Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Bit of Christmas Carol History

As I sit here listening to a CD of Christmas music, I thought you might enjoy this little history of a few favorite carols that I put together for our homeschool group's Christmas Tea a few weeks back.

The word Carol actually means dance or a song of praise and joy! The tradition of Christmas carols hails back as far as the thirteenth century, although carols were originally communal songs sung during celebrations like harvesttide as well as Christmas. It was only later that Carols began to be sung in church, and to be specifically associated with Christmas. Some carols, like Angels from the Realms of Glory, can be traced directly back to the Middle Ages and are among the oldest musical compositions still regularly sung. Carols suffered a decline in popularity after the Reformation in the countries where Protestant churches gained prominence ( although well-known Reformers like Martin Luther wrote carols and encouraged their use in worship), but survived in rural communities until the revival of interest in carols in the 19th century. The idea of singing carols in church was instituted in the late 1800s, when the words hymn and carol were used almost interchangeably, however the traditional wassailing songs were omitted. In 1878, the Salvation Army, under Charles Fry, began playing carols at Christmas, using a brass band.

It was once commonly believed that the well-known carol O Come, All Ye Faithful dated back to the thirteenth century and was written in Latin by St. Bonaventure. However, it was discovered that the original manuscript was written by John Francis Wade, a Roman Catholic from England, who during the Jacobite Rebellion fled to France, where he taught music and worked as a music copyist.
In 1743, Wade introduced the world to a Latin Christmas carol that began Adeste Fideles, Laeti triumphante. Until the 1900s, historians believed that Wade had found an ancient hymn. But the fact that Wade's signature can be found on all seven original hand-made manuscripts suggests that he was indeed the author.
When the persecution of Catholics ended in England, English refugees returned home, bringing this song with them. Eventually, it was discovered by Rev. Frederick Oakeley, an Anglican minister, who attempted to translate the Latin into English. His first attempt read Ye Faithful, Approach Ye. Fortunately, Oakeley made a second try, and his new translation read O Come, All Ye Faithful, Joyful and Triumphant! Perhaps Oakeley's conversion to Catholicism gave him a better grasp of Latin. We don't know. But soon, Adeste Fideles became a favorite carol in both Protestant and Catholic religious circles, and it is still sung today in both Latin and English.

O Come, All Ye Faithful

Adeste fideles,
Laeti triumphantes;
Venite, venite in Bethlehem;
Natum videte
Regum angelorum
Venite adoremus,
Venite adoremus,
Venite adoremus, Dominum

O come, all ye faithful,
Joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, o come ye to Bethlehem;
Come and behold him,
Born the king of angels;
O come, let us adore him,
O come, let us adore him,
O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

The song Hark! the Herald Angels Sing is a compilation of the efforts of Charles Wesley, George Whitfield, Felix Mendelssohn, and W.H. Cummings.
Charles Wesley, a founder of the Methodist movement, is well known for the many hymns he wrote in his lifetime. It is said that he was very temperamental about his work, and insisted that people not change what he had written. We can be glad that Wesley's friend, George Whitfield, ignored his friend's wishes. When Wesley wrote the hymn, the first two lines began Hark, how the welkin rings, Glory to the King of kings. Welkin was an Old English word meaning -the vault of heaven-. Whitfield changed the lines to the now familiar Hark! the herald angels sing glory to the newborn king.
The melody as we know it today is an adaptation of music written by Mendelssohn to commemorate Johann Gutenbergs's invention of the printing press! An organist named W.H. Cummings made the inspired adaptation of Mendelssohn's music to the words of Wesley's hymn. It was common practice for hymn writers to adapt a popular tune or classical piece to suit the words of their song. He organized the song into the ten-line stanzas that are sung today.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. ( Luke 2: 13-14)

Hark! the Herald Angels Sing

Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!
Joyful all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th' angelic host proclaim
Christ is born in Bethlehem!
Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King!

Joseph Mohr, a village priest in the Austrian village of Oberndorf, wrote the words for the hymn Silent Night in 1816, and it was first sung on Christmas Eve two years later, when the church organ broke down, disrupting plans for the traditional Christmas Eve service. Mohr's friend, musician Franz Gruber, composed a guitar accompaniment for Mohr's lyrics. The song was spread through the efforts of traveling folk singers, and became popular as the Tyrolean Folk Song. Silent Night was elevated above the ranks of folk tune in 1838 when it was published in a German hymnbook to be used for congregational singing. Soon, German-speaking congregations in the United States began to use the hymnal. In 1863, it was translated into English and included in a collection of Sunday School songs.

Silent Night

Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and child.
Holy infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Sleep in heavenly peace.

In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Mystery Plays - dramatizations of biblical stories - were quite popular. A favorite subject was Jesus's birth. These events were often orchestrated by singer, writer, and musicians. The First Noel portrays in vivid narrative style the story of the birth of Christ. All six stanzas are needed to compete the entire event when the hymn in sung. The sixth stanza urges us to join together to sing praises to God for the marvels of His creation and for the salvation provided through Christ's shed blood. Noel is a French word meaning birthday. The repetition of the joyous Noel in the refrain is the equivalent of our singing out Happy Birthday to someone.
The song is thought to have been brought across the channel from France to England before 1823 by wandering troubadours. The carol under the English form, Nowell, became a great favorite for Christmas Eve, often sung as the entire village gathered for singing and celebrating the bringing in of the the Yule log. At this time, carols were thought of as popular religious songs meant to be sung outside of church.

The First Noel

The first Noel the angel did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay;
In fields as they lay keeping their sheep,
On a cold winter's night that was so deep.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,
Born is the King of Israel.

They looked up and saw a star
Shining in the east beyong them far,
And to the earth it gave great light,
And so it continued both day and night.

And by the light of that same star
Three wise men came from country far;
To seek for a king was their intent,
And to follow the star wherever it went.

This star drew nigh to the northwest,
O'er Bethlehem it took its rest,
And there it did both stop and stay
Right over the place wehre Jesus lay.

Then entered in those wise men three
Full reverently upon their knee,
And offered there in his presence
Their gold, and myrrh, and frankincense.

Then let us all with one accord
Sing praises to our heavenly Lord;
That hath made heaven and earth of naught,
And with his blood mankind hath bought.

The Scripture-based words of Joy to the World were written by renowned Methodist minister and hymn writer Isaac Watts in 1719. The original music score is attributed to Georg Fredric Handel, but the music familiar to us now was adapted from various songs and composers ( including Handel) by Lowell Mason in 1836.
Lowell Mason was at the forefront of radical changes to music practices of his day. He is considered largely responsible for introducing music into the American public school system. As music director of a large Presbyterian church, he boldly changed tha accepted program format from that of professional choirs and orchestras to congregational singing accompanied by organ music.

"Behold, I bring good tidings of great joy, which will be to all people."
(Luke 1:10)

Joy to the World

Joy to the World! the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
and heaven and nature sing,
and heaven and nature sing,
and heaven, and heaven and nature sing.

To the men and women held in the bondage of slavery (or the memory of it), ideals of liberation are held high. Therefore, Jesus promise of liberation for all people, combined with the imagery of the Sermon on the Mount, was cherished by African Americans.
Chances are, this became the inspiration for the rousing spiritual Go, Tell It On the Mountain. Though its author is unknown, the hymn is assumed to have been written in the early 1800s. Go, Tell It On the Mountain was made popular in 1879 when it was performed by the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, a school that once specialized in the education of freed slaves.

Go, Tell It On the Mountain

While shepherds kept their watching
Over silent flocks by night,
Behold throughout the heavens
There shone a holy light;
Go tell it on the mountain,
Over the hills, and everywhere;
Go tell it on the mountain
That Jesus Christ is born!

The shepherds feared and trembled
When lo! above the earth
Rang out the angel chorus
That hailed the Savior's birth;
Go tell it on the mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere;
Go tell it on the mountain
That Jesus Christ is born!

Down in a lowly manger
Our humble Christ was born,
And God sent us salvation
That blessed Christmas morn;
Go tell it on the mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere;
Go tell it on the mountain
That Jesus Christ is born!

*I got this information from different places on the internet, but much came from


The Freeland Family said...

Ah, thanks for the reminder. I meant to ask you before we left. Would you please email me your document with the carol info? I wanted to use it here at Christmas when H and B play their carols for the family. Thanks!

Renee said...

Wow, thanks Beth! I bought a few books for Jessie a couple of years back about the history of church hymns and just the other day I thought I would pull those back out and read for my information. Thanks again, for the great information.

Happy Christmas,