Nicola here, talking about festive music. In the last week I’ve been to a couple of carol concerts and it’s been lovely. Nothing puts me more in the mood for Christmas than a carol concert, perhaps because I’ve sung in choirs since I was a small girl and so music and Christmas are inextricably linked for me. I vividly recall the Christmas candlelight services I went to with my grandparents (there’s something very beautiful about candlelight these days when so much of our lighting is very bright and harsh in comparison.) I also remember the mortifying experience one Christmas of accidentally gate-crashing a nativity scene when I processed the wrong way and ended up in the manger rather than the choir stalls!
This year the first concert I went to was in the 13th century church in the small market town of Highworth. Highworth is one of those places that most people haven’t heard of but it is a settlement that goes back to before the Romans. The church has a feeling of great antiquity about it and the first reference to a church on that site is made in the Domesday book of 1086: “Radalphus, the priest, holds the church at Wrde.” In those days the town was called “Vorda” “Wrde” or “Worth” (I love that names were so interchangeable at that time) but as it is built on a hill the “High” was soon added. The church has the most beautiful 12th century carved stone tympanum, which is a decorative wall surface that was often placed above a doorway (in the picture). Above that is a squint, where the priest could look through from his rooms above the porch and see who was in the church.
Anyway, I am getting distracted from music. On that occasion the choir sang some carols such as The Coventry Carol and Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day, and the congregation joined in with the old favourites such as Once in Royal David’s City and Good King Wenceslas and we all shared mince pies and mulled wine in the interval. A few days later I went to another concert in the sculpture gallery at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. This time it was the children from the local school singing the carols and they were fabulous! They looked very cherubic and I must admit I felt a pang of nostalgia when I saw a small, serious girl with glasses on the middle row, singing her heart out!
I suppose it’s inevitable that having been a chorister I would associate Christmas music with carols although these days there are Christmas songs everywhere, from the shops to my pilates class where today we exercised to the sound of Jingle Bell Rock and Have Yourselves a Merry Little Christmas. One thing I often wonder is whether the same carols and the same Christmas songs are universally played at this time of year. I realise there must be quite a bit of variation country to country: As a child I learned the French carol “Il est né, le divin enfant” which I’ve never heard in English. But a lot of countries have Silent Night, Nuit Paisible, and other variations.
Many carols apparently pre-date the Christian faith and like a lot of other pagan festivals and imagery, they were adapted by the early church. The Holly and the Ivy is one of these, and has its origins in pagan fertility myths. Henry VIII wrote a version of this song in the 16th century and over the years it has had verses added and removed. So has Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, which dates from the 18th century. One of the original 18th century lines was “Hark, how all the welkin rings, glory to the king of kings!” I didn’t know what a welkin was and had to look it up, discovering it was another word for heaven. I rather like it – bring back the welkin!
Silent Night is one of the most famous carols at all and the story of how it came to be written is a lovely one. On Christmas Eve in 1818 Joseph Mohr, the curate of a Roman Catholic church in Austria, discovered that mice had destroyed the mechanism of his church organ and it could not be repaired in time for midnight mass. They needed something to sing, so he sat down and wrote the words of Silent Night, then called on a musician friend to see if he knew of any music that would fit them. Thus Silent Night was born and has been translated into 200 languages and sung across the trenches during the famous Christmas truces of the First World War.
Are you a fan of Christmas music? Do you sing or play? And do you have a favourite carol or seasonal song for this time of year?