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John Rutter selects some of his favourite Christmas carols, old and new, from classic Cambridge Singers recordings, including several of his own arrangements and never-before-released gems, closing with Vaughan Williams’ majestic Fantasia on Christmas Carols.
There are three strands to the programme: traditional carols; choruses and motets; and composers’ carols. In fact these categories are not as separate as they might appear. Composers have always loved to take traditional melodies and incorporate them into their own compositions, sometimes considerably elaborating them in the process: think of all those L’homme armé masses or of Bach’s chorale treatments. The art of the arranger, widely thought of as a twentieth-century invention, is as old as composition itself. When we listen to a ‘traditional’ carol sung by a choir, we are in fact generally hearing the work of an identifiable composer who has arranged, in his own style, a melody by an unidentifiable or obscure composer from an earlier era.
The earliest examples on this album are Victoria’s O magnum mysterium (1572), a four-voiced motet where the melodic outlines are based on a Gregorian chant, and Scheidt’s In dulci iubilo (1620), which takes one of the best-loved of all Christmas carols and turns it into a resplendent double-choir motet with two antiphonal trumpet parts. Arrangements or compositions? It hardly matters. The point is that composers of the past had no qualms about taking traditional material and making it their own, and neither should we. Simplicity—as in Walford Davies’s classic setting of The holly and the ivy—is sometimes a virtue, but let us also admire and enjoy the skill and invention of, for example, David Willcocks, who is capable of taking a fairly ordinary piece of raw material such as Blessed be that maid Mary and turning it into a radiant little choral tone-poem filled with variety and colour. On a larger scale, Vaughan Williams did the same with his evergreen Fantasia on Christmas Carols (1912), which transforms the handful of rustic carols upon which it is based, raising them to an altogether more symphonic level.
Sometimes, of course, a composer may simply take a seasonal text and set it to music which is entirely new. Sweelinck’s Hodie Christus natus est, Handel’s 'For unto us a child is born', Adolphe Adam’s O holy night and Berlioz’s 'Shepherds’ farewell' use no musical material borrowed from anyone else, though Handel’s chorus did start life as an Italian love duet—and Berlioz, to take a rise out of the critics, at first claimed that his 'Shepherds’ farewell' was the work of a (fictional) earlier composer named Pierre Ducré.
Carols will continue to be written as long as artists continue to be inspired by Christmas itself. The final section of this collection pays tribute to five composers—Vaughan Williams, Warlock, Britten, Leighton, and Tavener—who notably enriched the Christmas repertoire in the twentieth century. A quality these composers share is the ability to write with transparent, childlike sincerity, capturing the sense of wonder which lies at the heart of the Christmas story.
The holly and the ivy
This folk carol, probably of eighteenth-century origin, was published in the form it is known today in 1911 by Cecil Sharp in his collection English Folk Carols. The following year Walford Davies, then organist of the Temple Church in London, made the present setting which has remained perhaps the simplest and best.
Blessed be that maid Mary
As with many carols and hymns, Blessed be that maid Mary, which first appeared in Wood and Woodward’s Cowley Carol Book of 1902, was an editorially-arranged marriage between a melody and a text of quite separate origins. The melody is from William Ballet’s Lute Book (c1590), and the text is a modernized version by Woodward of a fifteenth-century original from the Sloane Manuscript. David Willcocks’s setting was written for the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, and was first published in Carols for Choirs in 1961.
Like The holly and the ivy, this rollicking ditty is a folk carol collected by Cecil Sharp, and is notable for one of the most quaintly obscure lines in all carol literature: ‘The girt dog of Langport he burnt his long tail’. Sharp believed it referred to the eighth-century Danish invasion of that Somerset village. According to another theory, the girt (=great) dog was a spectral hound.
Shepherds, in the field abiding
Like Blessed be that maid Mary, this was a Wood-Woodward creation: its French folk melody, Les anges dans nos campagnes, was first published in 1842, and its text by Woodward was based on the Christmas antiphon Quem vidistis, pastores.
The infant king
This and Gabriel’s message (track 7) are the two best-loved of a number of Basque folk carols first published in Charles Bordes’ collection of 1895 and popularized in the English-speaking world by their publication in the University Carol Book with Sabine Baring-Gould’s excellent English texts. For many years both carols were regularly sung at King’s College, Cambridge.
What is this lovely fragrance?
There are many choral settings of this ravishing French carol (its melody an unlikely first cousin to the drinking song 'Fill ev’ry glass' from The Beggar’s Opera), and Healey Willan’s is surely one of the loveliest. He was a Canadian organist-composer, originally from London, whose contribution to Canadian musical life is fondly remembered there.
Still, still, still
Of a similar period and style to Stille Nacht, this Tyrolean folk carol was first noted in 1819 and published in 1865 in a collection of Salzburg folk songs edited by V M Süss.
Quittez, pasteurs & Un flambeau, Jeannette, Isabelle
This carol and the next, both of French rural origin with drone basses, form such a natural pair that we had to juxtapose them. Un flambeau probably relates to the Provençal custom of building Christmas cribs with model figures of the Holy Family. Torches also figure in Christmas celebrations in that part of Europe.
The immediate source of this jovial carol is a Swedish school song-book of 1582, Piae Cantiones, notable for the many good tunes it contains (including that now sung to Good King Wenceslas). Both melody and text derive from a much earlier German collection, the Moosburg Gradual of 1355–60.
The shepherds’ farewell
This gentle, pastoral chorus, popular in Britain ever since it was published with English text by Novello in the early 1900s, opens Part II of Berlioz’s oratorio L’enfance du Christ (1854) and was the seed from which the work sprang. During a dull card party Berlioz had idly sketched the music as an organ piece and was persuaded to add suitable words, which led him to imagine a biblical scene where the shepherds bade farewell to the Holy Family as they embarked on their flight into Egypt. Out of this grew the whole oratorio.
O holy night
It is startling to recall that this much-loved cornerstone of the Christmas repertory was, within living memory, banned by radio stations in the American South because of the ’socialist’ and anti-slavery sentiments of its text. The author, de Roquemaure, was a friend of the composer and a leading intellectual light in Paris during the period leading up to the 1848 revolution; the translator was the American abolitionist John Sullivan Dwight (1812-93). The composer, Adolphe Adam, remembered mainly for his attractive ballet score to Giselle and for this, his Cantique de Noël, spent most of a busy life prolifically writing operas and ballets in Paris. Ironically, the 1848 revolution led to his bankruptcy when a new opera house he had backed was forced to close due to the fighting.
O magnum mysterium
Victoria, the leading Spanish composer of the Renaissance, worked in Rome as organist, choirmaster and priest, and gained a wide reputation from his published compositions, all of them sacred. O magnum mysterium, from his first motet collection of 1572, has remained one of his best-known pieces, a succinct expression of the mystery and the joy of Christmas.
Hodie Christus natus est
This sparkling and joyous motet first appeared in 1619 as one of 37 Cantiones Sacrae by Sweelinck, published in Antwerp, all five-voiced and with Latin texts. A delightful feature is the appearance of bell-like figures to the word ‘noe’, replacing some of the customary alleluias.
For unto us a child is born
Handel wrote the Italian duet on which the opening strains of this renowned chorus are based in 1741, shortly before Messiah. Its text, beginning ‘No, di voi non vuo fidarmi’, explains the curious accentuation of ‘For’ in the Messiah adaptation.
In dulci jubilo
Samuel Scheidt worked as a court and church musician in his native town of Halle—also Handel’s birthplace. In dulci iubilo, a festive and splendid Venetian-style double-choir motet with two florid trumpet parts, comes from the composer’s first published collection, the Cantiones Sacrae Octo Vocum of 1620.
Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child
Written in 1948 when its composer was only eighteen, this poignant and dramatic setting of the so-called Coventry Carol text has become one of Leighton’s best-known shorter works. (One might guess that he wrote it soon after encountering Delius’s On hearing the first cuckoo in spring.) He began his musical career as a chorister in Wakefield Cathedral, and his final post was as Professor of Music at Edinburgh University. Church and choral music figure largely in his published work.
A New Year Carol
Like Lully, lulla, this simple, timeless jewel was one of its composer’s juvenilia. It comes from his Friday Afternoons (1936), a collection of twelve children’s songs which takes its title from the weekly slot once customarily given to class singing in the English school system. The symbolism of the folk text has been much discussed. It may relate to the Welsh custom of bringing fresh spring water with evergreen sprigs as a New Year gift. ‘Levy dew’ is probably a corruption of ‘Levez Dieu’, a reference to the elevation of the Host at the Eucharist. The ‘seven bright gold wires’ could be the seven candles (i.e. churches) and ‘the bugles that do shine’ the trumpets of the Apocalypse, two images from the Book of Revelation.
Balulalow & I saw a maiden
Peter Warlock—composer mainly of songs, champion of Tudor music, bohemian and melancholic—wrote perhaps the loveliest English carols of his time, their melodies often inspired by the lute-songs he loved, their harmonic flavour owing something to his hero Frederick Delius. Balulalow, a setting of a Scots dialect version of a cradle song by Luther, was one of a set of three carols dating from 1925; I saw a maiden was written two years later.
This 1984 Blake setting has, strictly speaking, no seasonal reference except the one line in the second verse ‘He became a little child’, but it has become a Christmas favourite thanks in part to inclusion in the King’s College Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. The rapt, mystical atmosphere of the piece is very typical of its composer, most of whose extensive output is of sacred music, generally involving voices.
Fantasia on Christmas Carols
Vaughan Williams began collecting folk-songs around 1906, and the Fantasia of 1912 was one of the early fruits of his new-found enthusiasm for the genre. A composer’s note in the score tells us that ‘this Fantasia is founded upon the following traditional English carols: (1) The Truth sent from above (Herefordshire), (2) Come all you worthy gentlemen (Somerset), (3) On Christmas night (Sussex), (4) The fountain (Herefordshire, tune only), together with fragments of other well-known carol tunes.’ [These include The first Nowell, A virgin most pure, and Here we come a-wassailing.]
All these carols are woven into a succinct and structurally well-knit fabric which, like so much of the best Christmas music, seems to encompass both mystery and joy. The Fantasia was an immediate success (it was premiered at the 1912 Three Choirs Festival in Hereford) and has remained one of its composer’s most-played works.
John Rutter © 2003