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FEATURED SELECTION: Christmas Carols from St. John's

The MHS Review 390 Vol. 11 No.12 1987

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David M. Greene


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There is a flourishing cottage-industry in the English universities making recordings of Christmas music, for which there appears to be an insatiable market. This one includes mostly old favorites. They are sung straightforwardly, revently, and in un-fancied-up arrangements. For those who like their Christmas music present but unobtrusive, it strikes me as just the thing.

As I implied, there are a few relative novelties here, and we might have a brief look at them Balulalow is a simple and ex­quisite lullaby by Peter Warlock (i.e. Philip Heseltine). Set to a 16th-century Scots lyric and sung by one of the boy sopranos. More familiar perhaps (it is in the 16th-century Scots more familiar perhaps (it's in the Episcopal hymnal) is Gustav Holst's Midwinter to a Cnrstina Rossetti poem. I've always felt that Holst captures the bleakness of her landscape in his music, though the effect seems to me vitiated by the inclusion of all the verses.

Patrick Hadley was, after WWII, Professor of Music at Cambridge. His small out­put of music has recently begun to find its way to records, which show him as one of interesting English composers of his time. His setting for boys' voices of the medieval carol I sing of a maiden may be the lovdeliest single work on this record. The Shepherd's Pipe Carol by the contemporary John Ruuer is a pseudo-folktune, characterized by some syncopations and ,ome tweedling by the organ. ­

Elizabeth Poston (b. 1905) was an in­timate friend of Warlock and it shows in her Jesus Christ the Apple Tree, a song more popular in England than here. There is no rose is an honest-to-gosh 15th-­century carol, in the proper sense of the term. Finally, Raymond Williams con­tributes two modern Welsh Christmas songs (sung in translation).

A word or two about some of the better­-known songs. God rest you merry, gentlemen sends Dickens' Old Scrooge into a rage in A Christmas Carol. It is said to derive from the waits, the musicians once employed by municipalities. (Note the pro­per punctuation: the title means "May God keep you happy, gentlemen.") O little town of Bethlehem is not sung to L.H. Redner's original tune but to Vaughan Williams' adaptation of an English folksong.

Away in a manger, long attributed to Martin Luther but now thought to be a "Pennsylvania Dutch" product, is sung not to Spilman's familiar "Flow gently, sweet Afton" melody but to the one by W.J. Kirkpatrick. Hark! the herald angels sing (Mendelssohn's) is an adaptation of a lyric by Charles Wesley which began "Hark! How all the welkin rings," though I like an anonymous child's version: "Hark! Harold the angel sing." Good King Wenceslas, whose English text dates from I 853, goes back musically to the 1582 col­lection Piae cantiones by the Finn Theodoricus Petri Nylandensis, alias Didrik Persson Ruutha, where it was more ap­propriate to Easter.

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