Welcome Yule: A Feast of British Carols from Medieval to Modern

Saturday December 14, 2019
Welcome Yule: A Feast of British Carols from Medieval to Modern

Musica Sacra’s “60/40” Holiday Celebration

Honoring the long-standing tradition of British carols—from the Medieval era to the Tudor era of Byrd, the Baroque era of Phillips, the Victorian era of Parry, and the modern era of Britten and beyond—this festive concert is sure to tempt everyone’s choral palate.

Notes on the Performance

From Director Mary Beekman
Mary Beekman, Director

The British Isles have a long tradition of making a joyful noise. In fact, the word “carol” originated from the Greek word choros, meaning a dance in a circle. As time passed, the practice of celebrating each of the saints’ days with dancing and carols dwindled, so that most carols heard today refer only to the Christmas story and the observance of the holiday. The works on tonight’s program represent over seven hundred and fifty years of British song. The combination of carols and motets honors both the festive and spiritual natures of Christmas, allowing us to explore both the secular and sacred aspects of the holiday. As an added benefit, the texts of many of the works are in English, making the music more accessible to chorus and audience. I have grouped the music such that the first half’s selections relay the story of Christ’s birth, while those of the second half display believers’ various responses to that birth.

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The decision to observe Christ’s birth on December 25th enabled Christian leaders to integrate pagan rituals associated with the winter solstice with the commemoration of the arrival of the Messiah, not as a judge, but as a baby boy. Thus the text Welcome Yule, while referring to Christian saints and their feast days, also alludes to the Yule log, the principal log of a bonfire lit at the winter solstice to keep the darkness at bay. As the tradition of Christmas flourished, a secular body of works sprang up, particularly in England, of songs, or carols, to celebrate the birth of Christ. Many of these carols were written for Mysteries, plays based upon the scripture presented as a palatable means of imparting Christian teaching to the masses.

By Dickens’s time in the early 19th century, the tradition of the carol and carol singing itself was at its nadir. Puritanism of the prior two centuries had driven Christmas music out of the church, and the melodies and poems of the carols survived only through oral tradition. As such, they had become folk music, and irrelevant to the tradition of classical music. However, early in the 20th century, composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams traveled through the British Isles to collect folks tunes, some of which were old Christmas carols, from towns and countryside and reintroduce them to their compatriots. One of the ways in which they did this was to compose new music based on the old tunes; Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on Greensleeves, arranged for strings, is a lovely example. Another way was to write modern settings of old carols, which you will hear tonight in Wassail Song, Holy Day Holly Carol, and the Boar’s Head Carol. Vaughan Williams, along with Martin Shaw and Percy Deamer, published a collection of these regional carols as The Oxford Book of Carols in 1928; that book disseminated carols around the English-speaking world through its use by church choirs and music societies. And, finally, the texts of old carols could be put to use in new musical compositions, as evinced in the music of John Gardner and Elizabeth Poston.

While carol singing may have been at its nadir in the 19th century, the tradition of celebrating Christmas at home as well as at church flourished due to several factors. The industrial revolution allowed mass production of goods, which both put more people to work and lowered the cost of goods. Dickens brought attention to the Christmas holiday with his A Christmas Carol, as did poetry by poets such as those whose texts you hear tonight. Prince Albert, a German, brought the tradition of the Christmas tree with him to England when he married Queen Victoria. New Christmas carols, such as Goss’s See Amid the Winter’s Snow, became popular in church and in secular celebrations.

Several of tonight’s works are modern carols, in which a 20th-century composer sets a 19th-century poem to music. Benjamin Britten does this masterfully with both Thomas Hardy’s poem The Oxen and Ford Madox Ford’s The Song of the Women—which he retitled A Wealdon Trio—despite the fact that he set the latter text when only sixteen years old. Howard Skempton made use of a poem by William Morris for his carol, while William Blake’s poem The Lamb from his Songs of Innocence

Not only did Britain have this incredibly rich oral tradition and the proliferation of sheet music to celebrate Christmas, it also had an ancient educational system in which many transcriptions of the oldest carols were housed and thereby preserved. For that reason you can hear tonight the anonymously penned Angelus ad Virginem. The melody first appeared in fragment in 1250; tonight’s version, originally a fifth higher, appeared in The Dublin Troper of 1360. Because the language is Latin rather than the vernacular, it is not strictly speaking a carol but rather a “sequence,” a melody associated with its text that would be sung right before the reading of the Gospel. However, its lively triple dance rhythms place it firmly in the carol tradition.

As evidenced by the wonderful variety of works in tonight’s program the tradition of English carols, both sacred and secular, is a rich and fertile one. Throughout history the British have engaged in a dialogue with God and professed their faith through the art of music. We are pleased to sample some of the many delights of this dialogue in tonight’s concert. We hope you enjoy it as much as we do.

© 2019 Mary Beekman except where noted. All rights reserved. No portion of this document except cited passages may be quoted or reproduced without the author’s permission.