This carol has everything – a jaunty organ part (complete with jaunty organist); a cheery tune; an arrangement of such devilish complexity that I don’t think a single bar is repeated; a startling high note in the refrain and a sweeping descant to round off the final verse. The main tune is a traditional one, but the lyrics and that lively refrain are the work of our old friend George Ratliffe Woodward, whom I can’t however love wholeheartedly because he also gave us Ding Dong Merrily and you know how I feel about that one. This one, though, I love wholeheartedly.
Is it bad that everything about this carol makes me laugh? From the exclamation mark in its title through the endlessly silly “Ding dong ding” refrain (and the way at slows at the end, presumably to give more import to the dinga-donga-dings) to the charming “will this do?”-ness of the lyric
In a stable
(‘Tis no fable)
And all of that is before you notice that it careens into Latin in the final verse for no discernible reason except possibly because it fits the tune better. This estimable series of decisions was made by George Ratcliffe Woodward, a(nother) nineteenth-century Anglican priest who set his lyrics to a tune from the Piae Cantiones, composed in 1582 by a Finnish Catholic and published the same year by a Swedish Lutheran, making this quite possibly the most ecumenical of our carols so far. It’s still silly, though.
We’ve had this one before, back when we were doing carols from around the world, but the version that has made it into the King’s College choir repertoire is less jolly, sweeter and quite spectacularly beautiful. Listen in particular to all the vocal parts which aren’t the tune, each of which does its own thing and meanders around something only vaguely connected to what everyone else is singing, and yet the whole thing together sounds perfect. If you are a choir looking for something to learn and sing this Christmas, learn and sing this (as long as you have some confident sopranos somewhere in the mix).
All my life, I’ve envied people who had a career plan. People who, at school, knew what they wanted to do and were able to pick GCSEs and A Levels that would let them go ahead and do it. I especially envied people who wanted to do a job whose purpose everyone understood instantly – a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, a vet. Nobody ever asked those people what they do and then stood around looking politely perplexed when they heard the answer.
I can’t ever remember knowing what I wanted to do. I went to a school where you had to pass an exam and then – unless you did so well in the exam that they gave you a place right away – attend an interview. Quite what they look for in ten-year-olds I don’t know, but I do remember my mum coaching me for the interview by asking me questions that she thought might come up. When she asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I thought about it for a moment and then said “a waitress”.
(I was a waitress, for a night, at a pub in West Wickham, when I was twenty-two. My first task was to take two plates of food out to the customers who had ordered them. I checked the table number, checked the table plan on the kitchen wall and confidently walked over to the customers with their meals, only realising as I reached them that I had no idea what was on each plate. “A sort of stew, and…something with meat?”, I asked them uncertainly. I never did another shift at that pub.)
Actually there was one thing I wanted to be, which was a theatrical lighting designer. I did the lighting for all our school plays and I loved it. There was something about being able to make perfect and ephemeral art by pressing buttons and sliding dials that thrilled me, and I also liked being an expert (nobody else was interested in the lights, so I was the only person who knew how they worked). But when I put this ambition to my school careers officer it was pooh-poohed, and I was told that I could work in the theatre as a hobby, but it was important to have a proper job (by which they meant, one that required a degree). I still think I’d have liked to be a lighting technician, although I have become less confident with climbing ladders in the intervening years so it’s probably too late now. You have to climb a lot of ladders when you do the lights.
So I chose the subjects which seemed easiest and most interesting at GCSE and A Level, and I did the same when I went to university, which is how I ended up with a degree in art history. And while I was doing that degree I got genuinely fired up about architecture and urbanism, but I knew I didn’t have the time or money to study architecture so I thought maybe I’d be an architectural writer, but that’s not a thing you can do from scratch. I did a Master’s and in the course of it found myself talking to a retired professor at Harvard University, and ably guided by him I came up with what seemed to me to be a brilliant idea for a doctoral thesis, but I was tired of being skint, so after I got my Master’s I went and got a job instead. And then another job, and another, falling into each of them through friends and friends-of-friends, never with a plan or a prospect or a great deal of enthusiasm. Somehow, accidentally, I ended up being a person who worked in digital media, and then I did it for long enough that I became a person who had lots of experience in digital media, and then I became a person who was head-hunted for jobs in digital media, and all the time I had intermittent bursts of enthusiasm interspersed with long periods of indifference and occasional bouts of active loathing.
And then I started doing the job I do now, which is still a digital media job but is also a charity job, and through it I have met people who work in other charities, big and small, as well as people who are starting their own charities, or branching off from existing charities to do new things, or who have benefited or continue to benefit from the work that charities do – people who have never chased money or glamour or excitement in the pursuit of their careers, but who have instead committed their lives to making the world better in one way or another. And these people whom I once would have thought of, had I given them any thought at all, as worthy, serious people doing work that would never appeal to me; these people turn out to be the most engaging, funny, perceptive, interesting and interested people I have ever worked around. On Friday I spent the day in Hull with some folks who are working on the HullCoin project, which will introduce a virtual currency that can be exchanged for work that benefits the local community, which has all sorts of really exciting social, technological, financial and even political potential, and the passion and expertise and focus that they all showed made me realise: this is work that actually matters, and isn’t that novel and exciting?
So I find myself thinking, maybe this is what I want to be when I grow up. I’ll keep you posted.
Another nineteenth-century carol today, this time from France, although I’ve heard so many easy-listening renderings of it that if you’d asked me a week ago I would probably have guessed it was a mid-twentieth century American number. This recording is taken from the same performance, on Christmas Eve 2009, as yesterday’s version of We Three Kings, for which I make no apology because it is, once again, perfection. If you heard an actual choir of real angels, it would sound like this.
(Well, OK, actually there is a very slight wobble on the top note towards the end, but since the singers are humans and not angels, and since the sopranos are mostly very little boys, I forgive them completely.)
The most exciting thing to happen at my annual school carol service at St Paul’s church in Locksbottom came when I finally got to the fifth year, because we always used to have the first and second-years sing Gaspar (Gold), the third and fourth-years sing Balthazar (Frankincense) and the fifth-years and sixth-formers sing Melchior (Myrrh), which meant that in 1992, 1993 and 1994 I got to sing what must be the hair-standing-on-end-est lyric in any carol anywhere:
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in a stone-cold tomb*
People reading in a hurry would often confuse the word order in the last line and sing “sealed in a cold stone tomb”, which illustrates nicely how perfect and poetic the correct line is. And the words start good and stay good – I still shiver in a good way at Heaven sings ‘Alleluia’ – ‘Alleluia’ the Earth replies.
Anyway, it turns out that John Henry Hopkins, Jr, the Pennsylvanian rector who wrote We Three Kings (shout out once again to the nineteenth-century clergy, source of so much carolling goodness), intended that the three middle verses should be sing by three soloists, and that is how King’s College choir perform it here, and what’s more they clearly also know that the third verse is the money shot. Watch and you’ll see what I mean. And keep watching until the final note, which is a proper fist-pump moment. And watch in full-screen with the sound turned up high, because everything about this video is brilliant.
*”Congratulations, it’s a boy!”
I’m sorry this so late, but it’s been a busy day: I’ve
(wait for it)
…been to Hull and back.
Anyway, I Saw A Maiden, also known as Lullay Myn Lykyng (and isn’t that a better name?) started life as a middle English poem, the text of which (you can find the original in the British Library) was written in the fifteenth century, making it our oldest carol so far, although the music is from later. It is, as you will have discerned, a lullaby, but this time it’s about Mary singing to Jesus, so we needn’t be harrowed at the hands of any massacres this evening. Good.
I can’t find a video for this song, so you’ll have to be content with a Spotify link and this picture of the Humber Bridge, which isn’t taken by me because my picture of the Humber Bridge was rubbish.
I love this one, and only partly because its Glooooooooooooria chorus is so much prettier and more fun to sing than Ding Dong Merrily’s (actually that is the main reason. I hate Ding Dong Merrily, like, I actually get cross when I hear it. I’m not saving it for later; it’s not making an appearance at all. Sorry). This is another good solid nineteenth-century effort, and while I can’t think of anything else interesting to say about it, this unaccompanied rendering does show off the choir’s voices in all their perfection.
I can remember singing, or at least hearing, an English language version of this, but traditionally it is sung in Latin and is kind of terrifying. This is all the fault of Gustav Holst, whose setting this is, and whose use of unison singing combined with that crashing organ part goes not at all well with the words, which if you translate them are certainly steadfast and vigorous, but not actively frightening. However, despite its sixteenth-century Scandinavian origin as a song sung on St Nicholas’s Day (December 6th, so I am playing hard and fast with our dates here, sorry), it has in more recent times become associated with the massacre of the innocents (I know! It’s surprising how many people must at some stage have thought this was an occasion to be sung about), and so I imagine it’s intentionally disconcerting. Tomorrow’s song is sweetness and light, I promise.
This carol has my favourite origin story of all (so far). Accounts vary, but everyone seems to agree that composer Peter Warlock and lyricist Bruce Blunt wrote the carol together in 1927, entered it into a Christmas carol-writing contest that the Daily Telegraph was running, won the competition and, as Blunt later put it, “had an immortal carouse on the proceeds”. I think that from now on whenever I go out drinking I will refer to it as an “immortal carouse”. It may have had a prosaic inception, but the words and the melody are both so beautiful that today I am going to share both with you:
When he is King we will give him the Kings’ gifts,
Myrrh for its sweetness, and gold for a crown,
Beautiful robes, said the young girl to Joseph,
Fair with her first-born on Bethlehem Down.
Bethlehem Down is full of the starlight –
Winds for the spices, and stars for the gold,
Mary for sleep, and for lullaby music
Songs of a shepherd by Bethlehem fold.
When he is King they will clothe him in grave-sheets,
Myrrh for embalming, and wood for a crown,
He that lies now in the white arms of Mary,
Sleeping so lightly on Bethlehem Down.
Here he has peace and a short while for dreaming,
Close-huddled oxen to keep him from cold,
Mary for love, and for lullaby music
Songs of a shepherd by Bethlehem fold.