Why Carols Are Good for the Classics

rutterYou would be pushed to find a Christmas concert or church service anywhere in Britain that does not include at least one John Rutter carol or arrangement. The man has been inundated with commissions. ‘I have written carols in a heatwave’, says Rutter. ‘You have to think yourself into the Christmas spirit and once you’ve done that they take days rather than weeks to write, although often the idea is formed before the pencil’s sharpened.

‘I enjoy the music of Christmas, and there aren’t many composers still writing in the field’, says the 49-year-old carol spinner, whose Christmas music can be heard on his Collegium label. ‘As a humble art form the carol stretches so far. You may not be whistling a Maxwell Davies carol in the shopping malls this Christmas but it is still the one time of year when all brown levels meet. You can listen to Judith Weir’s and John Tavener’s extremely sophisticated carols, and then you hear something like Jingle Bells which came from some obscure operetta that has long since been forgotten.’

Jingle Bells might not be the most profound Christmas music but it has the simplicity, timelessness and folksong feel which have made Rutter’s carols so successful. ‘Because carols are folk art, once they become accepted and well known, people tend to forget who wrote them.’ It’s a hazard of the job which Rutter has discovered through his own work. ‘Many people think The Shepherd’s Pipe Carol which I wrote in the 1960s while still a student, is traditional because it is so widely performed and sung alongside the greats. With the Star Carol, the kids get taught it in school and it very quickly turns into ‘traditional’ and ‘anon’!’

But despite this, Rutter can feel happy that his carols – like Schubert’s Ave Maria or Brahms’s Wiegenlied with their simplicity and musical economy – are going to succeed on a popular scale. ‘It is quite flattering because the most enduring carols are simple ones which have the traditional feel of a folk song. You need to feel you would like to join in. if my carols last as long as some of the others I will be very happy.’

In the 1960s it was fashionable for ‘serious’ composers to write carols but these were not widely performed outside cathedral and academic settings. In fact, few twentieth-century composer’s carols have taken off in a hugely popular way. But traditional carols have been an endless source of inspiration to them. ‘It’s always been a popular art form’, says Rutter. ‘Benjamin Britten, who set medieval carols, simply took the most basic popular genre and turned it into Benjamin Britten. Just as the great nationalist composers took dances and turned them into classical mazurkas or polkas.’

The carol remains a popular form of song even when it is used by composers for their own stylistic ends. But Rutter is keen to emphasise its more serious and undervalued role of introducing people to music. ‘Take the Bach Choir family carol concert at the Albert Hall’, he says. ‘For many children, a carol concert – or Handel’s Messiah – is their first experience of classical music. These events should be done well to keep people coming.’

carolsRutter doesn’t just write carols and he’s not working on one now. But whether it is for a children’s choir in Liverpool or King’s College, Cambridge, his sheer tunefulness will ensure his music is preyed upon by countless choral groups – even if it is ‘traditional’ and ‘anon’!

The Top 12 Composed Carols – Through the Centuries
1. Veni, veni Emanuel (1200s)
A thirteenth-century advent manuscript now in the National Library in Paris, its modern words were set by J M Neale who produced the carol in 1854 from a lost source. Suspicions that it might have been a Victorian invention were removed in the 1960s when Dr Mary Berry discovered a two-voiced version, though with a different text, in a processional probably copied from a French nunnery.

2. Coventry Carol (1300s)
The song of the mothers of Bethlehem precedes the murder of their children in the Coventry mystery plays. ‘Herod the King in his raging, chargid he hath this day, his men of might in his own sight all young children to slay.’

3. While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night (1500s)
Set by Christopher Tye (c1500-73), it probably has words by Purcell’s favourite librettist, Nahum Tate. The first, and ofr more than 80 years the only, Christmas hymn ‘permitted to be used in (Anglican) church’. There are many versions including Handel’s ‘Non vi piaque ingiusti dei’ from the opera Siroe and the Cranbrook setting – better known as On Ilkla Moor baht ‘at! – written by a Kentish cobbler.

4. In dulci jubilo (1600s)
In 1328 the German monk Heinrich Sense described a dream where he joined angels singing and dancing this carol. It was arranged by Praetorius (1571-1621) and J S Bach.

5. Hark the Herald (1700s)
The most popular of Charles Wesley’s (1707-88) hymns is most often heard in Felix Mendelssohn’s setting. Taken from his Festgesang of 1840 for male voices and brass, the tune was commissioned to celebrate what was believed to be the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention of printing.

6. Once in Royal David’s City (1800s)
Music by Henry Gauntlett (1805-76). The words came from Cecil Alexander’s Little Children (1848), written after she overheard a group of her godchildren complaining of the dreariness of the catechism.

7. Good King Wenceslas (1800s)
John Stainer dug up this fourteenth-century Piae cantiones and arranged it in the 1870s. Wenceslas is the German form of Václav the Good who ruled Bohemia from 922 to 929, later becoming the Czech patron saint. J M Neale’s words are not based on any known incident in the saint’s life: it is a rather pious illustration of virtue and charity – St Stephen’s Day (26 Dec) is a day for giving to the poor.

8. We Three Kings (1800s)
John Henry Hopkins (1820-91) was the rector of Christ’s Church, Williamsport, Pennsylvania who wrote both words and music to his carols. His Carols, Hymns and Songs, published in 1865, is a model of clarity and simplicity though only this carol has become widely known.

9. O Little Town of Bethlehem (1900s)
Arranged by both Vaughan Williams and Walford Davies, the poem is by Phillips Brooks (1835-93), a priest who wrote it for the children of his Sunday School inspired by a visit on Christmas Eve 1865 to the field outside Bethlehem where the annunciation to the shepherds is said to have taken place. VW’s arrangement of the carol, Forest Green, is a ballad he collected in the Surrey village of that name in 1903.

10. Ding Dong Merrily on High (1800s)
Arranged as a carol by the librettist G R Woodward, it was written by Thoirot Arbeau – a pseudonym of Jehan Tabourot – a French cleric who published a treatise on dancing in 1588 (and on whose work Warlock based his Capriol Suite). This tune is a vigorous and saucy dance where men lift women high up into the air; it was Queen Elizabeth’s favourite!

11. In the Bleak Midwinter (1900s)
Harold Darke and Gustav Holst have set Christina Rossetti’s fine poem. She never intended it to be a carol or hymn. It doesn’t lend itself quite so well to Holst’s single verse setting but Darke’s (1888-1976) through-composed setting is exemplary and most often sung today.

12. Adam lay ybounden (1900s)
Boris Ord’s (1897-1961) only composition, this arrangement of a fifteenth-century manuscript has been used in the King’s College Service of Nine Lessons and Carols frequently ever since as a memorial to one of the chapel’s most distinguished music directors.

Classic CD magazine, 1994

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