbeau’s Orchésographie, already mentioned in the note on Ding dong! merrily on high. Bethlehem Down is a flowing strophic carol, to be sung unaccompanied. The dynamics reflect the changing moods of the text.

It was in the small market town of Chipping Campden, in Gloucestershire, that Cecil Sharp (1859–1924) collected the tune and most of the words of The holly and the ivy, both of which are traditional. In the terms of fertility symbolism the dichotomy of holly and ivy parallels that of man and woman. Sir Walford Davies (1869–1941) was in turn organist of the Temple Church in London, professor of music in the University of Wales and organist of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, where he had served his apprenticeship as chorister and, later, pupil teacher. In 1934 he became Master of the King’s Musick in succession to Sir Edward Elgar. His compositions include the famous Solemn Melody and the RAF March Past.

Patrick Hadley (1899–1973) studied at Cambridge and at the Royal College of Music, returning later to lecture at both places and eventually to the professorial chair at Cambridge, which he held from 1946 to 1962. His compositions are mainly for voices and orchestra and display in various ways the influence of Vaughan Williams and, even more, of Delius. Typical of his style and output is the Symphonic Ballad The Trees so high, for baritone solo, chorus and orchestra, but possibly his most familiar piece is the anthem My beloved spake, to words from The Song of Solomon. This setting of I sing of a maiden, with traditional words dating from the sixteenth century, is for two-part boys’ choir. Hadley intended a piano accompaniment, but the present recording employs the organ.

No translation of the German Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!, not even the English version normally sung, is as evocative and atmospheric as the original, the work of Father Joseph Mohr, parish priest of Hallein, a small village in Austria to the south of Salzburg. But the music, by Mohr’s local schoolmaster and organist, Franz Grüber, is totally apt. It evokes ideally the tranquil Christmas scene of the shepherds worshipping the Christ-Child. Stephen Darlington’s arrangement has some especially ear-catching harmonies in the second verse.

Herbert Howells (1892–1983) studied with Sir Herbert Brewer at Gloucester and, from 1912 to 1917, at the RCM where his mentors were Stanford and Charles Wood. He later made his mark as an organist and director of music, holding the latter post at St Paul’s Girls’ School from 1936 to 1962, where his predecessor had been Gustav Holst. He joined the teaching staff at the RCM in 1920, remaining there until shortly before his death, and was professor of music at London University for ten years from 1954. His magnum opus is the beautiful choral work Hymnus Paradisi. Sing lullaby is the last of the Three Carol-Anthems of the years 1918–1920, the others being Here is the little door and A spotless rose. With its flowing modality it calls to mind the pastoral style of Vaughan Williams but is imbued with Howells’s unmistakable individuality.

John Tavener (b1944) became organist of St John’s, Kensington, at the age of sixteen. He went on to study with Lennox Berkeley at the Royal Academy of Music and, privately, with the Australian David Lumsdaine, and in 1969 he began to teach at Trinity College, London. Later he was received into the Russian Orthodox Church and much of his music is ritualistic in quality. His unaccompanied setting of William Blake’s The Lamb is simple and timeless, rhythmically varied and with telling dissonances. The balance between unison, two-part writing and full choir is meticulously judged, and one particular phrase is hypnotically reiterated. Tavener’s full-scale works include the dramatic cantata The Whale, The Protecting Veil for cello and orchestra, and the hour-long choral work We shall see him as he is (‘Ikon of the Beloved’).

The words of Welcome, Yule! date from the fifteenth century and have a lilting rhythm which invites singing. There are several versions, one of which appears in a collection made in about 1430 by John Awdlay, the blind chaplain of Haughmond Abbey in Shropshire. Sir Hubert Parry (1848–1918) obtained his Bachelor of Music degree while still a pupil at Eton but went on to Oxford to study composition. Eventually he became director of the RCM and professor of music at Oxford. He is known for his choral piece Blest pair of sirens, for the unaccompanied Songs of Farewell and, of course, for Jerusalem. The lively setting of Welcome, Yule! is a minor piece but none the less enjoyable.

Charles Wesley’s words to Hark! the herald angels sing, later supplemented by others, first appeared in Hymns and Sacred Poems in 1739. A Mendelssohn enthusiast, William Cummings (1831–1915) cast about for a suitable tune and settled on the second number in Mendelssohn’s Festgesang (Festive Hymn), a work originally composed for male voices and brass in 1840 to mark a festival at Leipzig commemorating the invention of printing. The descant and alternative harmony in the last verse are by Philip Ledger.

Wadham Sutton © 1993

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