Carol singing is one of those things which people either love or hate. However, for those in the ‘hate’ category I suspect their dislike is increasingly based on folk memory rather than recent experience, as I think it must be nearly twenty years since any carol singers came knocking on our door (and I’ve lived in a variety of different neighbourhoods in that time). Christmas carols (as opposed to Christmas/festive songs) are almost completely absent from shops, although you might come across a band or singing group carolling on the high street. Yet a substantial number of people in Britain still seem to love carols, as witnessed by the fact that Birmingham cathedral has been packed out twice in the last two days for the annual ‘carols for the business community’ organised by ChaplaincyPlus. If even hard-pressed city workers can find the time to escape their desks for an hour to sing carols, there must be some sort of residual affection for Christmas carols at least amongst the adult population of the country. At such events the carols are usually carefully-chosen favourites which most people will know and enjoy singing. But scratch the surface and the English carol repertoire is vast (recently I loaded 85 carols onto my MP3 player without even including ‘Away in a Manger’, ‘Hark the Herald’, ‘The First Nowell’ or ‘Silent Night’ and suchlike). So if you’re a carol novice want to dig a little deeper into the carol tradition here are nine of my favourite carols (without lessons). Pretty much all of these will be familiar to choirs but may not be more widely well known.
– Of the Father’s Heart Begotten places the Christmas story within the grand sweep of cosmic history. It’s based on words by the C4/5 Roman Christian poet Prudentius, and has a great tune.
– From the ancient to the more recent, What Sweeter Music by John Rutter and based on words by Robert Herrick and affectionately set in the music style of Gerald Finzi.
– Peace o’er the World (the ‘Bradda Anthem’) comes from the great South Yorkshire folk carol tradition, with words adapted from a poem by Alexander Pope. We heard it first on a great recording of folk carols ‘Fire, Sleet and Candlelight’ by Coope, Boyes and Simpson.
– I saw Three Ships. The words are completely bonkers (unless I am missing some ingenious poetic metaphor, Bethlehem was not by the sea last time I looked) but I have just been introduced to a great version by Sufjan Stevens. It sounds like a cross between Paul Simon and a medieval street band – a really fun arrangement.
– A Spotless Rose by Herbert Howells chiefly makes this list by virtue of being fantastic to sing – the different lines of music weave in and out of each other beautifully and it contains many ‘scrunchy chords’ (as musicians like to call them).
– Jesus Christ the Apple Tree, an early American (rather than English) carol, arranged by Elizabeth Poston, holds special significance for me as I came across it about thirteen years ago at a time of real challenge in my faith and life, and it was something of a lifeline, reminding me that whilst it’s easy to become entangled in the human trappings of religion the key to it all is Jesus himself, whose ‘fruit doth make my soul to thrive, it keeps my dying faith alive…’
– I heard John Rutter’s Candlelight Carol at about the same, beautifully performed at a church carol service by four female voices, singing one to a part. At his best Rutter writes some beautiful melodies, and here the words very nicely capture the contrast but also conjunction of the intimacy of an individual birth and its cosmic significance.
– My early carolling education came chiefly through school and church carol concerts and the (fantastic, I might add) Salvation Army carol book. I had little exposure to contemporary choral and organ music so when as a student I heard Tomorrow will be my Dancing Day I was blown away. There are two different melodies/arrangements but I much prefer the John Gardner version with its irregular rhythmic snap and fantastic crescendo.
– Adolph Adam’s O Holy Night didn’t do a great deal for me until I was fortunate enough to sing it with Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus a few years ago, in a powerful arrangement by conductor Darius Battiwalla. Now it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up every time. And unlike many 19th century carols, which can be a little saccharine, this speaks powerfullly of the social as well as spiritual transformation contained in the Gospel: ‘Truly he taught us to love one another; His law is love and His gospel is peace; chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother. And in his name all oppression shall cease’.