Prof. Benjamin Wolf
Due: 02 December 2011
Music is one of the most vibrant manifestations of the Christmas season. Each year, its melodies evoke memories and at the same time invite us to create new ones sharing with friends and family. Carols date back thousands of years ago, but these were not Christmas carols. “They were pagan songs, sung at the winter solsticecelebrations as people danced round stone circles. “The word Carol comes from the Greek word choraulein, which means an ancient circle dance performed to flute music. “In the Middle Ages, the English combined circle dances with singing and called them carols”. “Later, the word carol came to mean a song in which a religious topic is treated in a style that is familiar or festive”. Carols used to bewritten and sung during all four seasons, but only the tradition of singing them at Christmas has really survived.
“Early Christians took over the pagan solstice celebrations for Christmas and gave people Christian songs to sing instead of pagan ones”. However, by the time of the Middle Ages (the 1200s), people had lost interest in celebrating Christmas because most of the carols were written andsung in Latin, a language that people couldn´t understand. “This was changed by St. Francis of Assisi when, in 1223, he started his nativity plays in Italy”. The plays told the story of Nativity and the Babe in Bethlehem. “At that moment, “the priests in St. Francis’ order developed a style of religious folk song called a lauda”. “Laudas had happy, joyful dance rhythms that were so catchy andmemorable that the song form soon spread across Fourteenth Century Europe”. “The religious lauda got mixed together with a popular pagan custom called wassailing, in which people sang from door to door to drive away evil spirits and drank to the health of those they visited”. “What evolved from the marriage of wassailing and the lauda was the custom of carolling, which is still so much a part of ourChristmases some seven centuries later”. Subsequently, the new carols spread to France, Spain, Germany and other European countries.
The earliest carol written was about Mary and Jesus meeting different people in Bethlehem. During the Fourteenth Century, carols were based on the holy family, and they were sung in homes rather than in churches. “When Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans came to powerin England in 1647, the celebration of Christmas and singing carols was stopped”. However, the carols survived and throughout the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, they became popular once again, with many orchestras and choirs being set up in the cities and people wanting more Christmas songs to sing. “It was during this time period that many of our favourite carols were created”. Accordingto Mary Dawson, the author of the article “Stories Behind the Christmas Carols”, the most prolific songwriter of all time is Charles Wesley, who wrote over 600 songs including his most famous one Hark, the Herald Angels Sing. “The melody for this familiar carol was composed by the famous Felix Mendelssohn almost a hundred years after Wesley wrote the text”. “The little known fact is that neitherCharles Wesley nor Felix Mendelssohn would have wanted this music to be joined with these words”. On the one hand, Felix Mendelssohn, had made it very clear that he wanted his music only to be used for secular purposes. “Charles Wesley, on the other hand, had requested that only slow and solemn religious music be coupled with his words”. “However, in the mid Nineteenth Century, long after bothMendelssohn and Wesley were dead, an organist named Dr. William Cummings joined the joyous Mendelssohn music with Wesley’s profound words to create the carol we know and love today”. Dawson jokes: “By the way, if you hear a slight whirring sound as you sing this carol…..it is probably just the sound of both Mendelssohn and Wesley turning over in their graves as they hear us sing the words and melody...