Sunday, December 22, 2013

Golden Age of Christmas Carols

Every reader of this blog knows about the importance of the Tractarian (Oxford) movement of 19th century England in revival traditional hymnody, notably with the efforts of John Mason Neale that culminated with the publication of Hymns Ancient & Modern in 1861.

However, thanks to the excellent BBC 4 series hosted by Jeremy Summerly, I realized that the 19th century brought a comparable advance (and preservation) of Christmas carols.

The sixth episode, “A Second Golden Age”, outlines the role of Neale and Sir John Stainer in the 19th century carol revival. The episode was broadcast Dec 16 (and the BBC inexplicably cancels their back episodes after 7 days). In the episode, the cause of Stainer is advocated by Prof. Ian Bradley, author of the familiar hymn reference.

The episode identifies the key books of carols of the 19th century, all of which are out of copyright and thus (most) are available free online.

In 1822, Davies Gilbert published a collection of medieval Christmas carols that included “A Virgin Most Pure” and “The First Nowel.” A second, enlarged edition was published in 1823.

Many years later, Neale acquired a copy of Piae Cantiones, a 16th century compilation of Latin carols from Swedish-speaking Finland. From this, in 1853 he and Thomas Helmore published their own collection that includes “Good Christian Men Rejoice” and his own carol, “Good King Wenceslas.”

From the same source, Neale translated the text “Of the Father’s love begotten”, which was later published in Hymns Ancient & Modern with modification by H.W. Baker.

Finally, with H.R. Bramley, Stainer published his own collection of 20 carols in 1867, expanded to 42 in 1871 and 70 in 1878. This included “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” “Once in Royal David’s City” and “What Child is This.” As Prof. Bradley notes, this put a large supply of singable carols in the hands of local vicars. Percy Deamer (the textual author of The English Hymnal and Songs of Praise) says “mainly to Bramley and Stainer that we owe the restoration of the carol”.

When looking for these books, I found background information at the website Hymns and Carols of Christmas (HCC) and so link that below. Some information can also be found at the IMSLP (International Music Score Library Project).


Theodoric Petri, Piae Cantiones, Greifswald, Sweden, 1582 (Reprinted in London 1910 and available from the U. Rochester Sibley Library). Summarized at HCC

Davies Gilbert, Some Ancient Christmas Carols, London, 1822 (available at Google Books) Summarized at HCC

Thomas Helmorem and John Mason Neale, Carols for Christmas-tide, London, 1853. Summarized at HCC.

Henry Ramsden Bramley and John Stainer, Christmas Carols, New and Old, London, 1871 (Available at the CCEL) Summarized at the HCC.

Henry Ramsden Bramley and John Stainer, Christmas Carols, New and Old, London, 1878 (Available at the Internet Archive)

Edith Rickert, Ancient English Christmas Carols, 1400-1700, London, 1910 (Available at Google Books) Summarized at the gcc.

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