Unlocking Our Collections: The Victorian Christmas Carols in Context

Library Assistant Harriet Hansell, BA MA, has used her love for and academic interest in music as inspiration for looking into some of the Library's musical texts. 

A new display was installed in the Library on 3 November 2017 on the theme of The Victorian Christmas Carol in Context. The collection highlighted three printed books from the 19th century that contain the music and texts of various Christmas carols, including some modern favourites, dating from the late middle ages until the Victorian era. Recordings of extracts of the five carols were produced and available in the videos below.

The Victorian Christmas Carol in Context

Davies Gilbert (1767-1839) and William Sandys (1792-1874) were not only both Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries, but also shared a common interest in the popular tradition of the Cornish folk carol. Their interest in the folk carol and, above all, the publication of the two collections of carols on display (see Case 2), helped to initiate a widespread revival of folk carols in the 19th century. Although not all the carols included are still well-known, others are well-established modern favourites.

Although carols are now usually associated with Christmas, the word ‘carol’, deriving from the French ‘carole’, was originally used to describe popular dance-songs in the 12th to 14th centuries. However, from the later 14th century, it increasingly became associated with festival songs (such as the Boar’s Head carol) and, in particular, popular religious songs, which often formed part of religious dramas (the obvious example being the Coventry carol). It is this festive and ecclesiastical use that, although dying out in many areas of the country, continued to thrive in Cornwall in the Victorian era.

English carols of the 15th century: from a MS roll in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge (1891)

This volume shows the late medieval English carol, 'Ther is no rose of swych vertu'. This transcription was made from the version surviving in Cambridge, Trinity College (O.3.58). It is one of 13 carols in this collection. As was common for English carols of the time, it has a two-part contrapuntal texture, a macaronic text of English and Latin, and is in triple time. This version is not only still widely performed today, but its text has inspired numerous modern compositions, the most famous of which is undoubtedly Benjamin Britten’s (1913-1976), written in 1942 as part of A Ceremony of Carols. The growth of the carol’s popularity in the 19th century surely played a part in the increasing interest in this genre by professional musicians in the 20th century, to the extent that composers such as John Rutter (1945-) have become more well-known for their carols than their compositions of any other genre.

Some ancient Christmas carols with the tunes to which they were formerly sung in the west of England. By Davies Gilbert (1822)

A Virgin Most Pure

This is the version most commonly sung today; the melody here is virtually identical to that published in modern carol books. However, although Gilbert’s harmonisation is printed in The New Oxford Book of Carols and is therefore widely available, it is the version by the late 19th century composer Charles Wood (1866-1926), another keen carol revivalist, that is now favoured, popularised by its publication in the iconic Carols for Choirs series (Oxford University Press, 1961-).

Some ancient Christmas carols with the tunes to which they were formerly sung in the west of England. By Davies Gilbert (1822)

While Shepherds Watched

Although labelled 'a psalm tune', this is a different melody to the psalm setting known as 'Winchester' that inspired the version of this carol that is most familiar today. Indeed, The New Oxford Book of Carols includes seven different versions! The popularity of this text is perhaps due to its uncomplicated metre, but also because it was the only Christmas hymn authorised by the Church of England for the majority of the 18th century – this status was granted to another modern favourite, 'Hark! The Herald Angels Sing', towards the end of that century.

Christmas carols, ancient and modern… including the most popular in the west of England, and the airs to which they are sung. By William Sandys (1833)

The First Nowell

Although the earliest known publication of the text of the carol was in Gilbert’s 1823 revised edition of Some Ancient Christmas Carols, it is Sandys who first provided the music for this modern favourite and, until the 20th century, this was the only known melody. It may share a common origin with the Cambourne carol (printed in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society, 5, pp. 26-7) and also with Cornish wassail-songs. However it originated, it is Sandys’ melody that survives, with almost no alteration, today.

Christmas carols, ancient and modern… including the most popular in the west of England, and the airs to which they are sung. By William Sandys (1833)

Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day

This is another popular modern carol that owes its survival to Sandys. The text alludes to the carol’s origins as a dancing song, but also suggests a dramatic context with the line 'to see the legend of my play' – religious songs with narrative texts such as this were often incorporated into religious plays, of which several of Cornish extraction survive, either in the original Cornish or in a later English translation.


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