A Christmas carol

A Christmas carol, is a type of song originating from the English oral tradition of the late Middle Ages (around 1350-1550). It expresses a moment of communion, peace and harmony with others and the desire to take care of those less fortunate than us.

It was above all thanks to the patient and inspired work of Davies Gilbert and William Sandys that many of the ancient and modern carols, still alive in the oral tradition of the rural areas of the north and west of England, were not lost; the two scholars collected and published the precious material in two volumes entitled “Some Ancient Christmas Carols” (1822) and “Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern” (1833). With Charles Dickens the carol takes on new meanings becoming ‘Christmas Tale’ and helping to revive the spirit of the festivities, including singing carols and dancing country dances – and to renew and adapt to a new social context deeper aspects of these celebrations. The sense of community, hospitality and sharing of the ancient winter ceremonies and identifiable with Christian goodness and charity was, according to Dickens, to rediscover his space in society.

In Italy, the association of the carola with the Christian birth seems to originate from the custom probably introduced by St. Francesco of Assisi (1182-1226) to install a nativity scene in the church during the Christmas season. In fact, singing, and in some parts of Italy even dancing around the crib, seems to have been common practice at the time. There is also a link between music, dance and nativity scene common to the tradition of many European countries identifiable with the figure of the shepherds and their singing, playing and dancing with joy for the birth of Jesus. Many of their songs have been collected and published in various anthologies in the last two hundred years. According to James Merryweather, a traditional musician and researcher for the English group “The York Waits”: “These noels and seasonal songs were sung and played in European rural societies in the same way as the carols of the English tradition were sung”. An example of this type in Italy is a traditional Neapolitan song entitled “When was born of the ninth”, which was played by shepherds-bagpipers during the winter-Christmas season as they descended from the surrounding hills of Naples and poured into the streets of the city. The words in the dialect describe the visit of the shepherds to the crib. The song melody was used by the German composer George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) in the Pastoral Symphony of the Messiah (1741). A further revisitation of the piece eventually turned “When was born of the ninno” in “You come down from the stars”.

Most of the traditional Christmas carols can be found in the well-known “Oxford Book of Carols” (1928) by Percy Dearmer, Martin Shaw and Ralph Vaughan Williams and the two volumes of “Carols for Choirs” (1961 and 1970), the first of Reginald Jacques and David Willcocks and the second of Willcocks himself with John Rutter. In particular, the arrangements contained in the latter collection are considered de facto a standard for choral performances in the English-speaking world.

The choir Musicanova has performed and recorded – in the “Singing Christmas” CD, released in 2011 – various Carols, including: “Dormi Jesu” and “The Sheperd’s pipe carol” by John Rutter, “The Sheperd’s Carol” by Bob Chilcott and “Sussex Carol” by David Willcocks.
Like every Christmas, you are invited to relive this magic with us, following us in one of the scheduled Christmas concerts!

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