The English Carol tradition is an old one, stretching at least as far back as the 14th century, and yet it is an enduring and heart warming tradition which brings light and joy to our Advent and Christmas celebrations at the darkest time of the year. Perhaps it is for this very reason that the Christmas Carol from the middle-ages to our own time has found itself particularly at home in the British Isles, where winter is often even darker and colder than in many places on the continent. The sheer number of English Carols seems to support this idea, as they far outnumber those of all other European countries put together, and yet one of the unique charms of this tradition is its inclusiveness of carols from other European countries and even Canada and the United States, and new carols are constantly added to the tradition even in the 21st century. Some of these carols borrowed from other countries have become such traditional parts of the carol tradition in Britain, that it is often forgotten that their country of origin is far from the British Isles. We have tried to show this great diversity in the carols chosen for this recording.
The recording begins with one of these “adopted” carols from southern Europe, a carol from the Basque region of Spain. GABRIEL’S MESSAGE (Track 1), traditionally a Lady Day carol, but equally appropriate at Advent and Christmastime when our thoughts are turned to the great mystery of the Annunciation in the sacred liturgy as the event that begins it all- Mary’s fiat. This traditional carol is heard here arranged by Sir David Willcocks. Charles Wood’s arrangement of the Italian carol HAIL BLESSED VIRGIN MARY (Track 2) continues to celebrate the Annunciation, using the words of the Archangel Gabriel to Our Lady which signals the event that gladdens the hearts of “priest and People”. The next carol, JESUS CHRIST THE APPLE TREE (Track 3) uses an early (1784) American text by Joshua Smith with a matchless melody by the English composer Elizabeth Poston (1905-1987). The text is an allegory, comparing Christ to an apple tree, and while we may find this comparison startling at first, this allegory is used in sacred scripture itself. In the Song of Songs, the Beloved, a pre-figurement of Christ, is said to be “Like an apple tree of the trees of the forest” and “In his shade I took great delight and sat down, and his fruit was sweet to my taste” (Song of Songs 2,3).
The idea of the “happy fault” and the “necessary sin of Adam”, phrases that are used in the Easter Exultet, are central to the next carol, ADAM LAY YBOUNDED (Track 4), a 15th century text, with music by the famous former Master of the Choristers at King’s College, Cambridge, Boris Ord (1897-1961). The paradox and mystery of the sin of Adam being the event that brings about the incarnation was a popular subject in the middle ages and so the carol reminds us, “Ne had the apple taken been, the apple taken been, ne had never Our Lady abeen heaven a Queen, blessed be the time the apple taken was, therefore we moun singen, Deo gratias”. THE CHERRY TREE CAROL (Track 5) is another 15th century text which explains in allegorical fashion the miracle and mystery of the Annunciation and virgin-birth, and a doubting St. Joseph (a clear fact from sacred scripture)is convinced of the veracity of Our Lady’s claims when nature itself in the form of a cherry tree, bows down to her. The carol ends soberly with a distant glimpse of the Passion, the red cherries compared to red blood and the “heavy load” of Our Lady at the realization of this.
Herbert Howells (1892-1983) set the lovely 14th century carol-text, A SPOTLESS ROSE (Track 6), and is one of his three “carol-anthems” for unaccompanied choir. THE LITTLE ROAD TO BETHLEHEM (Track 7) by Michael Head (1900-1976), is arranged with words by 20th century poet Margaret Rose. Though only composed in 1946, this carol has endured and even grown in popularity in recent decades and definitely forms part of the canon of the English carol tradition. Its popularity is easy to understand with its incomparable soaring melody ornamenting perfectly Rose’s poem, written, it is said, while she watched sheep grazing one day in the English countryside. THE TRUTH FROM ABOVE (Track 8) is an English folk carol that survived only in oral tradition until finally being written down in 1909 by English folk song collector and composer Ralph Vaughn-Williams in King’s Pyon, Herefordshire, England. Its haunting mode I/Dorian melody has much in common with other folk music. But in the case of this carol in particular, it seems one can hear more than a faint echo of Gregorian Chant. A carol with a similar provenance as a folk carol but from a different continent, I WONDER AS I WANDER (Track 9), was written down by John Jacob Niles, in Murphy, Appalachian North Carolina in July of 1933. He paid a young girl a quarter a performance to sing it for him, and after seven times had written down garbled fragments of lyric and music. He later extended lyric and music, and it is this version that is best known today. The arrangement sung here is by the English composer John Rutter (1945-).
IN THE BLEAK MID-WINTER (Track 10), the achingly beautiful poem of the Pre-Raphaelite poet, Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), is well known in two different settings by two different composers, Harold Darke and the one heard here, Gustav Holst (1874-1934). THE COVENTRY CAROL (Track 11), a 15th century carol from a Christmas mystery play from Coventry, England called “The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors”, is taken from chapter 2 of the Gospel of St. Matthew. This carol, the only one to survive, depicts Herod’s massacre of the Holy Innocents, and is a mother’s lullaby for her doomed child. HERE IS THE LITTLE DOOR (track 12), is the second carol-anthem on this recording by Herbert Howells (1892-1983), with words by Frances Chesterton (the wife of G.K. Chesterton). This carol brings us to the crib with the Three Kings, and with rich harmonies and sonorities we are transported to the scene while the kings offer their gifts, mystically representing His divinity, His kingship and His future passion.
To conclude the recording, THE THREE KINGS (Track 13), by German composer Peter Cornelius (1824-1874), is another carol which has been incorporated into the standard repertoire of the English carol tradition to the point that many today forget that England is not its country of origin. Cornelius’ beautiful melody is sung by a baritone soloist while the choir sings the Bach chorale “How Brightly Shines the Morning Star”. By this homage of the Three Kings, the first of three “epiphanies” manifesting the divinity of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the work which was begun with Our Lady’s Annunciation, foretold by the prophet Isaiah, God incarnate, born into human history and time, is now complete. While some might argue that the carol cannot begin to convey such a mystery, we can console ourselves that even such a figure as Coelius Sedelius, who, in the 4th century, - a time so much closer to the events at Bethlehem - wrote what may have been the first Christmas carol, was himself not unmoved by such a scene:
The manger and the straw He bore,
The cradle He did not abhor;
A little milk His infant fare,
Who feedeth all the fowl of air.
(A Solis Ortus Cardine)
Feast of St. Andrew, 2012