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Word from Wormingford

18 December 2015

Ronald Blythe thinks of how three composers saved the carol

IN 1928, three remarkable Church of England composers — Percy Dearmer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Martin Shaw — rescued the carol from what could have been its extinction — a fate that many of the clergy hoped might overcome it.

“Please, sir, may we sing a carol?” the congregation asked in the 18th century.

“You may, but wait until I am out of the church.”

I met Martin Shaw outside church when I was a boy. He was my friend Jane Garrett’s uncle, and we were Suffolk people, and I never hear the Nine Lessons and Carols from Cambridge without thinking of him.

He and a handful of other composers caught the carol just in time. It might easily have slipped out of earshot, out of mind. Out of church. It was originally a dance with words, as well as true church poetry, and the origin of today’s dance music. After years of suppression and forgetting, the carol hung in fragments in the popular mind, and scholars might even detect its present in Strictly Come Dancing, because it is impossible to eradicate it from music and movement.

After Bishop Benson of Truro created an entire service of carol singing in his new cathedral in 1880, his Christmas music was taken up in every parish church in England. Interwoven with the story of our redemption, it now fills the ancient buildings, and makes their very sites angelic.

The word “carol” comes from carola, a ring-dance. While most hymns are sung within the liturgy or service, carols are usually non-liturgical. They belonged to the people, at a time when their own songs were being driven out by clerical hymns in the long history of the destruction of folk music.

But there was a beautiful tenacity about them. They spoke to the singer “as none other song or sacred hymn spoke”. Dearmer, Vaughan Williams, and Shaw searched the countryside rather than the libraries for them. “The holly and the ivy” was one: words and melody taken from Mrs Clayton, of Chipping Camden, by Cecil Sharp, and supplemented by words from Mrs Wyatt, East Harptree, Somerset.

Sharp once took a young man into the village pub to take down the words of a carol, but they were both thrown out because it wasn’t a singing pub.

“The first Nowell” is the processional from Christmas Day to the Epiphany. But in “In the bleak midwinter” there is something static, penetrating; and it is Christina Rossetti’s and Gustav Holst’s bitter destruction of the dance element.

It is fascinating how the carol singer, whether in church or the school choir, or listening to the broadcast, knows when the dance has to stand still, and when it has to have movement or contemplation only.

Herbert wrote two Christmas poems. In both, he at first forgets that it is Christmas, then he hurries towards it. Christmas at Bemerton, maybe. What he never forgets is to sing. He was a lutenist, and he would sing on the day he died.

I remember being the guest of my friend Vikram Seth in Bemerton Rectory, and hardly able to sleep in those old rooms, which would have heard Herbert’s voice. We had sat by his fireside; we had rung his church bell, and sipped from his chalice. But we could only imagine those rides of his around Salisbury. A fit man, he rarely walked.


All after pleasures as I rid one day,

My horse and I, both tired, body and mind,

With full cry of affections, quite astray;

I took up in the next inn I could find.


I see Herbert, not well enough to walk his parish on Christmas Day, quietly ambling around it on his horse with scraps of carol music. Or maybe some great choir, like that of King’s College, Cambridge, in full voice at his cousin’s palace at Wilton. And then, as in Bethlehem, “The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be? My God, no hymn for thee?” and he writes a poem on ungratefulness.

Christmas is full of gratitude for the gift of love, and for myriad small things. And they come together in the winter light.

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