The Penguin Book of Carols

Bradley, Ian (ed)
Penguin (1999)
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One of the aspects of choral singing which has most fascinated but yet irritated my tidy mind is the unruly nature of the Christmas carol which might have slightly different words in different version, different tunes but, worst of all, tunes and arrangements which are almost but not quite identical. "Why can't they sort it out?" I ask myself every time the choir master points out that I have strayed into an alternative version.

The answers, in the case of 100 of our foremost carols, are provided by Ian Bradley of The Penguin Book of Hymns fame.  In short, witty, scholarly yet uncluttered short essays, Bradley explores the sources of the words and tunes of each item, citing significant variants and, in almost all cases (Silent Night, as the world's most popular carol being a strange exception), presenting the complete original version of the words. I have to say, as a practicing carol writer, that I was deeply consoled to find that subsequent editors of original work generally mar it, although modern taste is not likely to enjoy more than, say, six verses, although it tolerates the execrable First Noel with its tedious repetition and mashed up tune. But, then, as Bradley points out, many of our most popular carols survive in our affections without the benefit either of fine tunes or theologically accurate lyrics which is why, he explains, the Church of England only allowed one initial carol, While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night between 1700-1778 before cautiously adding Hark the Herald Angels Sing and a quick flick through most Church of England hymnals will immediately demonstrate what is still left out. Check in your own book for: The First Noel, See Amid the Winter Snow, Silent Night, Away in A Manger, We Three Kings and God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen (in the case of the last, check the position of the comma in the first line which radically alters the meaning; the kind of detail at which Bradley excels).

Bradley does not over-burden the reader with grand sweeps of historical perspective but it clearly emerges from his painstaking research that the Carol, born in the streets and taverns of the early Middle Ages enjoyed three great phases of development, in the 16th, 19th and, some may be surprised, the 20th Centuries. In some countries, particularly among Lutheran adherents, carols got into church in the 16th Century but in spite of the mighty works of Charles Wesley, it was the combination of the Oxford (Tractarian) Movement, the Victorian sentimental re-invention of Christmas (snow and all) and Prince Albert's introduction of the Christmas tree that put us on the road to where we are now but it was the great folk song collectors such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Percy Dearmer and Martin Shaw, the Editors of the iconic Oxford Book of Carols, building on the work of Cecil Sharp, who scoured the British Isles for carol source material, with a resulting skew towards the South-West, which forms the backbone of contemporary collections by David Wilcocks, and John Rutter, which follow in the same tradition although, if Bradley has one slight referential weakness in the context of today it is his scant reference to the Carols for Choirs series launched by Wilcocks and Rutter, although he quite properly gives Rutter an honoured place in his top 100.

Without specifying its influence, Bradley makes reference to the Nine Lessons (sic) and Carols (it should be "with Carols") which has contributed so much to the emergence of the choir, as opposed to the congregational carol. And it may interest readers to know that when I came to think of my 'Desert Island Carols' half of them are not in Bradley's selection, namely: Carter: Chanticleer Carol; Howells" Here Is The Little Door; Mawby: Ancient Magi; and Tavener: The Lamb. And, of the other four, two are settings he does not cite of old carols. Inclusion of Tavener's now choral standard, The Lamb reminds me of Bradley's caution against theological purity or thematic relevance.

Choristers may like their Carols for Choirs and the more academic types have a rich variety of books to complement The New Oxford Book of Carols (Keate and Parrott) but Bradley's breadth, style and good humour make his book into a page turner rather than a work of reference. One final tit-bit: the famous English words of the world's most popular carol have very little to do with the German original! How can I have sung the two versions all these years and not noticed?