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The beginnings of Christmas music and a few evergreen Christmas Carol favorites
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
St Francis of Assisi
Christmas would definitely not be the same without carols and caroling, Not hearing these being played would mean that something is really amiss.
The best memories many of us have of the season are going house to house, regaling those around with festive sounds and bringing the holiday cheer that everyone has waited for over the entire year.
Yes, Christmas would not be the same without the carol. But how many of us have looked into how Christmas music came to be or thought about the origins of the musical renditions that many of us have become so familiar with?
The definition of Christmas music
In the broadest terms, Christmas music encompasses a wide variety of genres of music, especially so these days. From the old Church carol to the the pop and hip hop favorites of today, I would say that there cannot be too narrow a definition of Christmas music.
Why? Like all music, it is subjective and all of us appreciate so many different tunes. However, this article will deal with the ones we are very familiar with and their historical backgrounds.
A history of Christmas music
The birth of Christmas Music
Since time immemorial, music has always been a feature of the Christmas season and celebrations. Early chants, litanies and hymns were intended for use, as many of us know, as church liturgy rather than as the popular songs we all know today.
The evolution of Christmas music and the carol
Under the gentle hands of St. Francis of Assisi
The 13th century saw the rise of the carol under the influence of St. Francis of Assisi. In 1223, he started Nativity Plays in Italy. The actors in these plays sang canticles that told the story of the Nativity. These were sometimes in Latin, but were more often in the language that the audience could understand and appreciate. The carols slowly evolved and spread to many European countries in different languages.
The earliest carols
In the Middle Ages, the English combined circle dances with music and called them “carols.” The word later came to mean a song referring to the nativity, with the festive element that we are familiar with.
The earliest carol was written in 1410. Only a small fragment of it exists, but it was about how Mary and Joseph met different people in Bethlehem. Most carols from this time are based upon the Christmas story and were perceived as entertainment rather than religious songs.
Prohibition by the Puritans and revival
The custom of going from home to home and treating others to the renditions of these songs began in earnest every yuletide, as the season came to be known. However, when Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans came to power in England in 1647, the celebration of Christmas and singing was stopped, those these carols were sung in secret.
During the reign of Queen Victoria, 2 gentlemen, William Sandys and Davis Gilbert began collecting old Christmas music from villages in England. Hence began the revival of the Christmas carol. Singing of the Christmas Carol, led by popular local leaders like council men, became hugely popular. New carols, like Good King Wencelas, were written during the Victorian period.
The custom of going from house to house during each Yuletide and singing these festive songs in the streets once again saw a rise in popularity. Services by candle light began and the the carols many of us know today, composed in fervor.
Silent Night Boyz to Men Acapella
Some of our favorite Christmas Carols
And so, we come to some of the carols that we are so familiar with today. As you read on, please join in the singing and dance in a circle if you want to!
An Austrian composition by none other than the young priest Father Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber, this has got to be the most familiar carol to all of us. First performed on Christmas Eve in the parish of Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Father Joseph had already written the lyrics in 1815 before coming to the little town of Salzburg a year later.
Father Joseph brought it to Gruber and asked him to compose a simple guitar accompaniment for a church service.
The original manuscript of the song has been lost. In 1935, a handwritten manuscript by Father Joseph was discovered and shows that he wrote the lyrics in 1816, with the melody composed by Gruber in 1818.
Enjoy this rocking acappella version of Silent Night!
O Holy Night Mariah Carey
Oh Holy Night
A melody composed by Adolf Adame in 1847, it was an accompaniment to the poem Minuit Christens (Midnight Christians) by Placide Cappeau. Unitarian minister John Sullivan Dwight , the editor of Dwight’s Journal of Music, then created the singing edition. All texts refer to the birth of Jesus and Mankind’s redemption.
Over the decades, the song has been recorded by many an artiste, including Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey and Bing Crosby.
The First Noel Susan Boyle
The First Noel
A traditional classical Carol, likely from the 18th century or earlier, Noel comes from the French word meaning “Christmas” and the Latin word “natalis” meaning birthday.
The current form of the carol we know today is Cornish in origin, first published in Carols Ancient and Modern in 1823. The version most often performed is written by John Stainer, an English Composer, and first published in Carols New and Old in 1871.
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
This is a poem and Christmas Carol written by Edmund Sears, pastor of the Unitarian Church in Wayland Massachusetts. The words are usually set to one or two melodies, “Carol”, composed by Richard Storrs Willis or Noel, adapted from an English melody.
Hark the Herald Angels Sing Carrie Underwood
Hark! The herald angels sing
This carol first appeared in 1739 in the collection Hymns and Sacred Poems composed by
Charles Wesley. Stoic, he requested and received serious music for his lyrics, not the joyful tune that we know today.
The tune we are familiar with is a result of alterations notably by George Whitefield, who worked closely with Wesley. When Felix Mendelssohn composed a canata to commemorate Johann Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, the music from the cantata, adapted by William H Cummings, was set to Wesley’s lyrics and became the carol we know today.
What Child is This David Archuleta
What Child is This
A popular carol written in 1865 by William Chatterton Dix. He wrote it in a time of depression after being struck with a near fatal illness as the poem The Manger Throne. Three verses of it were taken and set to the English tune Greensleeves, which we know today.
Oh little town of Bethlehem Jewel
O Little Town of Bethlehem
This popular carol was first written by Phillip Brooks, a priest and rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity. He was inspired by his visit to Bethlehem in 1865. His organist, Lewis Redner, later added the music.
In the Episcopal Church, the hymn tune Forest Green is used instead, an English folk ballad composed by Ralph Williams. Another version by H Walford Davies is a popular version performed widely by many choirs.
Joy to the World The Acapella Company
Joy to the world
The lyrics to the popular carol are by English hymn writer Isaac Watts, based on Psalm 98 of the Bible. It is a hymn glorifying Christ’s triumphant return at the end of the age rather than a song celebrating his initial coming. The second half of Watt’s lyrics are the ones we are familiar with.
Lowell Mason set these lyrics to music in 1839. The refrain appears in Handel’s recitative Comfort Ye from his Messiah. The first four notes also match the beginning of the choruses Lift Up Your Heads and Glory to God.
As of the late 20th Century, this tune is the most published Christian carol in North America.
When a Child is born Andrea Bocelli
When a child is born
A popular Christmas song, the melody was Soleado, a tune by Ciro Dammicco. The lyrics were written a few years later by Fred Jay. It refers to the birth of Jesus Christ and the tiny star the “lifts up way up high” refers to the Star of Bethlehem. The most successful version of the song is the one by Johnny Mathis in 1976.
Copyright Michelle Liew Tsui-Lin All rights reserved
Which is your favorite Christmas carol?
All these carols were composed with one aim in mind-spreading the message of love, hope and peace that is the true essence of the Yuletide season. May we always enjoy them in this light!