Carols– the word originally identified a group dance, done in a circle– arose after about 1500, partly as a popular reaction against the somber, ecclesiastically prescribed plainsongs, chants and other formal religious music. They were religious in nature but still upbeat. However, many carols exist which do not focus on Christmas; there were, and are, Easter and Epiphany carols, and carols celebrating, in a religious context, the coming of spring, the harvest, and the New Year. The ones chosen for this concert include both English and American favorites, and a Spanish Carol from Catalonia. We Wish You A Merry Christmas Identified as a traditional English tune of the West Country, this song may date from the seventeenth century, and was a favorite of the waits, hired singers who entertained ceremonially and perhaps even while strolling the public ways. It certainly fits the definition of the carol as a dance form, and also employs the peculiarly English device of demanding a party.
Wassail Song One of many songs so titled, this one hails from Gloucestershire. There exist dozens of verses and variations thereof, which are sung to various tunes, depending on the particular locale. Technically, this may not be a carol at all, since it originally had no religious reference, but the authority Percy Dearmer includes a few such secular songs in The Oxford Book of Carols (1928, Oxford University Press), of which he was senior editor. “Wassail” is a Middle English word for a toast– roughly “Be Ye Well”– and is applied both to the celebration and the beverage, a spiced wine, beer or ale. Again, note the demand– nay, the threat!– to secure favors. This lush version is an early creation of Ralph Vaughn Williams, who also, fifteen years later, joined Dearmer as an editor of the collection just mentioned.
Twelve Days of Christmas The twelve days of Christmas begin with Christmas Day and end on January 5, the eve of Epiphany. The Christmas holiday was established in about the fourth century, and was superimposed on the Roman Saturnalia, the celebration of the winter solstice, so that it naturally gravitated to the longer period occupied by the pagan festival. This song dates from the 16th century, and among the wealthy, a gift on each of the twelve days might not have been uncommon; counting songs were popular, and the dance origins are evident.
Deck the Hall This song is of Welsh origin, with traditional English words, and dates from the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. The intricate version used by the Chorus was arranged by the contemporary composer John Rutter in 1985 for the group he founded, the Cambridge Singers.
White Christmas Certainly one of the two best-known songs (with God Bless America) by Irving Berlin, this standard was written in 1940, but hit the spotlight when Bing Crosby sang it in the 1942 movie, “Holiday Inn”. Bing’s 1942 recording with John Scott Trotter’s orchestra and the Ken Darby Singers became the greatest hit of its time. The Chorus sings an arrangement by Roy Ringwald, arranger for Fred Waring.
I’ll Be Home for Christmas Another gold record by Crosby, one year after White Christmas, Kim Gannon’s words and Walter Kent’s music hit a responsive chord with America at war, and with many Americans unable to be home for the holidays.
Jingle Bells Written, not for Christmas, but for a Massachusetts Sunday School Thanksgiving celebration in 1857, James Pierpont’s words and music have become linked with Christmas via the sleigh, the snow, and the sound effects. This version was arranged by Edgar LaMance, Jr. in 1981 for the New York Choral Society.
Fum, Fum, Fum This upbeat carol from Catalonia has been arranged by Conrad Susa (see the discussion under Carols and Lullabies from the first part of this concert).