Following on from the 2010 release of ‘I Saw Three Ships and Other Carols’, this is a second volume of Christmas carols arranged for string quartet. This collection continues in a similar vein, but has developed a life of its own, exploring the Christmas musical tradition from countries such as France, Germany, Ireland and the Ukraine - as well as many well loved carols from the British Isles. Researching the history of these carols has made me aware of the often piecemeal nature of their development (such as ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ and ‘Jingle Bells’), where luck often played a part in arriving at the final versions that we know and love today. Many started life in a non-religious form or for purposes other than being played at Christmas (‘Good King Wenceslas’ and ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ being two well-known examples). Whatever their origins, we hope that by re-arranging and harmonising these pieces for string quartet, we have given them a fresh feel, with original counter melodies illuminating the traditional tunes in an authentic way. Vaughan Jones 2011
Sussex Carol. The words and melody now used for this carol were written down by two pioneers of English folk music collection: Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Sharp collected his version in Buckland, Gloucestershire whereas Vaughan Williams gathered his from a Harriet Verrall of Monk’s Gate, near Horsham, Sussex. This is how it acquired the title ‘Sussex Carol’ and is the most popular version nowadays, being published in 1919.
Il est Né, le Divin Enfant. Grosjean's ‘Airs des Noêl Lorrain’ published in 1862 contains the melody for this carol, where it is entitled 'Ancien Air de Chasse'. It does bear a similarity with an ancient hunting tune from Normandy called 'Tête Bizarde’ and it has also been speculated that it may have originated in the 18th century as a composition in a rustic style. It has a fanfare like quality which lends itself to ornamentation and can also be performed as a gavotte.
Joy to the World. The melody we now know as ‘Joy To the World’ is often called ‘Antioch’ and has been accredited to the prolific American hymn writer Lowell Mason. Many still assume it is the work of George Frideric Handel but it seems more likely that Mason took snippets of Handel’s music and formed a convincing pastiche of the great master’s style. It is an uplifting melody and melds perfectly with the words (which were written 120 years previously by the English hymn writer Isaac Watts in 1719).
It Came Upon the Midnight Clear. The words of this carol were written in 1849 by the Unitarian minister Edmund Sears from Massachusetts. From there it evolved a parallel existence; being sung in the United States to a melody by Richard Storrs Willis called ‘Carol’ (written in 1850) and known in Britain by a traditional tune called ‘Noel’ which Arthur Sullivan arranged in 1874.
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. Felix Mendelssohn composed the melody for this famous carol as a chorus in his 1840 cantata ‘Festgesang’. It was not intended for religious use as the work was written to commemorate Johann Gutenberg's invention of the printing press! Equally interesting is the scoring Mendelssohn originally employed for this tune, with bass trombones and tubas accompanying the tenors and basses of the chorus to produce some murky sonorities in the lower registers. It was re-harmonised by William H. Cummings in 1855 and set to a text by Charles Wesley written in 1739. Wesley expected his words to be set to solemn music and would have no doubt been as surprised as Felix Mendelssohn at the unlikely marriage which finally immortalised them – so is the often strange history of familiar carols which we might otherwise assume were always thus.
Good King Wenceslas. This famous 13th century carol was originally meant as a celebration of spring and was entitled ‘Tempus Adest Floridum’ (‘The Time for Flowering’). It was published in 1582 in the Finnish collection ‘Piae Cantiones’, a copy of which found its way into the hands of the British ambassador to Sweden, G. J. R. Gordon in 1853 who presented it to John Mason Neale. Neale then added lyrics concerning a Bohemian Duke who goes forth on the feast of St. Stephen (26th December) to give alms to a beggar. The words are pure Victorian whimsy but have not totally obscured a delightful ancient melody.
Rocking Carol. Collected in the 1920s by a Miss Jacubickova, this traditional Czech carol was originally called ‘Hajej, nynjej’. The comforting words speak about rocking the infant Jesus and keeping him warm. The melody bears a close resemblance to ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ and may be Medieval in origin.
Gaudete! Gaudete! Christus est Natus. This was another of the collection of 74 songs known as ‘Piae Cantiones’ and published in 1582 by the Finnish clergyman and headmaster Jacobus Finno. The piece appears without the verses which seem to have been taken from older chants. It is a song of praise at the birth of Christ as ‘God has become man, to the wonderment of nature’.
We Wish You a Merry Christmas is one of the most enduring and widely arranged of all Christmas songs. It is believed to have originated in the West Country of England where groups of travelling singers (or ‘waits’) would sing for food and gifts. The lyrics are a plea for festive treats and include the lines ‘Now bring us some figgy pudding, For we all like figgy pudding, And we won’t go until we’ve got some, So bring some out here!’ The ‘figgy pudding’ in question contained molasses, figs, lemon peel, walnuts and spices.
O Holy Night. Adolphe Adam (the famous composer of the ballet ‘Giselle’) wrote this carol in 1847. It was based on the poem ‘Minuit, Chretiens’ (Midnight, Christians’) by a wine merchant and poet Placide Cappeau and was later modified by the American Unitarianist minister John Sullivan Dwight. Despite the religious content of the poem and beauty of the melody it has an operatic feel to it that is reminiscent of Rossini’s forays into religious music. It is also known as ‘Cantique de Noel’.
Past Three O’ Clock. The words to this traditional carol were set to the tune originally known as ‘London Waits’ by George Ratcliffe Woodward for the ‘Cambridge carol book’ of 1924. The words of the refrain however can be traced back to Playford’s ‘Dancing Master’ of the 17th century. Woodward also provided words for the old French carol that became ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’ which is one of the carols included on our first album.
See Amid the Winter’s Snow. The words for this carol (also known as ‘Hymn for Christmas Day’) were penned by Edward Caswall and the music composed by John Goss. Goss also wrote the memorable hymn ‘Praise my Soul, the King of Heaven’ and this carol certainly has a hymnlike quality to it. Goss was a pupil of Thomas Attwood (himself a favourite pupil of Mozart) and went on to teach Arthur Sullivan.
Shakespeare’s Carol. The auuthor of this particular carol was the eighteenth century English composer Thomas Arne. He is reported to have been a difficult character, forcing his favourite singers on to theatre managers so that by the time he reached later life few would employ him. He did have considerable success though (including the patriotic song ‘Rule Brittania’ written for the masque ‘Alfred’) and this carol was part of a production for the play ‘As You Like It’.
Jingle Bells. One of the world’s most popular Christmas songs isn’t all that it appears. Written in 1857 by the American James Lord Pierpont it was in fact written for Thanksgiving and entitled ‘One Horse Open Sleigh’. Harmonically the original chorus is completely different from the version we are now familiar with and in this arrangement it was decided to incorporate it into the third verse (from the modulation onwards this is how it would have originally sounded!).
O Tannenbaum. This beloved German carol is often translated as ‘O Christmas Tree’ but it’s exact translation is ‘O Fir Tree’. The first appearance of this folk tune seems to date back to 1550 (possibly in Westphalia) with the most popular version being by Ernst Anschutz (who added a second and third verse) in 1824. It is a secular song which praises and draws comfort from the beauty and evergreen fir tree.
Lute Book Lullaby. The title of this breathtakingly beautiful lullaby is ‘Sweet Was the Song the Virgin Sung’ and comes from William Ballet’s 1600 collection of lute music which is now housed in the library of Trinity College, Dublin. The bound collection also includes ‘Green Sleeves’ and ‘Robin Hood is to the Greenwood Gone’. The lullaby is frequently performed by unaccompanied voices and notable harmonisations have been made by Charles Wood and Geoffrey Shaw.
The Shepherds’ Farewell. ‘L’Adieu des Bergers a la Sainte Famille’ comes from the sacred trilogy ‘L’Enfance du Christ’ by Hector Berlioz. The full scale choral work depicts the holy family’s flight to Egypt as angels warn of Herod’s impending massacre. The piece was composed in 1853-4 and the ‘Shepherd’s Farewell’ occurs in the second part. It has become a tradition to perform it at a very slow tempo but Berlioz actually marks it ‘Allegretto’ We have recorded this version at his tempo marking and this gives the piece a sense of forward momentum and freshness.
Carol of the Bells. The whole of this carol is created around an ancient Ukrainian four note figure which represents the New Year (celebrated in April). The composer was Mykola Leontovych and he wrote it in 1904 making two other arrangements at a later stage. In the early 1920s it received a performance in New York and it’s celebrity soon spread (the lyrics ‘Ring, Christmas Bells’ being added in 1947 and further popularising this wonderful piece). Unfortunately the composer never got to enjoy the success it received as he was shot dead by a Chekist agent in early 1921.
To Drive the Cold Winter Away. A version of this song dating from the early 17th century is entitled ‘A Pleasant Country New Ditty: Merrily Shewing How to Drive the Cold Winter Away’. The first two verses (of which 12 verses exist) were written by Tom Durfey, a friend of Charles the second. The song also crops up in Playford’s ‘The English Dancing Master’ of 1651 as well as in the Pepysian Collection. The song is also well known as ‘The Praise of Christmas’.
Sans Day Carol. This ancient Cornish carol (known in Cornish as ‘Ma Gron War’n Gelinen’) owes it’s title to the fact that in the 19th century a Reverend Doble committed it to paper after a Reverend Watson sang to him the melody he heard one Thomas Beard singing in the village of St. Day (or Sans Day)! St. Day was named after a Breton Saint much venerated in Cornwall. The words are conversational in style: ‘Now the holly bears a berry as white as the milk, and Mary bore Jesus, who was wrapped up in silk’.
O Little Town of Bethlehem. Ralph Vaughan Williams collected the tune ‘The Ploughboy’s Dream’ in 1903 from a Mr. Garman of Forest Green in Surrey. The melody was then combined with the text of ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ which had been written by the American Episcopal Priest Phillips Brooks in 1868. From there it entered into the English Hymnal in 1906 and became another example of a well-known carol (along with ‘It Came Upon the Midnight Clear’) which is known by a completely different melody in the United States to the one familiar in Britain.
Don Oiche Ud i Mbeithil is loosely translated from its original Gaelic as ‘That Night in Bethlehem’. The words tell the nativity story - speaking of the events on the night of Jesus’s birth and end with a message of peace from the angels. In Ireland, there remains a tradition of leaving a lit candle in the window on Christmas Eve, in symbolic welcome of the holy family.
Noel Nouvelet. This energetic French carol dates back to the 1500s and was originally a New Year carol. Many versions have existed through the ages but little is known about it’s origins. The opening lines translate as: ‘Christmas comes anew, let us sing, Faithful people, let us shout ‘thanks’ to God!’
Vaughan Jones (Violin and Arranger)
Vaughan is a prolific string arranger who began learning the violin at the age of 8, going on to study at Birmingham Conservatoire and the Royal College of Music, before playing with many of the leading London Orchestras. He now concentrates fully on performing chamber music and working as a string arranger. In recent years he has studied with Hungarian violin teacher Kato Havas and in 2007, switched from an 18th century instrument to a superior hand made violin by luthier Martin McClean of Northern Ireland.
Louise Bevan (Violin)
Louise also composes and arranges music alongside a busy career as a violinist working frequently with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the CBSO. Louise also plays on a modern violin, hand made by luthier William Luff in 1982.In 2007, Louise was invited to perform her 'Five Scandinavian Pieces' at the Dorset Composers' Festival to great acclaim.
Adrian Smith (Viola)
As a soloist Adrian has performed much of the viola repertoire including performances of pieces such as the Bartok Concerto, the Bruch Romance and Hindemith Trauermusik while maintaining a busy career in London orchestras and the West End alongside his work with the quartet. He plays a modern viola made in 2009 by Scottish luthier Ian Ross.
Julia Graham (Violoncello)
Having held positions with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the English Sinfonia and the orchestra of English National Opera, alongside her work with the Manor House String Quartet, Julia enjoys an active career as one of the busiest freelance cellists in London – regularly being invited to play with groups such as the Academy of St Martins in the Fields, the English Chamber Orchestra and the London Chamber Orchestra. Julia plays on an English Cello made in 1830 by luthier William Booth