Ye Olde Christmas Music
Having just put together a CD of my favourite Christmas songs in preparation for this year’s festive season, I thought I’d write a post about some of our oldest Christmas music. My home-made CD contains songs from about the 13th century to modern day pop numbers – an awful lot of Christmas music has been written over the centuries, but did you know that many of the carols still popular today are actually several hundred years old?
Earliest Christmas Carols
From the 14th century, the word “carol” had been used to describe well-known Christian religious songs, which were often accompanied by dancing. The earliest carols we can be sure of the date of are in a book by John Audeley, who was a 15th century poet. His manuscript, which is now kept in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, contains twenty-five “Caroles of Cristemas”. Unfortunately, there is no music in the book, only the text of the carols. However, scholars believe that the character of the poems means that they would most likely have been sung. Audeley’s book is available to buy from Amazon.
The oldest version of the text of the Coventry Carol that we know of was written in 1534, and the oldest music for it dates back to 1591. The Coventry Carol gets its name from the place where it was originally performed, Coventry in the United Kingdom. It was part of a Mystery Play, which was a kind of Medieval religious play. The text is about the massacre of children which was ordered by King Herod, and is appropriately sombre. Coventry Carol is haunting and melancholy, but despite its sadness it is one of the most beautiful carols. Watch this heart-wrenching, perfect performance and enjoy the medieval harmonies.
O Come O Come Emmanuel
Originally written in Latin some time in the 6th to the 9th century as “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel”, this carol was translated into English in the mid 1800s. It was written as one of a series of “Advent” hymns which is known as “O Antiphons”- songs to be sung in the seven days leading up to Christmas and it is the last in the series. No one is quite sure how old the music is, but it is assumed that it is at least from the 15th century, and perhaps as early as the 12th century. The oldest known manuscript of the music is in the Bibliotheque Nationale in France, but even the date of the book is not known for sure. The “New Oxford Book of Carols” suggests that it dates from the 13th century. This is a modern arrangement of the carol, by the female vocal group Aliqua.
In Dulci Jubilo (Good Christian Men Rejoice!)
“In Dulci Jubilo” is the original Latin title for the carol which is sometimes translated as “Good Christian Men Rejoice!” The melody was published in 1582, but it is thought that it was actually composed in the early 1300’s. These days it’s common to find the version either in English, or in a mixture of English and Latin. Many people dislike the full English translation – HJ Masse described it as a “musical wrong-doing” and Sir Edward Heath called it “the most horrible one”. The arrangement in this clip is by R.L. Pearsall and is sung by the King’s College Choir.
Unto Us a Child is Born
In Latin, this carol is known as “Puer Nobis Nascitur”, and is first mentioned in the 14th century, in a book called the “Moosburg Gradual”. Since many of the songs in this book were old even then, it’s possible that the carol actually dates back to 12th or 13th century. Here is a simple , beautiful rendition, with a Celtic feel.
The CD this clip comes from is available from Amazon.
H. J. L. J. Masse, “Old Carols” in Music & Letters, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Jan., 1921), Oxford University Press, p.67.
Edward Heath, “Carols – The Joy of Christmas”, 1977, Sidgwick and Jackson/EMI Music, London, p.12.