Friday, December 25, 2009

Shopping for a Christmas descant

“The First Nowell,” as various sources helpfully note, was first published in 1823, although the words are believed to date to 1600 or even the 13th century. The melody first appeared with these words in 1833, but is also thought to date from centuries earlier. The arrangement we all know is that of Sir John Stainer published in 1871.

The term Nowell is Old English for the French Noël (which means birth, i.e. the birth of Christ). It's a greeting used for the Christmas feast, as recounted in the Franklin’s Tale (ca. 1395), one of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. (Some call the carol “The First Noël,” but I agree with those who say that if you’re going to say “Noël” then you should say “Le premier Noël.”)

My challenge this Christmas season was to find a descant for our choir to sing with “The First Nowell.” More precisely, I was looking for a descant for one (or two) of our younger sopranos to sing — each with beautiful voices but not a lot of experience singing descants. (As I recall from my choirboy days, one of the joys of being a soprano is that you almost always get to sing the melody.)

Finding the right descant proved a lot harder than it looked -- both in terms of what is free on the Internet and also in terms of the lack of consensus. This despite (or perhaps) because this is a very popular carol for descants. As one website snipes:
"The First Noel" is one of the most popular of all Christmas carols, known well to schoolchildren and to choral music arrangers who try to outdo each other in maximizing the registral sweep of the refrain by piling on lines of descant harmony.
First, I checked my hymnals (Anglican and otherwise) to see which ones had it:
  • Had it: Hymnal 1940, Hymnal 1982, Songs of Praise Enlarged Edition (1931), New English Hymnal (1986). I also found it in the 1975 Baptist Hymnal of the Southern Baptist Convention.
  • Didn’t have it: The English Hymnal (1906) — perhaps why it was in Songs of Praise. It’s also missing from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) and Lutheran Worship (1982): it is because the German-American LCMS types didn’t share a common culture with pre-Reformation England, or was it some other reason?
Then I went in search of descants. Using Google, Wikipedia and other sources, I found at least 5 descants (some just a descant, some involving complete re-harmonization). I don’t have date of composition, but the chronological order of birth for the descant composers is
  1. Healy Willan, 1880-1968, Anglo-Canadian, arguably the most famous 20th century Anglican choral composer after Ralph Vaughan Williams.
  2. Evelyn Sharpe, (ca. 1895-???), who is best known for the "The Bird with the Yellow Bill" and "The hum of the bees".
  3. (Sir) David Willcocks, 1919-, English.
  4. (Sir) Philip Ledger, 1937-, English.
  5. Paul Halley, 1952- , Anglo-American choirmaster of St. John's (PECUSA) cathedral in NYC from 1977-1989.

1. Willan

The Willan was the easiest to find — Hymnal 1982 has the Willan descant for the refrain only. Although I saw one reference suggesting it was first published in 1926, I couldn’t find the original or any evidence of a descant for the full carol.

2. Sharpe

I had even more trouble finding music for the other descants. My best luck was with Evelyn Sharpe — a task made more difficult due to considerable confusion between Sharpe and two contemporaries named Evelyn Sharp (one an English librettist, one a World War II pilot.) Miss Sharpe’s descant was published in 1944 as #27 in Cramer’s Descant Series. (What a wonderful idea that a publisher published a series of scores to capture descants.) However, as far as I can tell, it’s not held in the Library of Congress, and so I couldn’t figure out a way for an American to get a copy. This the one descant that I never heard.

3. Willcocks

I found a ECUSA church in Lexington, Kentucky that used a Willcocks harmonization for its 2007 Festival of Lessons and Carols — both for The First Nowell and three other Christmas carols. The Willcocks arrangement of the entire carol is on YouTube in a 2008 performance by the King’s College Cambridge. The descant is a little hard to hear over the blaring organ, but it’s quite pretty; however, it might require a professional choir (like those from the English choir schools) to pull it off.

4. Ledger

I found the Ledger harmonization in my CD collection. My favorite Christmas collection is an all-star English choirboy compilation entitled “Christmas Carols From Wells & Salisbury.” However, my reaction to the Ledger harmony was almost the same as that to Rococo architecture — too ornate and dated.

5. Halley

The final version I found was that by the (now-American) Paul Halley. Given when it was composed, I was wary at best, and one of the YouTube performances made it clear that this was not the descant for me or our choir.

6th Descant

If you listen to contemporary (pop-ish) performances of “The First Nowell,” there is another descant they are using that’s none of the above. Listening to one of my CDs, I plinked this transcription out at the keyboard:
This is certainly the descant I’ve heard many times before. It’s always possible that this is the Sharpe descant I never found.

Upon further investigation, the descant line in the first phrase is just transposing up the tenor part written by Stainer — making it the oldest of the descants. Kenny Rogers also sang this line on a 1990 CD among my collection of 35 Christmas CDs.

I don’t know where the last two descant measures came from, but it has a voice leading worthy of 16th century counterpoint and ends on the root of the D major chord.

In short, this descant is very easy to sing and thus the one we ended up using. Certainly I’d use it again, unless there was some particular reason we wanted to use the Willan (which was almost as easy to sing, but not quite as dramatic.)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

What Isaac Watts says to "us"

Two years ago, I complained how Hymnal 1982 mangled the 2nd verse of everyone’s favorite Isaac Watts Christmas hymn to elide the dreaded “M” word:
Joy to the world! the Savior reigns;
let men their us our songs employ,
while fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
repeat the sounding joy,
repeat the sounding joy,
repeat, repeat the sounding joy.
A quick Google search suggests that this particular hymnodic vandalism has not only spread throughout mainstream Protestant denominations, but also the American Catholic Church via the modern liturgy of Today’s Missal.

It was the topic of a blog posting Saturday at evangel, the wonderful ecumenical blog (hosted by the Catholic First Things) for right-thinking Christians everywhere. Biola University prof Fred Sanders first notes what my wife, I and everyone else born before 1965 knows deep down: for centuries the word “men” was used to refer to “human beings.” (Don’t get me started on the abominable non-word “humankind.”)

Sanders notes that in teaching on the original text (Psalm 98), Watts wanted to distinguish between the animate human beings and the inanimate remainder of God’s creation. We sing to the Lord because that’s why we were created: to praise God. Watts wants to make sure we’re clear that it’s the people (and not fields, floods, rocks, hills or plains) that are employing songs — rather than “all the earth” of the psalm.

I wish Sanders’ arguments would be enough to win over the inclusive language crowd in the ACNA and other groups, but I’d bet he’s just preaching (or at least drawing) to the choir. Unfortunately, being right nowadays isn’t enough.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Centuries of Christmas hits

A new list of the most popular Christmas carols has been posted by It is based on the Dictionary of North American Hymnary, an index of 4876 hymnals published in North American from 1640-1978. The list is supplemented by “about 40” hymnals published since then.

Here are the first 25 of the 29. The #1 entry was mentioned in about a third of the hymnals, and the first seven were mentioned by at least 10%:
  1. Joy to the world!
  2. Hark! the herald angels sing
  3. Brightest and best of the sons of the morning
  4. When shepherds watched their flocks by night
  5. It came upon the midnight clear
  6. O little town of Bethlehem
  7. Angels from the realms of glory
  8. Silent night, holy night
  9. O come, all ye faithful
  10. As with gladness men of old
  11. Come, thou long-expected Jesus
  12. Away in a manger
  13. O come, O come Emmanuel
  14. Thou dist leave thy throne
  15. Calm on the listening ear of night
  16. The first Noel the angel did say
  17. We three kings of Orient are
  18. All my heart this night rejoices
  19. There's a song in the air
  20. Wake, awake, for night is flying
  21. Angels we have heard on high
  22. Good Christian men, rejoice
  23. Shepherds, rejoice! lift up your eyes
  24. What child is this who, laid to rest
  25. From heaven above to earth I come
The list seems a little odd, but my guess is that the sheer number of pre-1900 hymnals skews the results away from modern tastes (not necessarily a bad thing.)

Last year Leland Ross used a similar exercise (with a smaller and more recent list of hymnals) to select his list of 16 favorite Christmas hymns. The differences might say something about the shifting of tastes, although a chronological sort on the DNAH results would do this more consistently.

From the DNAH list, two hymns Ross didn’t have were “Brightest and best of the sons of the morning” and “As with gladness men of old.” Meanwhile, his list ranked “What child is this” and “Good Christian men, rejoice” much higher than the multi-century version.

One Christmas hymn Ross mentioned that was completely absent from the DNAH list: “Go tell it on the mountain,” first published as a “Negro spiritual” in 1907 — although the refrain predates its publication. Personally, I think adding this hymn (#99) is one of the few improvements in Hymnal 1982 — as opposed to “Good Christian friends, rejoice” (ouch) or its mangling of “Hark, the herald angels sing.”