On the first Christmas there were shepherds abiding in the fields round about Bethlehem, keeping watch over their flocks by night and an angel appeared to them. The divine glory shone round about them, as he announced the good tidings of great joy and gave them the sign which should lead them to the manger. Suddenly the sky was filled with a multitude of the heavenly host, singing:
“Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace and good will to men.”
From that Christmas of the first year of our Lord, to this, the eighteen hundred and eighty-fourth, music has played an important part in the observance of this memorable day and the universal wish of mankind has given itself expression in the words of the angelic song with which the heavenly host saluted the Divine Child and Master.
The mere mention of Christmas music suggests the Carol which under its generic name, Noel, dates back to the Twelfth Century, for though the French word is now generally applied to Christmas, it always appeared as a joyful exclamation in Nativity hymns of that time,-and hence has been accepted as the equivalent of Carol.
One of the earliest of these hymns was the “Prose de l’ane,” which was sung at the annual festival, “Ffte de l’ane,” at Beauvais and Sens, through which cities, a richly caparisoned ass was led, bearing a maiden and child, to the cathedral doors, in commemoration of the Flight into Egypt.
In the following century, several popular carols were written in Germany, though of a simple, melodious nature, but in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries they were treated in polyphonic style, and to Giovanni Maria Nannini is generally credited this invention. At least, his carol, “Hodie Chnstus natus est,” is quoted as the most important that appeared in this form. The Italian Noels were considered as superior to the.French, but the latter were far more numerous.
The English Carol, howeyer, is the one with which we are the most concerned. Its history has never been fully written, but such details as we have, are extremely interesting, and it is somewhat curious that the first allusion to them is connected with children, for an old English Franciscan friar writing of boys in 1398, says, that at the age of seven years they are “plyaunt of body, able and lyghte to moeving, wytty to lerne carolles and wythoute besynesse and drede noo perylls more than betynge with a rodde”—a statement which would seem to indicate that boys have not changed during the past five centuries in their salient qualities.
In the Fifteenth Century the Carol was both serious and convival. The one was sung from house to house, ushering in the Christmas morning ; the other was part of the general wassail. Indeed, a minstrel of that period could sing in the morning:
Nowell, nowell, nowell, nowell
This is the salutation of the angel Gabriel,
and in afternoon:
Bring us in good ale and bring us in good ale
For our blessed Lady’s sake, bring us in good ale,
and in the evening he would adapt his carol to a Christmas dance of a very jovial character.
The statement of Warton and others that the Carol originated with the Puritans, who in reality detested the Carol and did not observe the day, has been proven incorrect by Chappell, who has given samples of carols before their time, though as might be expected of the jovial, dashing Cavaliers, they were of a convival sort and were regarded with holy horror by Roundheads, one of whom says:
The lewid peple than algates ayre.
And caroles singen everi Criste messe tyde
Not with scham fastenes. bot jocondle
And holly bowghs aboute, and al asydde
The brenning fyre, hem eten and hem drinke. etc.
The oldest printed collection of Christmas carols were issued by Wynkin de Worde, in 1521, and it includes the famous ” Boar’s Head Carol,” which is still sung at Oxford, on Christmas Day. As a curiosity, it deserves a place in The Current.
Here is old Wynkin’s carol, as it originally appeared (an adapted form is used at Oxford): The bore’s heede in hande bring I With garlans gay and rosemary ; I pray you all synge merely, Qui estis in convivio Caput apri defero Reddens laudes Domino.
The bore’s heede I understandc,
Is the chefe scrvyce in this lande ;
Lokc where ever it be fande
Serz’ite cum cantico.
Caput apri, etc.
Be sladde, lordes, bothe more and lasse.
To chere you all this Christmassc,
For this hath ordeyned our stewarde,
The bore’s heede with mustarde.
Caput apri, etc.
Daries Gilbert, in his history of Christmas Carols (1823) gives the following description of the observances on Christmas Day: “The day was passed in the ordinary manner, but at seven or eight o’clock in the evening, cakes were drawn hot from the oven, cider or beer exhilarated the spirits in every house, and the singing of carols was continued late into the night.
These carols took the place of psalms in all the churches, especially at afternoon service, the whole congregation joining; and at the end it was usual for the parish clerk to declare in a loud voice his wishes for a ” Merry Christmas and a happy New Year to all the parishioners.” Wordsworth speaks of the carol-singing in a poem addressed to his brother, commencing:
The minstrels played their Christmas tune
To-night beneath my cottage caves.
Keen was the air, but could not freeze
Nor check the music of their strings ;
So stout and hardy were the band
That scraped the chords with strenuous hand.
No carol is better known than that which commences:
God rest you, merry gentlemen.
Let nothing you dismay,
For Jesus Christ, our Savior,
Was born on Christmas Day,
To save us all from Satan’s power,
When we were gone astray.
Oh, tidings of comfort and joy.
This carol has appeared in almost innumerable versions; one of which, curiously enough, is a political Christmas carol, which runs thus:
God rest you, merry gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay ;
Remember we were left alive
Upon last Christmas Day,
With both our lips at liberty
To praise Lord Castlereagh,
For his practical comfort and joy.
The Carol naturally brings us to the Waits. Though no one knows definitely whether the term originally signified musical instruments or the persons who played them on particular occasions, the modern understanding of the term connects it with wandering musicians, whose function it is to play and sing in the streets during Christmas-tide, taking advantage of the season to solicit donations.
Down to the year 1820, they were officially recognized in London, and sometimes they were appointed by the High Constable and Court of Burgesses, but since that time the streets have been free to all itinerants who desire to play the part of Waits.
In the days of Steele, the Waits had other duties than those pertaining to Christmas, for the Tatler says: “As the custom prevails at present, there is scarce a young man of any fashion in a corporation who does not make love with the town music; the Waits often help him through his courtship.” The young ladies of that day did not always take kindly to this sort of nocturnal wooing, for the same authority states that they complain “for want of sleep by reason of certain riotous lovers who, for this last summer, have very much infested the streets with violins and bassviols, between the hours of twelve and four in the morning.”
The modern writers have frequently tuned their strings to Christmas lays. Sullivan has written several carols, among them “All this Night,” “I Sing the Birth,” “Upon the Snow-clad Earth” and “Christmas Bells at Sea.” Tough old Thielehas has given us a Christmas oratorio. Saint Saens has written the “Oratorio de Noel,” for orchestra chorus and solos. Liszt’s “Christus ist Geboren,” is well known and Berlioz set the story of Christ’s childhood in cantata form under the general title of ” L’Enfance du Christ,”in three parts: I. ” LeSonged’Herode” ; II. “La Fuite en Egypte”; III. “L’Arriveea Sais.”
To trace the general history of Christmas music, however, would involve a search through Christian hymnology and the liturgies of various communities. The German Lutheran psalm-books and the English hymn-books contain the most characteristic examples.
Among the best contributors in our own language are Bishop Hall, Charles Wesley, Tate, Byrom, Heber, Keble and Robert Herrick, sweetest and quaintest of all. Two notable instances, however, of musical inspiration drawn from the season, must not be passed by.
The first of these is “The Messiah,” representing the ripened product of Handel’s genius—a work which is a colossal monument to the memory of the composer—an imperishable record of the noblest sentiments of human nature and the highest aspirations of man. Of this great oratorio, the birth of our Savior is the principal theme, and the whole first part, closing with the chorus of the heavenly hosts, may be set down as one of the most sublime and majestic tributes to Christmas ever written in notes.
The second is the “Christmas Oratorio” of Johann Sebastian Bach, written by the great father of music in 1734. It is scored in six parts, each of ‘which is in the form of a complete cantata.
The first three would be performed on Christmas Day, the fourth on New Year’s, the fifth on the following Sunday and the sixth on Epiphany. Was this the source of Wagner’s’ idea of performing his “Ring des Nibelungen” in installments? The character of the work is unmistakable, for Bach himself gave it the title: “Oratorium Tempore Nativitatis Christi”; and it is further illustrated by the introduction of Christmas hymns by Hassler, Gerhard and Martin Luther in the body of the work.
Any sketch of Christmas music within the present limits must be necessarily cursory and incomplete, for nearly every composer of prominence has written his tribute to the day, inspired by its sacred reminiscences or its merry cheer. As it is the brightest and best day of the year, so it has brighter and better music than any other day, whether it be song of wassail to warm friendly hearts around the yule log or tribute of praise to kindle the soul with divine memories and associations.
How can we better leave our subject than with Jeremy Taylor’s words, from his “Great Exemplar”:
As soon as these blessed choristers had sung their Christmas carol and taught the Church a hymn to put into her offices forever in the anniversary of this festivity, the angels returned into Heaven.” And may no home be so destitute that it shall not hear some echo of this carol or enjoy some tithe of Christmas cheer on this anniversary of the birth of our Lord.
Source: The Current, Edgar L. Wakeman, 1884