Friday, December 23, 2016

Victorian Christmas Carols: Making a Joyful Noise

As a historical romance writer, I’m familiar with the argument that Victorians invented the modern Christmas. While that might be a bit of an overstatement, it’s true enough to say that many of the holiday traditions we observe today were introduced by the Victorians.

The Christmas tree—a tradition imported by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s German-born consort during the 1840s—is probably the best-known example.

Christmas cards are another. First designed in 1843, they became increasingly popular as the century progressed, especially after the halfpenny postage rate was introduced.  In 1880, 11.5 million Christmas cards were produced.

The Victorian Age also produced its share of memorable Christmas stories, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) chief among them. And a wealth of actual Christmas carols, many of which are still sung today.

Although I’ve been known to grouse about the onslaught of Christmas songs broadcast over speakers right after Thanksgiving, I cannot imagine the holiday without the music of the season to raise spirits in need of lifting. Here are some of my personal Victorian-produced favorites:

1. “The Holly and the Ivy”: No one seems to know exactly how old this song is, but the modern lyrics seem to have crystallized around 1849.  The identity of its author also remains a mystery—it’s possible that more than one poet had a hand in its composition. But I’ve always loved the imagery in the verses and the chorus, and the tune that manages to be exultant and upbeat in spite of the somber subject matter.

2. “Good King Wenceslas”:  Lyrics written in 1853, by John Mason Neale, an English hymn writer, and set to the tune of “Tempus adest floridum”, a 13th century spring carol.  I didn’t hear “Good King Wenceslas” until my late teens, but it grew on me quickly. My favorite version is probably Loreena McKennitt’s on her album, A Winter Garden.

3. “We Three Kings”: Written in 1857, by John Henry Hopkins, Jr., an American clergyman who composed it as part of a Christmas pageant in New York City.  Hopkins wrote both the music and lyrics, with solo verses for each of the kings, even though these aren’t often sung in modern renderings.  I remember this carol vividly from the Robert Shaw Chorale album that got frequent play in our house when I was a kid.

4. “Deck the Halls”: This is another case of a tune, “Nos Galan” (Welsh, c. 1700s), being around much longer than the modern lyrics, which were written in 1862 by Thomas Oliphant, a Scottish musician. There are a surprising number of variants in several lines of the song, but whatever the version, this is one of the more cheerfully festive and secular carols.  Which may be why I have a high tolerance for it, no matter how often it gets played, though I’m partial to choral renditions, like the one performed by the Toronto Boys’ Choir that playes over the credits of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” (1987)

5. “In the Bleak Midwinter”: Christina Rossetti wrote the words around 1872, in response to a request from Scribner’s Monthly, an American periodical, for a Christmas poem. It was not set to music until early in the twentieth century, first by Gustave Holst in 1906 and then Harold Edwin Darke in 1909. Both versions are lovely, though, and not that dissimilar.

What holiday songs make your season bright?

Pamela Sherwood

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