A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Carol

CAROL. The history of this word presents a remarkable parallel to that of the kindred term Ballad. Both originally implied dancing: both are now used simply to denote a kind of song.

In old French, Carole signified a peculiar kind of dance in a ring. This dance gave its name to the song by which it was accompanied: and so the word passed, in one or both of these senses, into most of the languages of Western Europe.

In the English of Chaucer carolling is sometimes dancing and sometimes singing. In modern usage a carol may be defined as a kind of popular song appropriated to some special season of the ecclesiastical or natural year. There are, or were, Welsh summer carols, and winter carols; there are also Easter carols; but the only species which remains in general use, and requires a more detailed examination, is the Christmas carol.

Christmas carols then are songs or ballads to be used during the Christmas season, in reference to the festival, under one or other of its aspects. In some it is regarded chiefly as a time of mirth and feasting; in others as the commemoration of our Lord's nativity. In many carols of widely different dates some one or more of the customary circumstances or concomitants of the celebration appear as the main subject of the verse. This is the case with the oldest known carol written in England, which exists in the Norman French language in a manuscript of the 13th century. (Joshua Sylvester, in 'A Garland of Christmas Carols,' etc., J.C. Hotten, 1861, states that it was discovered on a leaf in the middle of one of the MSS. in the British Museum, but as he gives no reference, its identification is almost impossible.) This points to an important fact in the history of the Christmas festival. In Northern Europe especially the solemnities of the annual celebration of Christ's birth were grafted upon a great national holiday-time, which had a religious significance in the days of paganism; and this has left a distinct impression upon Christmas customs and on Christmas carols. The old heathen Yule has lent its colouring to the English Christmas; and it is largely to this influence that we must attribute the jovial and purely festive character of many of the traditional and best known, as well as of the most ancient Christmas carols. These carols have not, like the hymns appropriate to other Christian seasons, exclusive reference to the events then commemorated by the Church, but represent the feelings of the populace at large, to whom the actual festivities of the season are of more interest than the event which they are ostensibly intended to recall.

At the same time there are many other Christmas carols, ranging from an early period, which treat entirely of the occasion, the circumstances, the purpose and the result of the Incarnation. These differ from hymns chiefly in the free ballad style of the words and the lighter character of the melody. Moreover, a large proportion of them embody various legendary embellishments of the Gospel narrative, with a number of apocryphal incidents connected with the birth and early years of Jesus Christ. For these they are in all probability indebted immediately to the Mystery Plays, which were greatly in vogue and much frequented at the time from which Christmas carols trace their descent; that is, the 12th or 13th century. Indeed, it seems probable that the direct source of Christmas carols, as we understand the term, is to be found (as has been already stated in this Dictionary [1]) in similar compositions which were introduced between the scenes of the Mysteries or Miracle Plays, the great religious and popular entertainments of the middle ages. Three such compositions, belonging to one of the Coventry plays,[2] have been preserved, by accident, apart from the play itself, with this note: 'The first and last the shepheards singe: and the second or middlemost the Women singe.' It is easy to see from this how carols relating to the mysteries of man's redemption might become rooted in the memories and affections of the people. Christmas carols have also been affected by the hymns of the Church on the one side, and by purely secular songs or ballads on the other. The words of a very large number, dating from the 15th century downward, are extant, and have been published in such collections as those of Sandys, Husk, Sylvester, and, most recently, A. H. Bullen; but the materials for a history of their musical character are less copious and less easily accessible. It cannot be doubted that the style of the tunes was that of the ballad music of the period to which they belong: a period which extends, so far as concerns existing melodies, from the 15th century to the 19th. An example of a strictly mediæval carol tune is to be found in that of the second of the carols introduced into the Coventry play already mentioned. 'Lully, lulla, yw littell tine childe,' which has been published in modern notation by Mr. Pauer. Others, in three or four parts, of the time of Henry VII. and Henry VIII. exist in manuscript.[3]

In the time of King Henry VII. and later it was one of the duties of the choir of the Chapel Royal to sing Christmas carols before the sovereign; and it may be that this custom gave rise to the elaborate compositions bearing that name, of which some specimens are preserved among the works of William Byrd. Each of the collections numbered 2, 3, and 8 in the list of his works given in this Dictionary[4] contains a Christmas carol, so called. The first, 'Lulla, lullaby,' is probably the Lullaby referred to by the Earl of Worcester in his letter about the doings at Queen Elizabeth's court.[5] The first strain of the second is here given as a specimen. The third, 'This day Christ is borne,' is headed 'A carroll for Christmas day,' and is followed by 'A carroll for New yeares day.'

{ \time 4/2 \key c \major << \relative c'' { r1 c b2 a g2. a4 b g c1 b2 | c g1 fis2 g1 r | c b2 a g1 r2 g' f e d d e s }
\addlyrics { From Vir -- gin's womb, etc. }
\new Staff { \relative g' { R\breve*4 r1 g f2 e d1 r2 c g'1 a2 c1 b2 c s}
\addlyrics { From Vir -- gin's womb this day, this day did spring. } }
\new Staff << \new Voice = "alto" { \clef alto \relative g' { g1 f2 e d1 e d2 c d d e2. f8 e d2 c | d1 e r2 g1 f2 e2. d4 e f g e f2 g1 g,2 g s } }
\lyricsto "alto" \new Lyrics \lyricmode { From Vir -- gin's womb, etc. } >>
\new Staff << \new Voice = "tenor" { \clef tenor \relative c' { R\breve r1 c b2 a g1 | g2. a4 b g c2 ~ c b c2. b4 a2 g4 a b c d2 b c g g d' e4 c d1 c2 s } }
\lyricsto "tenor" \new Lyrics \lyricmode { From Vir -- gin's womb, etc. } >>
\new Staff { \clef bass \relative c { R\breve*3 c1 b2 a g1 c f2 c g' d e c2. d4 e2 d c g'1 c,2 s }
\addlyrics { From Vir -- gin's womb, } }
>> }

But these were not carols in the popular sense, or for popular use. They exhibit the same abundance of contrapuntal resources which is conspicuous in Byrd's other compositions; nor do they differ, except so far as they may be affected by the character of the words, from other madrigalian music of the Elizabethan era. They may well be compared, both in regard to their structure and their position in the development of vocal music, with the Italian and French examples of a similar treatment of this species of composition referred to under Noel.[6]

The 'Sacred Hymnes,' of Byrd's contemporary John Amner, published in the year 1615, include two 'Motects' for Christmas, each for six voices. The former, which begins 'O yee little flock, O ye faithful shepherds,' is divided into three parts; the latter, of which the first words are 'Loe, how from heaven like stars the angels flying,' into two. There is also a carol, 'Upon my lap my Soveraigne sits,' which approaches more to the character of a part-song, in the 'Private Musicke' of Martin Peerson, printed in the year 1620.

Meanwhile, no doubt, the older and simpler kind of Christmas carol held its place among the lower orders of society; and it reappeared, which these more elaborate and artificial forms of Christmas songs never did, when the pressure of the Puritan ascendancy which prevailed during the Commonwealth was removed. Both before and after that period books of carols for Christmas Day and its attendant feasts were printed, with the names of the tunes to which they were to be sung. These are in most cases popular airs of secular character.[7] But gradually even these musical directions disappeared. During the last century the carol literature was of the humblest kind. Sheets of words were printed for the use of itinerant singers; but if the strains to which they were to be sung were committed to paper at all, the possession of them must have been pretty well confined to parish clerks and village amateurs. Still they were handed on by tradition; and many of them have now been rescued from oblivion, and may even now be heard, in a more or less modernized form.

The first person who attempted to fix these vanishing memories of the past seems to have been Davies Gilbert, F.R.S., etc., who in the year 1822 published 'Some Ancient Christmas Carols with the Tunes to which they were formerly sung in the West of England'; 'being desirous,' as he says in his preface, 'of preserving them in their actual forms … as specimens of times now passed away, and of religious feelings superseded by others of a different cast.' Another reason he gives for so doing is the delight they afforded him in his youth, when, as he seems to imply, they were sung in churches on Christmas Day, and in private houses on Christmas Eve.

The first line of the first Carol in his collection is as follows:—

{ \time 4/4 \key e \minor \partial 4 \override Score.Rest #'style = #'classical << \relative b' { b8( cis) | d4. cis8 b4. a16[ g] c!4. b8 a4 g f e b' b e,2 r4 s \bar "||" b'8 b e,4 }
\addlyrics { The Lord at first did A -- dam make, Out of the dust and clay, dust and clay. }
\new Staff { \clef bass \key e \minor r4 d e g2 a4 b c' b b2 b, e2 r4 s b, e2 } >> }
[8] Its strange tonality seems to indicate a pedigree of centuries, and an ancestry among the Ecclesiastical Modes.
  1. Vol. i. p. 761 a
  2. The Pageant of the Company of Sheremen and Taylors in Coventry, as performed by them on the festival of Corpus Christi, etc, Coventry, 1817.
  3. Additional MSS. 5465 and 5665 In the British Museum contain such tunes.
  4. Vol. i. p. 287 a.
  5. Vol. i. p. 287 b.
  6. Vol. ii. pp. 462 b, 463 a.
  7. For example: in 'Christmas Carols Good & True, Fresh & New,' printed in 1642, the tunes are as follows:—For Christmas Day. (1) Troye Towne, (2) All you that are good fellowes: (the first line of the Carol following.) St. Steven's. (1) Wigmore's Galllard, (2) Bonny Sweet Robin. St. John's Day, (1) Flying Fame, (2) The King's going to Bulleine. Innocents' Day, (1) As at noone Dulcina rested, (2) The Spanish Pavin. New Yeares-day, Green Sleeves. Twelfe Day, (1) The ladies fall, (2) The Spanish Gipsies.
  8. The last three notes stand thus in Gilbert's collection, but they can hardly be taken as a correct representation of the end of the strain.