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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Carols and Poems

Now, there may be rhyme in the below but is there reason? Many of these carols are among my favorites, but not all of them are. For some, I just liked the origin story, and I also tried to give a good balance between the semi-obscure and the very popular.

What is a carol? From the Greek choros, which translates as a dance, via the Latin choraula and the French carole (a ring-dance). The earliest known hymn in honor of the Nativity is “Jesus refulsit omnium” (“Jesus, Light of All the Nations”) written by St Hilary of Poitiers (d. 368).

The Christmas Tree
It shone, it sparkled, it was bright
With all the stars of Christmas night,
And every child that came to see
And wonder at that shining tree
Made it more radiant, for those eyes
Lent it the joy of Paradise.
Idris Davies

In Dulci Jubilo

This is one of the oldest and most famous of the “macaronic” carols, which means it was written in both Latin and a vernacular language (in this case, German). It has a charming story behind it. In 1328, Dominican monk Heinrich Suso (or Seus) had a vision or a dream in which jubilant angels appeared to him dancing and singing “Nun singet und seid froh” or “In Dulci Jubilo” (in sweet jubilation). The tune appeared in a manuscript from around 1400 in the collections of Leipzig University Library (along with “Joseph lieber, Joseph mein”) though the tune could be older than 1328. It was collected several times throughout the 16th century and beloved by both Catholics and Protestants alike.

John Wedderburn’s Gude and Godlie Ballatis from around 1540 is perhaps the first English translation of the tune, with others following in 1708 and 1825. Robert Lucas de Pearsall wrote in 1837, “there can be no doubt that it is one of those old Roman Catholic melodies that Luther, on account of their beauty, retained in the Protestant Service. It was formerly sung in the processions that took place on Christmas-eve, and is so still in those remote parts of Germany where people yet retain old customs” (Anderson). Both Michael Praetorius and Bach wrote settings for it.

Reverend John Mason Neale, whom we have to thank for many of our popular modern carols, reworked “In Dulci Jubilo” into English as “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” in 1853 based on a rare copy of a Latin book given to him by a friend. Neale was a Cambridge-educated cleric whose poor health (and theological wranglings with the traditional Church) forced him into semi-seclusion in East Grinstead, Sussex, on a very small salary. Nevertheless, he managed to write and translate extensively. “He was passionately fond of music, and had an exquisite ear for melody in words, but ‘he had not a note in his voice’” (Anderson). He very much was interested in re-introducing Eastern Orthodox hymns to the Anglican churchgoers. After a prominent carol collection in the 1860s was published, Neale’s version of “In Dulci Jubilo” enjoyed popularity. (Though Edward Heath disparages it as “the most horrible” version.) At a gathering of the Moravian Mission in Bethlehem, PA, in 1745 was reported to have the song sung simultaneously in 13 European and Indian languages.

Because I love the sound of bells
I haunt the churchyards all year long
no matter where I might be traveling.

Because true holly makes me smile
I wait for Christmas just like children,
And I wait for children too.

Because September travels slow
I catch it when I can
and hold it over for another month or two.

Because this year I’m poor again
I’ve written you another Christmas poem
made with last year’s love and next year’s too.
Rod McKuen

Carol of the Bells

1900s Ukraine is not where you’d expect to find one of the enduring Christmas classics of the 20th century, and what we call “Carol of the Bells” was not originally a Christmas tune. Mykola Dmytrovich Leontovych was commissioned by Oleksander Koshetz to write something based on folk melodies. What he wrote was “Shchedryk” in 1916, which was performed at Kiev University. It comes from shchedrivka, a good luck song traditionally sung around New Year’s Eve (January 13th in the Russian Orthodox calendar), usually by young girls going door to door (in a similar tradition to wassailing or more relevantly, the girls with the Milly Boxes (see December 7). The song predicts good fortune and does this in the character of a sparrow foreseeing springtime.

Along with the 13th century legend of all trees across the world blooming in winter when Christ was born, there is a Slavic legend that tells of the night when Christ was born, and that at midnight, all bells around the world rang of their own accord (to be honest, that can’t have been too many bells seeing as there were no Christian churches yet? Does it mean bells of any size, including the ones livestock might wear, or wind chimes?). It seems that Peter J. Milhousky, American composer, lyricist, and conductor, had this in mind when he wrote new lyrics to Leontovych’s tune in 1936. Milhousky had a Czech background and translated other Slavic tunes.

This is my favorite carol.

Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming

Some sources date this carol, “Es ist ein Ros ensprungen,” back to the 14th century. The story goes that a monk was walking in the woods at Christmastime near Trier and found a rose blooming in the snow. He took the rose back to the monastery and put it on the altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The song was dedicated to Mary, who is compared to the mystical rose praised in the Song of Solomon 2:1: “I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys.” It was published first in 1582 or 1588 in Gebetbuchlein des Frater Conradus.

Michael Praetorius, therefore, did not write the hymn as if often claimed but harmonized it in the version most heard today, when Protestants adopted the hymn and shifted the focus from Mary to Jesus (some sources say that Jesus was sometimes depicted as a rose in medieval iconography. See also the title of Musica Antigua de Albuquerque’s Christmas album, A Rose of Swych Vertu, which comes from a 15th century English carol, “There is no rose of swych vertu”). (Isaiah 11:1 is cited, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”) Praetorius’ Musae Sioniae was published in 1609. The melody has since been adapted by Johannes Brahms for his 1896 choral prelude. Herbert Howells’ setting has been adapted as “A Spotless Rose.” The best-known English setting is “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” by Theodore Baker.

Christmas roared through like a train
we’d waited for impatiently
as winter blew its cold
around the station’s emptiness.

We’d watched the distant lines,
pretended not to look,
and looked again, but still
it came like a surprise
trailing holly wreathes and bows,
old songs and robins perched
in snow. Passengers streamed out
and set up trees that flowered stars,
placed tables with vast feasts,
made spaces into mounds of gifts.

Meanwhile some shepherds
searched along the carriages
and found a girl in blue
who held a child in gentle quiet
as angels fluttered wings
above the platform roof.

Suddenly, with everything
packed back inside it went
like a surprise, and winter
blew its cold around
the station’s emptiness.
Angela Rigby

I Saw Three Ships

Ian Bradley brought up a very good point about this song. Why do Joseph, and/or baby Jesus, and Mary, need three ships? Surely baby Jesus doesn’t intend to sail on his own? I once saw an amusing illustration that tried to rectify this mystery, by putting Joseph in one boat, Mary and the baby in another, and St Nicholas in the third! They are also supposed to be sailing from Bethlehem, but as we know, Bethlehem is pretty much landlocked.

It all actually does make some sense in the context of the origin. The oldest variant of the text is in Forbes’ Cantus (1666). It seems to derive from the Mediterranean journeying of the relics of the Magi, the “Three Kings of Cologne.” Empress Helena, mother of Constantine and discoverer of the True Cross, carried the relics of the Magi to Constantinople in the 4th century from where they were taken by St Eusthathius to Milan. In 1162 they were given to Cologne Cathedral, where they remain today. A version of the carol collected by Lewis Davis from a boatman on the River Humber makes the association clear. It begins, “I saw three ships on Christmas Day . . . I axed ‘em what they’d got on board . . . They said they’d got three crawns [skulls] . . . I axed ‘em where they was taken to . . . They said they was ganging to Coln upon Rhine . . . I axed ‘em where they came frae . . . They said they came frae Bethlehem . . .”

I love this byre. Shadows are kindly here.
The light is flecked with travelling stars of dust,
So quiet it seems after the inn-clamour,
Scraping of fiddles and the stamping feet.
Only the cows, each in her patient box,
Turn their slow eyes, as we and the sunlight enter,
Their slowly rhythmic mouths.
‘That is the stall,
Carpenter. You see it’s too far gone
For patching or repatching. My husband made it,
And he’s been gone these dozen years and more…’

Strange how this lifeless thing, degraded wood
Split from the tree and nailed and crucified
To make a wall, outlives the mastering hand
That struck it down, the warm firm hand
That touched my body with its wandering love.
‘No, let the fire take them. Strip every board
And make a new beginning. Too many memories lurk
Like worms in this old wood. That piece you’re holding –
That patch of grain with the giant’s thumbprint –
I stared at it a full hour when he died:
Its grooves are down my mind. And that board there
Baring its knot-hole like a missing jig-saw –
I remember another hand along its rim.
No, not my husband’s and why I should remember
I cannot say. It was a night in winter.
Our house was full, tight-packed as salted herrings –
So full, they said, we had to hold our breaths
To close the door and shut the night-air out!

And then two travellers came. They stood outside
Across the threshold, half in the ring of light
And half beyond it. I would have let them in
Despite the crowding – the woman was past her time –
But I’d no mind to argue with my husband,
The flagon in my hand and half the inn
Still clamouring for wine. But when trade slackened,
And all out guests had sung themselves to bed
Or told the floor their troubles, I came out here
Where he had lodged them. The man was standing
As you are now, his hand smoothing that board –
He was a carpenter, I heard them say.
She rested on the straw, and on her arm
A child was lying. None of your crease-faced brats
Squalling their lungs out. Just lying there
As calm as a new-dropped calf – his eyes wide open,
And gazing round as if the world he saw
In the chaff-strewn light of the stable lantern
Was something beautiful and new and strange.
Ah well, he’ll have learnt different now, I reckon,
Wherever he is. And why I should recall
A scene like that, when times I would remember
Have passed beyond reliving, I cannot think.
It’s a trick you’re served by old possessions:
They have their memories too – too many memories.

Well, I must go in. There are meals to serve.
Join us there, Carpenter, when you’ve had enough
Of cattle-company. The world is a sad place,
But wine and music blunt the truth of it.
Clive Sansom

O Come, O Come, Emanuel

This carol is often given a date of 12th or 13th century in songbooks, but that only tells half the story. It was written in 1851 by Reverend John Mason Neale, but it is based on “O” Antiphons which are some of the oldest Christian prayers. One verse was sung each night, rather than all together as they are in the hymn today. In their original order, they are:

1. “O Sapientia, quae ex ore altissimi . . .” (“O Wisdom from on high”)
2. “O Adonai et dux domus Israel . . .” (“O Lord and leader of the house of Israel”)
3. “O Radix Jesse qui stas in signum populorum. . .” (“O Root of Jesse who stood as a standard of the people”)
4. “O Clavis David et sceptrum domus . . .” (“O Key of David and scepter of our home”)
5. “O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae . . .” (“O Dayspring, splendor of eternal light”)
6. “O Rex gentium et desideratus . . .” (“O longed-for King of the nations”)
7. “O Emmanuel, rex et legifer noster . . .” (“O Emmanuel, our king and law-giver”)

The Antiphons date at least to the reign of Charlemagne. One source has even suggested that Boethius made a reference to them, dating them at least to the 5th century. Apparently they are within 11th century manuscripts held in the British Library and the Bodleian. At least two or perhaps five verses were added to the original, but we know that these seven must have originally been collected together, because the reverse acrostic of the first letters (SARCORE) is ero cras, “I shall be with you [tomorrow].” Sometime between the 12th century and the 18th century, five of the verses were put together to form the verses of a single hymn, with the refrain “Gaude, gaude, Emmanuel nascetur pro te, Israel” (“Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel; Shall come to thee, O Israel”). Neale’s original title was “Draw Nigh, Draw Nigh, Emmanuel,” but in 1857 it was published in Hymns Ancient and Modern under the more well-known title.

The origin of the tune itself was unknown until 1966, when Dr. Mary Berry discovered it in a manuscript at the Bibliothèque National in Paris. It was a processional tune for French Franciscan nuns. In this particular manuscript, the tune was reproduced on the left page and a mirror image in harmony was reproduced on the right, so two nuns could share as they walked and sang.

This carol also has an obscure connection to The Hobbit. The poem “Christ” by Cynewulf was reworked by T. Tertius Noble and set to music as the hymn “The Carol of the Star.” The lines from Cynewulf that inspired Noble go,

Hail Earendel, brightest of angels,
over Midgard to men sent,and true
radiance of the Sun bright above the stars, every season
thou of thyself
ever illuminest.

Earendel is the fanciful name for the star and was also used by Tolkien, among other references from Cynewulf; Earendel the Mariner is a hero from the First Age in Middle-Earth (note the use of the term Midgard, “Middle-Earth”).

Now softly come the minstrels
heads bowed into hymnals
caroling for cookies and safe smiles.
We owe them more than candy
for the redness of their ears alone.

Faint footsteps down the hill and gone,
there music dying through the trees
as back to Bach we go
on phonographs and radios.

The needlepoint of patchwork quilts,
the counterpoint of carols.

Novembers come and gone too soon
there are so many quarrels
that we haven’t finished,
and they might lessen
in the January rain.

Quarrel in December?
November comes up every year.
This Christmas comes but once.

I am not master of the holly,
nor are you mistress to the fire.
Still, together we’re the Christmas people
and dancing down the year end has its merits.

We can fire our memories as the Yule logs burn
and give away our secrets
each in turn.

Never mind what Whitman said,
proud music of the storm never kept the
nations quiet;
lovers each to each do that—
they know that wars don’t work

Merry then and Allelujah too,
I love you just as much as I love Christ.
He opened up my life for me.
You unlocked the final door.
Rod McKuen

“I Wonder As I Wander”
This 20th century carol was collected in 1933 by John Jacobs Niles in Murphy, Cherokee County, NC. He learned it from Annie Morgan, whom he made sing it repeatedly until he had memorized it. He published it in 1934 in Songs of the Hill-Folk. Carl Rütti’s arrangement is the most well-known and recorded.

When snow is shaken
From the balsam trees
And they're cut down
And brought into our houses

When clustered sparks
Of many-colored fire
Appear at night
In ordinary windows

We hear and sing
The customary carols

They bring us ragged miracles
And hay and candles
And flowering weeds of poetry
That are loved all the more
Because they are so common

But there are carols
That carry phrases
Of the haunting music
Of the other world
A music wild and dangerous
As a prophet's message

Or the fresh truth of children
Who though they come to us
From our own bodies
Are altogether new
With their small limbs
And birdlike voices

They look at us
With their clear eyes
And ask the piercing questions
God alone can answer.
Anne Porter

Bring Your Torch, Jeanette, Isabella

A carol not often heard these days, some authors have suggested the tune dates back to the 14th century, as a dance rather than as a sacred hymn. Some have also suggested that the lyrics refer to the setting up of a crèche (see December 6) and link it to paintings of Georges de la Tour, most prominently Le Nouveau-Né (The Newborn) c. 1645. Several sources indicate that the music and lyrics were first printed in Cantiques de Premiere Advenement de Jesus-Christ (1553), while others contend the text first appeared in Noëls français (1901).

Deck the Halls

I wouldn’t leave a genuine Welsh Christmas song out, would I? It comes from “Nos Galan,” (New Year’s Eve), a dance carol that appears in Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bards (1784) by Edward Jones, a Welsh harpist. He organized the eisteddfod and lamented the decline of Welsh folk music at the end of the 18th century, attributing it to the influences of Nonconformist sects. The tune belongs to the competitive canu penillion tradition, where dancers would ring around a harpist, spitting out song verses which would be echoed by the harp. Eventually nonsense syllables, such as “fa la la la,” would be substituted for the harp. I quite like the original first verse of “New Year’s Eve”:

Soon the hoar old year will leave us [Fa la la etc]
But the parting must not grieve us [Fa la la etc]
When the new year comes tomorrow [Fa la la etc]
Let him find no trace of sorrow. [Fa la la etc]

out of the lamplight
whispering worshipping
the mice in the hay

timid eye pearl-bright
whispering worshipping
whisking quick and away

they were there that night
whispering worshipping
smaller than snowflakes are

quietly made their way
whispering worshipping
close to the manger

yes, they were afraid
whispering worshipping
as the journey was made

from a dark corner
whispering worshipping
scuttling together

But He smiled to see them
whispering worshipping
there in the lamplight

stretched out His hand to them
they saw the baby king
hurried back out of sight
whispering worshipping
Leslie Norris

Ding Dong Merrily on High

Much as I love this carol and associate it with Little Women, the lyrics were written around 1924 by George Ratcliff Woodward, making their inclusion in that film a bit of an anachronism! The tune itself, however, is quite old, and a carol in the sense of a secular dance tune, the original meaning of “carol.” “Branle de l’Officiel” is one of many tunes collected in Orchésographie, a dance book written by Johan Tabourot (1519-93). At the time, it was a song for servants to dance to, and sometimes gentlemen and women if they were playing the part of peasants and shepherds (presumably in a masque or a ballet). Anderson suggests that the best English translation of the title is “The Servants’ Brawl.”

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Silver Bells
“Silver Bells” is another of my absolute favorites (can you tell I like songs about bells?). Unlike many 20th century Christmas songs, it has an urban setting, the unique ¾ time signature, and an unusual counterpoint between the chorus and verse. It was written in 1950 by the songwriting team of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. During this 64-year collaboration, this remained one of their greatest hits. In 1950, they were under contract with Paramount and had been assigned a Bob Hope film called The Lemon Drop Kid. The studio wanted an Oscar-quality hit Christmas song, but the writers balked. They were eventually inspired by a bell in their office and were originally going to call the song “Tinkle Bell,” until Livingston’s wife reminded him “tinkle” had another connotation. They put the song away for some time but eventually finished it. The producer loved it, and before the film’s release Bing Crosby came by their lunch table at Paramount and ended up recording it himself before the release of the film. This was a big boost for Evans and Livingston. Evans, in retrospect, appreciated the irony of the song’s success considering he was a Jew and a non-believer. Oh well, it’s a pretty song!


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