BY Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
Loyola Marymount University
This evening's concert program embraces Christmas carols from a multiplicity of national origins: English, American, Latin American, German, Spanish and French. One ponders this wide variety and asks whether the carol may have some common characteristics in spite of these different origins.
A carol might be defined as "a religious seasonal song of joyful character, in the vernacular, and sung by common people". A glance at the famed Oxford Book of Carols shows clearly that carols were sung throughout all the liturgical seasons of the Church's year, at Epiphany, in Lent, Passiontide, Eastertide, Ascensiontide, Pentecost. A goodly number of seasonal carols celebrate Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. In popular thought, however, the carol has come to be associated almost exclusively with Christmas, since that festival claims the largest share of surviving carols.
Analysis of carols indicates they possess several characteristics in common. Many are associated with and contain words about dancing, for they were danced as well as sung. Indeed, the very name "carol" is thought to imply dancing. Carols frequently reflect an attitude of open air performance, a practice familiar to all. Carols most appropriately are simple and straightforward of thought, demonstrating in their original state a naive crudity of expression. The best carols reach back through many generations of men. To date this excellent carol book has seen twenty-nine editions.
The American Christmas carol likewise emerged after Puritan repression of any such celebrations on the north eastern seaboard dwindled. We Three Kings of Orient Are written and composed about 1857 by the Rev. Dr. J.H. Hopkins, Rector of Christ Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, was the first American contribution to the Old World's treasury of enduring and true carols.
The contemporary American composer Kirke Mechem composed his Seven Joys of Christmas for the San Francisco College of Women Chamber Singers in 1964. He dedicated the delightful work to the late Randall Thompson. Its subsequent popularity prompted Mechem to produce the mixed chorus version heard this evening.
Its first joy, This is the Truth, alternately titled The Truth from Above, was composed and written by Mr. W. Jenkins in the 19th Century in Herefordshire. The Joy of Mary found in Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine emerged from the 15th Century as part of a German Mystery Play performed before the crib. Its melody, also known as a latin carol, Resonet in laudibus, can be found in numerous songbooks from the 16th to the 18th centuries.
The famed 19th Century Solicitor Antiquary and carol collector, William Sandys, introduced to England the Burgundian dance Patapan Willie Take Your Little Drum. The carol appeared in a collection of Bernard de Ia Monnoyes (1641- 1728) entitled Noels Burgignon, not published till 1842. The English translation is a modern adaptation of the French.
Whatever they are called in their various national parlance-noels in French, Weihnachtslieder in German-their origins find roots in the simple invention by St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th Century of the Christmas crib, still observed at Christmastide in many churches and even parks. From Medieval times people have expressed their devotion to the Christ Child at the crib through singing and dancing.
The famed Medieval Miracle and Mystery plays likewise produced, in England at least, some of the earliest surviving carols. These plays were produced on wheeled floats which proceeded to various parts of a town and were reiterated at each stop. They appealed to common folk and served to instruct them in aspects of Christ's life and those of the saints.
Strong pastoral elements came to characterize many French and Italian carols. One also notes the prevalence in carols of that first of all carols, the Angels' song, "Glory to God in the Highest ....”
After the restricting obstacles to the celebration of Christmas thrown up by English Puritanism faded, the singing of carols particularly in the 19th Century, with door to door visitations, picturesque costumes and convivial celebration, gained strong impetus from the more general folk-song movement to revive and preserve the best carols. This work fructified in exemplary fashion when Ralph Vaughan Williams and his associated editors produced in 1928 the Oxford Book of Carols.
The wide variety of carol derivations noted above may be seen this evening in the Catalan dance Fum, Fum, Fum, the calypso style of The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy, the Appalachian mountain song I Wonder as I Wander. The black spiritual Mary Had a Baby has attracted numerous settings, indicating that in spite of its origins it has attained the status of a carol. God Bless the Master of the House in its traditional English form illustrates that vivacious and ancient series of AngloSaxon Wassails or festival- drinking songs.
The program culminates with Dr. Wagner's arrangement of popular carols in the Christmas Story appropriately bound together with excerpts from St. Luke's gospel narrative. We Three Kings is the long-accepted and successful American carol noted above. What Child is This was set to the famed Greensleeves melody prior to 1642, the refrain being authored about 1865 by William Chatterton Dix. O Little Town of Bethlehem like so many carols utilizes an old secular popular melody The Ploughboy's Dream, its words being by Bishop Philip Brooks.
Gesu Bambino has served to make Pietro Yon's name more remembered than all of his other works. It is an example of a modern newly composed carol which has won its way into the hearts of many, typical of a process by which so many carols have evolved. Yon (1886-1943) produced numerous liturgical compositions during his tenure as organist and choirmaster for New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral.
Angels We Have Heard on High, a French noel, came from South France. It is designated as a "gloria" indicating its relationship to the angels' song. The English rendition of the words is by James Chadwick. Joy to the World is not specifically listed among Handel's compositions though it has long been attributed to him. It is probably derived from a chorus in an oratorio. The words are those of Isaac Watts (1674-1748). Technically the work is a hymn for general praise, rather than specifically a carol, though it has long been construed as such.
Franz Gruber's exquisitely simple setting of Fr. Joseph Mohr's poem Silent Night, composed for Christmas services in 1818, has become the most loved Christmas carol of the western world.