WE HAVE to thank the Victorians for giving us most of the “trimmings” we associate with Christmas. During that period, poets and composers penned some of the Christmas hymns that have become regular favourites. No family carol concert or church service in the Christmas season can be without “Once in royal David’s city” or “Hark! the herald angels sing”, which date from those times. But it is surely the 20th century that has given us the greatest volume of Christmas music.
Significant publications ensured the dissemination to the widest public. First, The Cowley Carol Book (in two volumes, 1901 and 1919), then The Oxford Book of Carols, edited by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Percy Dearmer, and Martin Shaw, which came out in 1928 (a new edition appeared in 1992, edited by Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott, its shorter companion following in 1993).
But it was the publication of the first book of Carols for Choirs by OUP, edited by Reginald Jacques and Sir David Willcocks, in 1961, and then book two, edited by Willcocks and John Rutter (1970), which really caught on with choirs up and down the land. This was the era of carol arrangements, traditional tunes given a new lease of life with deft accompaniments that are essential for performance. Other publishers have, of course, followed suit.
Malcolm Archer, the editor of Carols Ancient and Modern*, asks the obvious question in the first sentence of his introduction: “When there are so many carol books on the market — why another one?” The answer is that most of the books recently published are geared towards the choir; in other words, you need to be a very good choir to sing the various carol arrangements. There are very few books that serve more modest church choirs, community choirs, school choirs, congregations, or the ad hoc groups who get together as “carol singers”. I know from experience that books such as the Carols for Choirs series are less useful when you want to perform unaccompanied in the open air.
Now we have a comprehensive collection of more than 100 carols presented in sensible and straightforward singing versions. Here, you will find all the old favourites, but also new arrangements of carols with the emphasis on practicalities and singability. Most carols could be sung unaccompanied, or accompanied by a keyboard, but there are comparatively few for which a keyboard is obligatory. Careful thought has been given to layout, and usually the music is on one page while the words are on the facing page, making the volume easy to use. One or two carols spread over a number of pages, but the cloth binding and modest size make the book easy to handle.
The texts include the new (Susan Sayers’s “The mother of Jesus gave birth to her son”, set to the tune Lourdes), as well as the old; and the music ranges around the globe, including the West Indian carol “The Virgin Mary had a baby boy” and the piece I know as “The Cowboy Carol” (“There’ll be a new world beginning from tonight”), as well as the occasional secular number (“Deck the hall with boughs of holly”).
The Christingle service is catered for, and the Christmas season is extended to include Advent and Epiphany. So we have “O come, O come, Emmanuel” in a four-part harmonisation by Noël Tredinnick, and the plainsong “Creator of the stars of night” with accompaniment harmonised by Michael Fleming, as well as “We three kings of Orient are”.
“Away in a manger” is given with its American melody by James Murray, but also with the well-known Kirkpatrick tune. I was surprised that this latter harmonisation was the familiar one by Willcocks: a less fussy one would be welcome.
John Joubert’s “There is no rose” and “Torches” are included, and Boris Ord’s “Adam lay ybounden”, together with Warlock’s setting of those words in an arrangement for choir and organ by Archer himself.
I am bothered by the general trend to transpose down familiar hymns and carols. I would suggest that “Hark! the herald angels sing” and “Once in royal David’s city” will sound less glorious in these lower keys.
The print size may be a little small in some cases, but this carol book is most welcome and, I am sure, will be used widely.
*Hymns Ancient & Modern, £19.99 (CT Bookshop £18) Full Music Edition; 978-1-84825-871-6; £4.99 (£4.50) Words Edition; 978-1-84825-923-2). For details of the publisher’s grants for orders of 20 or more, see carols.hymnsam.co.uk.