5 December 2012

Christmas Carols: Regency Style

'Christmas-Carols' by Henry Heath, 1835.

Carols are different from hymns, they are generally more joyous, often deriving from folk music (especially the older ones) and would have originally involved folk dances as well as the music. Due to this, carols have not always been predominantly sung in church, though they have become very much linked with the church choir now, and were often printed (as the folk ballads were) for people to buy and sing for pleasure, either at home or in public. Many of these original prints survive, I have found some printed in Birmingham from the early 1800s but have published for this post some printed in the town in 1826. Song or ballad singing was a very popular part of everyday life at this time, so singing Christmas carols was not a big departure from usual forms of entertainment, though the songs were, of course, seasonal. We can only guess about the style in which many of the carols were sung.

The carols in this post were printed in Birmingham by Charles Watson, later to become a wealthy printer, this was the only year that Watson produced songs or ballads of any kind. This was possibly his first venture; the address is shown as Jamaica Row, he later moved to High Street (c. 1831), a great improvement of address at the time. This may hint that the printed carols sold well, so were very popular. Christmas, during this period though, was not the 'event' that it has become today due to the enthusiasm of the Victorian's for the holiday.

Although some of the carols printed in 1826 may be familiar not all their tunes would be, as for a number of the carols that we sing today the music was re-written over the Victorian period. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, for example, was written by Charles Wesley in 1739, amended by George Whitfield in 1753, and was originally sung to a solemn melody. The more joyful tune that we sing it to today was written by Mendohlsson in 1840 and widely adopted by 1855.

From the Bodleian Library
Click on the orange links to listen to examples of the carols.

1) The carols 'The Fountain of Christ's Blood', 'Hark, Hark, What News?', 'The Babe of Bethlehem' and 'Arise and Hail the Sacred Day'.
2) 'A New Carol on the Birth of Our Savior'.
3) 'When War on Earth', 'Angels From the Realms', 'Hark! The Herald Angel' and 'Stupendious Stranger'.
4) 'The Scene &c', 'The Condemnation', 'Awake! Awake!' and 'Bright is the Morn'.
5) 'The Virgin Unspotted', 'Christmas at Hand', 'While Shepherds Watch', 'To Adam Thus' and 'Rejoice and be Merry'.
6) 'The Best Wisdom-A Carol for the New Year', 'Good Things to All People', 'Christ's Love to Sinners' and 'The Nativity of Christ'.

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