THIS is an excellent book. Its author not only clearly enjoys writing about the topic, but enjoys life itself: there is an endearing, affable readability.
If you have encountered his O Sing Unto the Lord (Books, 27 November 2015) — a history of English church music — then you will also appreciate this new offering. If you haven’t, but do have an appreciation for the words and music of Christmas carols, then you will still enjoy this.
Carols are an embedded part of Christmas in this country. Andrew Gant takes us on a tour of 27 of them. Almost all of them are sacred carols, and almost all of them are for Christmastide. Some are arguably hymns, not carols; but this, of course, is all part of what makes the carol tradition interesting. There is an overall narrative and chronology according to the season, but it is perfectly possible to dip in and out and read individual chapters. Each begins with an opening that piques interest.
The book is clearly founded on diligent scholarship, but it is not a tome of dry scholasticism. For each carol, it takes in aspects of the texts, the authors, the composers, and the history and context. To have some understanding of music vocabulary helps, but it isn’t essential to get plenty out of what you read: it stops short of using musical terms as a conceit. Music is printed at the end of each chapter for those with an insatiable desire to reach for their nearest piano.
There is a joy in the crafting of the sentences: the language is playful and witty, but not inappropriate for the topic. I found myself regularly raising a smile, and even an occasional out-loud laugh. The author, however, is not afraid to poke fun at either himself, or even his book. It’s very British — as British, in fact, as the carol traditions of which he writes.
This is a great book with which to sink into a comfy chair with a glass or mug of something cheering, and immerse yourself. It could even be used as a stimulus for writing a seasonal sermon. I shall certainly be ordering some copies for friends.
Hugh Morris is the Director of the Royal School of Church Music.
Deck the Hall: The stories of our favourite Christmas carols
Hodder & Stoughton £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.29