Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Anatomy of a Christmas Carol





Christmas Carols, songs or hymns sung during the Christmas season, have a history going back to 4th century Rome. The Protestant Reformation actually accelerated the popularity of carols, since Martin Luther encouraged music in churches and composed carols himself. The tradition in England can be traced back as far as the 17th century. One of the finest and most beautiful Christmas carol sequences was composed by Benjamin Britten in 1942. 


John Rutter (b. 1945), who has become a favorite of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (he composed some of their wedding music) has specialized in choral music and has assembled the choral group The Cambridge Singers to perform his own as well as other favorite choral pieces in the English canon. As arranger and editor, he compiled the four volume Carols for Choirs with David Willcocks. Among them are the exquisite carols, "Candlelight Carol," "Christmas Lullaby," and "Christmas Night." 

"Candlelight Carol" became especially wondrous for me when I became trapped in a Philippine province without power after Super Typhoon Haiyan last November. I tried to make the approach of Christmas as cheery as possible by listening, throughout the sometimes unnerving silence at night, to my MP3 recordings of Rutter's carols (after charging my batteries every day using a neighbor's generator) long into the starry nights. My companion and I had candles that illumined our sala (living room), and Rutter's carol was beautifully coincidental.

But even more exquisite is what is probably Rutter's finest carol, "What Sweeter Music." (You can listen to it on YouTube here.) The original carol was composed by M. Henry Lawes (who also set Milton's Comus to music) to words written by the extraordinary poet Robert Herrick. At the start Herrick asks, 

What sweeter music can we bring
Than a carol for to sing
The birth of this our heavenly king?

Herrick seems to remind us that "sweet" was one of Shakespeare's favorite words, and he uses the occasion of the birth of Jesus, a humble event in a Bethlehem barn, to present to us startlingly fresh imagery and a vision of a baby as a bringer of joy and of love to a winterbound world.

Dark and dull night, fly hence away
And give the honour to this day
That sees December turn's to May.

Why does this chilly winter's morn
Smile like a field beset with corn?
Or smell like a meadow newly shorn,
Thus, on a sudden?

Come and see
The cause, why things thus fragrant be:
'Tis He is born, whose quick'ning birth
Gives life and lustre, public mirth,
To heaven and under-earth.

We see Him come, and know Him ours,
Who, with His sunshine and His showers,
Turns all the patient ground to flowers.


How could the announcement of Jesu's birth be more simply and lovingly put than Herrick's line "The darling of the world is come"? No one, to my knowledge, ever called the Son of God "darling." 

Herrick reminds us of the origin of the Christmas festival, borrowed from the pagan Roman Saturnalia - a mid-winter period of feasting, a sudden and, sadly, a brief reappearance of spring in the midst of darkness and cold. It's no accident, then, that Christmas became especially precious to Northern Europeans, for whom winters are longer and bleaker.

Of Herrick, George Saintsbury wrote: 

"The last - the absolutely last if we take his death-date - of those poets who have relished this life heartily, while heartily believing in another, was Robert Herrick."

No comments: