Music blog

4 posts from December 2012

23 December 2012

History of the Christmas carol - Part 2

In my last post I traced the history of the carol from its incarnation as a medieval processional song, and its development into a sacred and a courtly composition, to its revival in the late 17th century as a popular Christmas song. In this second post I look at its later history - and at the origins of some of today’s best-known carols.

During the second half of the 18th century, the words of carols were still being circulated on broadsheets like this one, which provided families with separate carols for Christmas Day and the three following days, St. Stephen’s Day, St. John’s Day and Innocents’ Day:

Four Choice Carols for Christmas Holidays
Four Choice Carols for Christmas Holidays. Being very necessary and proper to be had in all Christian families (C.116.i.2.(13.))

The Christmas Day carol is a version of ‘God rest ye merry, gentlemen’. The carols for 26th-28th December feature, respectively, the stoning of Stephen, the beheading of John the Baptist and the slaughter of the children by Herod - perhaps not subjects we would expect to sing about at Christmas today! (In fact the carol-writer got the wrong St John: 27th December is the feast day of St John the Evangelist, not John the Baptist.)

In 1833, the antiquarian William Sandys published Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern, a collection resulting from his academic research and field-work, mainly in the west of England. Like the folksong collectors Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams a century later, Sandys listened to elderly singers performing the music they had learnt in childhood and transcribed what he heard. In the preface, Sandys noted that the practice of carol-singing had been in decline since the end of the 18th century. The first part of his volume presents carols dating from before 1700. There’s a huge variety of texts, but most are completely unknown today. The second part features ‘modern’ carols, which, in Sandys’s time, were still being sung in the west of England. A few survive to this day, notably ‘A virgin most pure’, ‘The first nowell’, ‘God rest ye merry, gentlemen’, ‘Tomorrow shall be my dancing day’, 'I saw three ships’, ‘Hark, the herald angels sing’ and ‘Whilst shepherds watched’.

Strikingly, the simple verse-refrain structure of the medieval carol is still a characteristic of carols in Sandys's collection. For most carols, he provided the words only, but at the back of the book are tunes, with simple harmonizations, of a few of the carols he heard, including ‘Tomorrow shall be my dancing day’, ‘I saw three ships’, ‘The first noel’ and ‘Hark, the herald angels sing’. In some cases they are not the tunes we sing today.

While carol-singing was still a feature of life in the west country and north of England in the 1830s, things were seemingly different in London, where, according to Sandys, you would be lucky to find anything more than a ‘solitary itinerant’ in the streets ‘croaking out "God rest you merry, gentlemen," or some other old carol, to an ancient and simple tune.’

However, carols were still being printed on broadsheets well into the 19th century. Many were produced by John Pitts or James Catnach, the most important broadside ballad printers of the early 19th century. They were big rivals, who ran their businesses from the seedy Seven Dials district of London. Their carol-sheets were usually sold for a penny or half-penny, and contained the words to four or more carols.

In addition to the carols which have come down to us via the ballad tradition, there are many which are a synthesis of several different elements: they have been crafted and reshaped from earlier works, in many cases by the Victorians or Edwardians. Here are a few examples of these ‘synthesized’ carols.

While shepherds watched their flocks by night

‘While shepherds watched’ is probably the carol with the largest number of variant tunes.  Actually a hymn, the text was first published by Naham Tate in 1700 and may have been written by him.  It became the only legally-authorised Christmas hymn, hence its popularity. The tune to which it is normally sung in England is about 100 years older than the words, and they were probably brought together for the first time in the 18th century. The tune was first published in Thomas East's Whole booke of Psalms (1592), where it appears as the tenor part for Psalm 84.

Psalm 84 from Thomas East: Whole Book of Psalms, 1592 - featuring tune that became 'While shepherds watched'
Psalm 84 from Thomas East's Whole Book of Psalms, 1592 - featuring in the tenor part the tune that became 'While shepherds watched' (K.2.c.7.)

Adeste, fideles / O come, all ye faithful

The tune and Latin verses of ‘Adeste, fideles’ are found in manuscripts of the 18th-century scribe John Francis Wade, who moved in Catholic circles and who probably wrote the music himself. The piece apparently earned the nickname ‘the Portuguese hymn’, after the Duke of Leeds heard it at the Portuguese Chapel in London and believed it to be Portuguese.  It made such an impression on the Duke that he commissioned an arrangement by the director of the Concerts of Antient Music, Thomas Greatorex.  It was first performed at one of their concerts in 1797 and was soon sung in Catholic chapels across England. The English words date from the 19th century and are by a Roman Catholic priest and author, Frederick Oakeley (1802-1880), and a Church of England hymn-writer, William Thomas Brooke (1848-1917).

Adeste fideles, the favorite Portugueze Hymn, on the Nativity, with an accompaniment for the piano forte, 1797.
Adeste fideles, the favorite Portugueze Hymn, on the Nativity, with an accompaniment for the piano forte, 1797 (H.1601.e.(7.))

Ding dong, merrily on high

350 years separate the tune and words of ‘Ding dong’. The tune originated as a secular dance, and first appears in the 16th-century dance book Orchesographie, with the title ‘Branle de l’Official’.  The branle was a lively French dance in which the woman jumped in the air. The Anglican priest George Ratcliffe Woodward (1848-1934) set new words to the tune, and the carol as we know it was first published in 1924 in The Cambridge Carol Book.


Thoinot Arbeau: Orchesographie, 1588
Thoinot Arbeau: Orchesographie, 1588. Page with instructions for dancing the 'Branle de l'Official', with the tune later used for 'Ding dong, merrily on high' (Hirsch.I.569)

Here is a close-up of the tune from that page:

Tune of the 'Branle d'Official', later 'Ding dong, merrily on high'

And finally...

Stille Nacht / Silent Night

The English words for ‘Silent Night’ were penned by John Freeman Young, later Bishop of Florida, in the 1850s. The original words and tune are not especially ancient either: they were written, respectively, by the Austrians Joseph Mohr, a priest, and Franz Gruber, a school teacher, and the carol is believed to have been first performed in 1818 in Oberndorf, near Salzburg. The story goes that Mohr and Gruber saved the day by writing the piece for voices and guitar when the organ at Oberndorf church broke on Christmas Eve, though this is probably a myth. What is certain is that Gruber had to resort to the law to prove his authorship, after the Strasser Family (a Von Trapp-style Tyrolean singing group) passed his music off as a newly-discovered folk carol.  The Strassers' pirated version was published in 1835 in Vier ächte Tyroler-Lieder, complete with picture of the singing family.

Vier ächte Tyroler-Lieder, 1835
Vier ächte Tyroler-Lieder, 1835 (Hirsch M.1291.(18.))


21 December 2012

A brief history of the Christmas carol

As the festive season is upon us, it seems a good time to look at the history of the Christmas carol and to explore, with the help of the British Library’s collections, the origins of some of the best-known carols. This is the first of two posts on the subject, and focuses on the early history of the carol.

The medieval English carol was a song with verse-plus-refrain structure, and probably derives from the French carole, a dance accompanied by singing. The early English carol wasn’t sung solely at Christmas, and didn't always have a religious theme. In the late 14th century, simple carols were sung at festivals in England, often during processions. The Boar's Head Carol, performed while the head of a boar was presented on a platter during the Yuletide feast, is one such celebratory carol:

The boar's head in hand bear I
Bedecked with bays and rosemary
I pray you, my masters, be merry
Quot estis in convivio
[so many as are in the feast]


Caput apri defero, Reddens laudes domino [the boar's head I bring, giving praises to God]
The boar's head, as I understand,
Is the rarest dish in all this land,
Which thus bedecked with a gay garland
Let us servire cantico. [let us serve with a song]


Our steward hath provided this
In honor of the King of bliss
Which, on this day to be served is
In Reginensi atrio: [in the Queen's hall]

(Version from The Queen’s College, Oxford. First printed in 1521.)

In the 15th century, a more complex, polyphonic carol, usually for two or three voices, was sung in monasteries and chapels. These carols were in Latin, French or English - or, like the Boar's Head Carol, were ‘macaronic’ (in a mixture of languages). More than a hundred of these carols survive with their music, in a handful of manuscripts. The Windsor Carol Book (Egerton MS 3307) dates from about 1430-1444 and was probably copied at St George’s Chapel, Windsor. It contains a mass, hymns, motets and carols - and a drinking song. Images of the complete manuscript are available on DIAMM, the Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music. The Ritson Manuscript (Add MS 5665), named after an 18th-century owner of the book, was compiled in Devon over a 50-year period (ca. 1460-1510) and contains masses, hymns, motets, secular songs and some 44 carols. The carols were designed to be sung on specific dates in the Church calendar, such as saints’ days. There are several for the Nativity, among them 'Alleluia: Now we mirthes make'.

Carol for the Nativity: 'Alleluia: Now we mirthes make' (Add MS 5665, f. 36v)
Carol for the Nativity: 'Alleluia: Now we mirthes make' (Add MS 5665, f. 36v)

The composers of most of these early carols are unknown. All the carols in the Windsor Carol Book are anonymous; the only composers named in the carols section of the Ritson Manuscript are the somewhat obscure figures Richard Smert and John Trouluffe.

Like carols about the Nativity, carols featuring holly and ivy can be traced back to the middle ages. In these carols, holly symbolised man and ivy represented woman. Here, from the 'Henry VIII Songbook' (Add MS 31922), is a carol by the king himself: ‘Green groweth the Holly’.

A carol by Henry VIII: Green groweth the Holly (Add MS 31922, f. 37v)
A carol by Henry VIII: Green groweth the Holly (Add MS 31922, f. 37v)

Grene growith the holy,
So doth the ive,
Thow wynter blastys blow never so hye,
Grene groth the holy.

With the destruction of the monasteries at the Reformation, and the rise of newer types of music, the old polyphonic carol went into decline.  However, the phrase ‘Christmas Carol’ did not disappear: a 1572 Latin-English dictionary equates the Latin word ‘Sicinnium’ with both ‘Cristmas caroll’ and ‘Dauncing with singing’, and there is evidence that in the 17th century carols were sung at court. ‘What sweeter music can we bring’, a ‘Christmas Caroll, sung to the king in the Presence at White-Hall’, with words by Robert Herrick, was set to music by Henry Lawes. Unfortunately, the music is now lost.

Robert Herrick: a Christmas Caroll, sung to the king in the Presence at White-Hall (E.1090)
Robert Herrick: a Christmas Caroll, sung to the king in the Presence at White-Hall (E.1090)

Puritans in England had long railed against the drinking, licentiousness and general excesses that had come to be associated with Christmas, and on 19 December 1644 Parliament issued An Ordinance for the better observation of the monethly Fast; and more especially the next Wednesday, commonly called The Feast of the Nativity of Christ, Thorowout the Kingdome of England and Dominion of Wales, which required people to treat the next 25th December as a solemn day of fasting, not a holiday, and exhorted them to remember the sins of their forebears, ‘who have turned this Feast, pretending the memory of Christ into an extreame forgetfulnesse of him, by giving liberty to carnall and sensuall delights’.  A Parliamentary Act the following year banned the observance of Christmas, Easter and the Saints’ Days altogether and shops were ordered to open as normal on Christmas Day.

It was not possible to stamp out the celebration of Christmas completely, and at the Restoration, in 1660, Christmas carols began to be performed freely once more. These carols were far removed from the monastic and courtly types of carol of earlier times. They were sung by ordinary people, in their homes, and the words of the carols were printed and circulated on broadsheets.  This continued in the 18th century, when the broadsheets were often illustrated with religious scenes.

A New Christmas Carol, 1750 (Rox.III.552)
A New Christmas Carol, 1750 (Rox.III.552)

In my next post, I'll be looking at how the work of a few historians in the 19th century led to a revival of interest in the carol and ultimately to the flourishing of the carols we sing today - many of which are not as ancient or traditional as we may have imagined.

19 December 2012

Cataloguing and Processing the Ethnographic Wax Cylinder Collection

On 30 October 2012 the World and Traditional Music department started the final phase of cataloguing and processing numerous wax cylinder recordings made between 1898 and 1941. This involves taking previously digitised wax cylinder recordings and checking and updating the related catalogue information, and finally uploading this information onto the The British Library catalogue for public access.

These recordings, totalling around 3,000, were made by prominent anthropologists and ethnomusicologists such as Prof. William Baldwin Spencer and Arnold Bake, and in various locations around the world including Australia (Spencer), Nepal, India and Sri Lanka (Bake), Japan, China, Papua New Guinea, Africa and the Americas.

Ethnographic Wax Cylinder Player
Wax Cylinder Player


Wax Cylinders
Wax Cylinders

While steadily working my way through the first batch of around 1,000 recordings and related documentation (in the form of previous cataloguer’s comments, original recording notes and archival correspondences), several have stuck in my mind (for various reasons) and, I think, are worth sharing. Therefore, the following sample recordings represent a small selection of the digitised wax cylinder recordings housed at The British Library and are available (or soon to be available) for public access.

1) C6/1183, Baldwin Spencer Cylinder Collection. A recording of exclamations used at sacred ceremonies by men dancing round performers: "The emu will soon lay some eggs"; "The Dalhousie men are making rain today and the Creek will run tomorrow"; "The wild ducks are laying eggs"; "The pelican is too thin to eat"; "Fat snakes make us fat, thin snakes make us thin" etc. Recorded in Stevenson Creek, South Australia in 1901 by Walter Baldwin Spencer and Francis James Gillen.


2) C624/963, Madras Museum Cylinder Collection. A recording of the song Bavanutha; Ragam – Mohanam – played by P. Sanjiva Rau (bamboo flute), accompanied on harmonium. Recorded in India in 1909 by Edgar Thurston and Kadambi Rangachari.


3) C675/317, Temple Cylinder Collection. Male vocal solo, with algaitas (West African oboe) and drum. Recorded in Nigeria around 1912 by Mrs Temple.


These early recordings, complete with crackles, pops and period charm, suggest that we can look forward to more interesting and unique musical gems in the next batch of 2,000 or so waiting to be processed.

Update, 2 April 2013: A new post is now available on this collection.

03 December 2012

Some of the earliest recordings of Chamber Music added to BL Sounds website

The BL Sounds website presents an enormous selection of classical recordings from the holdings of the British Library (available to most of the European Union only due to copyright restrictions) and the section of Chamber Music has recently been further expanded to include rare recordings from the first years of the twentieth century BL Sounds Chamber Music

Le Société du Double Quintette, a group of French string and wind players, made some of the earliest chamber music recordings, most of those heard here are from 1907.  Their repertoire ranged from popular arrangements of works by Boccherini and Mendelssohn to chamber works such as the Aubades by Edouard Lalo. 


Three of the members also made first recordings of Beethoven’s Serenade for flute, violin and viola Op. 25, and the Serenade for violin, viola and cello Op. 8 also in 1907, only eighty years after the death of Beethoven.

The English String Quartet performed between 1902 and 1925.  Their earlier recordings were made for Zonophone in 1915 while the later ones were made for Columbia in the early 1920s.  The viola was played by composer Frank Bridge and the Quartet performs his Phantasy for String Quartet.


The London String Quartet existed from 1908 to 1934 and recorded prolifically.  Amongst popular fare by Tchaikovsky, Haydn, Mozart and Schubert can be found two movements from the Biscay Quartet by John Blackwood McEwen and two movements from the Quartet in A minor by Antonio Scontrino.  The group is also joined by Australian pianist William Murdoch in part of Dvorak's Piano Quintet Op. 81.