Sunday, 23 November 2008

A Short History of the Christmas Carol

The word “carol” originally meant a dance, especially a ring-dance accompanied by communal singing. They were sung during celebrations like Harvest Tide and the great annual festivals such as May Day, Easter and Christmas and they flourished between 1300 and 1550. Gradually the meaning changed so as to denote a merry song with a tune suggestive of dancing. Later in this period carols began to be sung in church, and to be specifically associated with Christmas. These songs had a strong tune and were written for for group singing. Such carols as "Angels from the Realms of Glory" and "The Twelve Days of Christmas" are amongst the oldest musical compositions still regularly sung. Also the original versions of familiar Christmas songs such as "God Rest You Merry Gentlemen" originated back then.
The carol disappeared swiftly and almost completely in countries where Protestant churches gained prominence after the Reformation. In such places it was largely replaced by the metrical psalm.
In Britain the carol retained its popularity until Oliver Cromwell's abolition of Christmas in the middle of the 17th century. For the next century and a half they remained largely forgotten except by country folk. However the middle classes grew concerned that the songs would be forgotten and lost forever. To counter this, antiquarians in the 1820s and 1830s began to compile collections of traditional carols. At the same time, inexpensive printed carol sheets and books, such as The Star of Bethlehem: a selection of excellent carols (1825) and The Evergreen: Carols for the Christmas Holidays (1830) became widely available. Medieval songs and even some from the eighteenth century, such as "O Come all Ye Faithful" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing", were revived. New carols, such as "Once in Royal David's City", written by Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander in 1845, were also added to the repertoire.
Around the same time a revival began in continental Europe. Such works as "Silent Night" and "Cantique de Noel (O Holy Night)" helped to repopularise the carol. Meanwhile in mid 19th century America "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear" was the first Christmas song to be composed in the United States, which is today considered to be a standard. The Americans were only beginning to celebrate the Christmas traditions of their European cousins as works such as Dickens' A Christmas Carol were beginning to enthuse them. Within twenty years other classic carols celebrating Christmas such as "We Three Kings of Orient Are", "Jingle Bells", "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem" had been written in America.
Back in Britain, Sir John Stainer's collection, Christmas Carols New and Old, produced in collaboration with the Rev H.R. Bramley did much to consolidate the revival of the English carol. Stainer was the organist and Bramley the chaplain at Magdalen College, Oxford, when their book was published in 1871. Their compilation included Stainer's arrangements of what were to become the standard versions of “The First Nowell”, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen“, “I Saw Three Ships” and “Good King Wenceslas” amongst others.
It is these carols that were written or revived in the 19th century that are sung in modern times at Christian religious services during the build up to Christmas.

1 comment:

Amanda Scroggs said...

Thank you Ed for sharing this. I LOVE this season.