Beloved Christmas carols: I wonder as I wander

While much Christmas music is either jubilantly celebratory or tenderly domestic, “I Wonder as I Wander” pensively meditates on the personal significance of the incarnation. It comes from the folk music tradition of the Appalachian Mountains. It isn’t exactly authentic folk music, but an original composition by John Jacob Niles (1892-1980). The eccentric Niles was an odd amalgam of classically trained musician, folk-song collector, and showman. … Continue reading

Beloved Christmas carols: In dulci jubilo / Good Christian men, rejoice

Most of what we call Christmas carols are actually Christmas hymns. “In dulci jubilo” is a true carol, that is, a medieval dance tune. Carol texts could be either sacred or secular. Sacred texts usually concerned major feast days, including the birth of Jesus, thus the association of carols with Christmas music. Folk instruments, including drums and other percussion, frequently accompanied carols and other dances. The use of dance rhythms, instruments, and non-Latin texts made carols like “In dulci jubilo” unsuitable for use in Roman Catholic church services. But the Medieval world knew no separation between religious and secular life. … Continue reading

Beloved Christmas Carols: We Three Kings

“We Three Kings” isn’t exactly a Christmas carol. The coming of the kings marks Epiphany, but that doesn’t keep people from singing it earlier. Three men or boys have been selected to sing the solo parts the song assigns to each king in at least tens of thousands of Christmas pageants and Christmas parties over the years. … Continue reading

Beloved Christmas Carols: In the Bleak Midwinter

“In the Bleak Midwinter,” text by Christina Rosetti, is just about the only well known Christmas carol that I can think of with a text by a woman. She also wrote “Love Came Down at Christmas.” No combination of keywords I could think of yielded any other titles. Christina (1830-1894) Rosetti was part of an artistic family. One brother, poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rosetti, was among the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite movement; another William Michael Rosetti, soon joined the movement, but mostly as editor and critic. Their sister Maria Francesca Rosetti published at least one important essay. Their father, … Continue reading

Beloved Christmas carols: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

The Christmas holidays are not a joyous occasion for everyone. Family tragedy can destroy enjoyment of festive occasions, as it did for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The story of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is perhaps the least joyous of any Christmas music I have ever studied. His wife tragically died in 1861, the same year as the American Civil War started. He could not deal with Christmas at all until 1864, a year after his son was severely injured in battle. Longfellow wrote his poem “Christmas Bells” on Christmas Eve, 1864. He wrote it not so much because he … Continue reading

Beloved Christmas carols: A Ceremony of Carols by Benjamin Britten

Today’s post marks the last time I can possibly write anything to honor Benjamin Britten’s centennial. I have already written a program note to The Young Peoples’ Guide to the Orchestra, but I especially love A Ceremony of Carols. Its composition is part of the same narrative I wrote about before. Britten and Peter Pears were visiting the United States when the Second World War broke out. He mentioned to Serge Koussevitsky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, that he wanted to compose an opera but couldn’t afford it. So Koussevitsky commissioned him to write it. At about the same … Continue reading

Beloved Christmas Carols: God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” one of the favorite Christmas carols in the English-speaking world, may also be one of the least understood. William Sandys included it in his Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern in 1833. That marks its first publication, but the carol itself may have already four centuries old. It is not at all clear whether any oral tradition of singing the carol survived until Sandys’ publication, but it certainly became immediately popular. Ten years later, Charles Dickens referred to it in A Christmas Carol: “…at the first sound of ‘God bless you, merry gentlemen! May nothing you … Continue reading

Beloved Christmas carols: Joy to the world

Who would have thought that the joyful text of “Joy to the World” would have ever been controversial? Yet when Isaac Watts published his song paraphrases, they unleashed a storm of criticism. Early Protestants were split on what constituted proper congregational singing. Lutherans sang hymns; Martin Luther himself wrote important hymn texts. John Calvin, on the other hand, encouraged only the singing of metrical psalms. The English followed Calvin’s example. English metrical psalms of the 17th century seem almost unreadable now. They must not have appealed to English congregations of that time, either. Watts later wrote, “To see the dull … Continue reading

Beloved Christmas carols: Carol of the Bells

Peter Wilhousky, a distinguished American choral conductor, music educator, and arranger, wrote the words to “Carol of the Bells” and published his arrangement of the piece in 1936. The tune has a much longer history. It was originally a Ukrainian folksong. And it had nothing to do with Christmas. In 1916, a Ukrainian choral director named Oleksander Koshetz commissioned local composer Mykola Dmytrovich Leontovych to provide a new choral piece based on folk music. Leontovych looked through an anthology of Ukrainian folk music and selected a four-note tune with lyrics to a song of well-wishing, traditionally sung at New Year’s. … Continue reading

Beloved Christmas carols: Hark the herald angels sing

Charles Wesley wrote more than 6,500 hymns, most of which condense a deep understanding of Christian theology into simple poetic form. Many of them maintain an important place in modern hymnals. According to noted hymnologist John Julian, “Hark the herald angels sing” is one of the four most popular English-language hymns. Except, that’s not what Wesley wrote. Here’s the beginning of the original text, written for Christmas day 1739: Hark, how all the welkin rings, “Glory to the King of kings; peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!” Joyful, all ye nations, rise, join the triumph of … Continue reading