Nine carols from 16 centuries
THE history of carols goes back, if not into the mists of time, certainly into the early days of Christianity, when it was still very dangerous in most places to be a Christian. Carols are an intrinsic part of Christmas for many of us – even those who otherwise only set foot in churches for weddings or funerals. Carols are piped in supermarkets and shopping malls – The Carol of the Bells anyone? – used as the background music for television advertisements and sung in school halls, churches, market places and streets. Everyone knows and loves Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (lyrics by Charles Wesley), God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen (dating from the 16th century), O Little Town of Bethlehem (written by the Rev Phillips Brooks after a pilgrimage to the Holy Land), Good King Wenceslas (originally a 13th century Easter hymn), Ding Dong! Merrily on High (originally a dance tune), In The Bleak Midwinter (music by Holst) and Once In Royal David’s City (1848). We have selected nine interesting carols from across the centuries – some very old, some familiar, others less so, some are personal favourites, others are beloved around the world. They span 1600 years, starting in the 4th century.
Jesus Refulsit Omnium (Jesus, Light of All Nations) is widely identified as the oldest known Christmas song. It is a hymn, composed, in Latin by St. Hilary of Poitiers sometime in the fourth century, possibly for, or after, the first recorded Christmas celebration, in 336 AD.
Corde natus ex Parentis (Of the Father’s heart begotten), although not well-known nowadays, is thought to be the oldest known Christmas song that is still performed at a few churches. It was written by the Roman Christian poet Aurelius Prudentius. The oldest written record appears in a manuscript dating back to the 10th century.
In Dulci Jubilo is still a favourite carol after many centuries. It dates back to medieval times but the exact origins are unknown. Heinrich Seuse is generally credited as the song’s author. According to German folklore, Seuse wrote the song sometime in 1328 after he heard the angels sing the words and joined them in a dance of worship.
Adam lay ybounden, originally titled Adam lay i-bowndyn is dated to the 15th century, possibly a song by a wandering minstrel. Originally a song text, no contemporary musical settings survive, although there are many notable modern choral settings. The manuscript on which the poem is found is held by the British Library, which date the work to c.1400;
O come, O come, Emmanuel (Veni, veni, Emmanuel), a hymn for Advent and Christmas, was originally written in Latin, first documented in Germany in 1710 but the music with which it is best known in the English-speaking world dates from 15th century France.
Gaudete (well known particularly from Steeleye Span recordings) is thought to been composed in the late 16th century, but the melody is probably much older, dating from the Middle Ages.
O Come, All Ye Faithful (originally Adeste Fideles) appears in various versions, including an 1841 translation by the Catholic priest Frederick Oakeley. The original Latin carol has been credited to various people including John IV of Portugal in the early to mid-17th century. The mid-18th century version by John Francis Wade is the one used today.
The Friendly Beasts is a French song, dating from the 12th century, still regularly sung today. It is about the animals (a donkey, cow, sheep, camel, and dove) present at Christ’s birth during the nativity scene and the gifts they bring to baby Jesus. The modern English words were written by Robert Davis in 1920. Over the years, the song has been recorded by singers including Burl Ives, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Cash and Garth Brooks
Silent Night (Stille Nacht) has a special poignancy because of its connection to a short-lived Christmas truce in 1914 when it was sung by English and German troops on the western front. It was originally written in German 1818, with music by Franz Xaver Gruber and words by Joseph Mohr. It was translated to English in 1859.
Pictured: Carol singers through the centuries; the carolling choir of Salisbury Cathedral, photograph by Ash Mills.