A Victorian Noël - Liner Notes
The reigning years of England's Queen Victoria, from 1837 to 1901, define the "Victorian Era" for us. Of course, Queen Victoria was only one of many monarchs in the Europe of a hundred or more years ago, but somehow the term Victorian has permanently taken hold in reference to the latter half of the 19th century, with all its faults and all its grandeur.
This collection of carols brings together melodies from Denmark to Sicily, and from the Germany of Frederick William IV to the French Second Empire. But there is no politics here, no history of kings and queens. There is only the universal impulse found in common people to sing when they feel like rejoicing. These melodies, and the words that go with them, represent some of the most enduring reflections of human history.
About the Development of the Christmas Carol
Carols, as opposed to hymns, are not necessarily solemn. Indeed, some of the most popular carols, both in the Victorian Era and today, are happy in the extreme and refer only tangentially to the religious festivals they help celebrate. This is explained by the fact that most carols come from secular, often pre-Christian sources, and have been adapted to suit celebrations throughout the year.
Carols were originally associated with dancing. The very word carol, traceable to ancient Greek drama, once meant to dance in a ring. Eventually, words were sung to accompany the dancing, and later still, the words outlived the dances.
It is St. Francis of Assisi who is credited with formally welcoming carol singing into the church services. In 1223, St. Francis produced the first Nativity scene as part of a Christmas service at Grecchio, north of Rome. The friars sang joyful songs as part of the ceremony, and the result was so popular that both the traditional manger scenes (creche in France, presebre in Italy, and nacimiento in Spain) and the singing of accompanying carols became universal practices.
Among the carols that can be traced directly to St. Francis are some French noëls, the term perhaps derived from the Latin natalis, or birthday. The first noëls, carols which usually told narrative tales, seem to have been passed on by generations of troubadours to arrive intact in modern times.
In 1853, the English scholar J.M. Neale discovered a forgotten Finnish book of European hymns and carols, Piae Cantiones, published in 1582. This treasury of melodies and old carols, all with Latin lyrics, sparked Neale to write and popularize a new series of carols based on the old melodies. Neale's work inspired other English collectors to search elsewhere in Europe for exciting new carols to set English words to. It is on this rich European heritage that we have drawn -- some of the songs unfamiliar and some to treasure anew in this season of carols.
About the Carols
Many of the carols included in A Victorian Noël have gained a breadth of popularity not limited to their country of origin. Also, many older airs had different lyrics set to them over the years in various places across Europe. Some airs from the time of the publication of Piae Cantiones, in the late 16th century, could easily blossom into a dozen carols sung from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean by Victorian times. The countries of origin listed here indicate where the scholars and collectors found the versions included in our source books. Some airs are certainly very old indeed and may be traced far from the countries in which they gained popularity in the 19th century.
Un Flambeau, Jeanette, Isabella (Provençal) -- One of the most popular carols in France and well-known in America, originating in the 17th century, possibly written by Nicholas Saboly. British organist E.C. Nunn translated and published it in English in the late 19th century, helping to widen its appeal.
Il Est Né, le Divine Enfant (French) -- Another French favorite, probably from the 18th century.
Infant Holy (Polish) -- This lilting carol is included without attribution in Erik Routley's collection. Its Polish title is "W zlobie Lezy."
I Saw Three Ships (English) -- From Dr. John Stainer's collection, 1871. The ancient legend associated with this carol refers to the three Magi, whose remains were carried on three ships to Byzantium in the time of Constantine.
The Builders (French) -- Originally a carol extolling the treasures of Angers cathedral, one theory holds that an itinerant fiddler begging for alms first sang it outside the cathedral. The lyrics date from either the 16th or 17th centuries, while the melody, almost certainly a folk tune, may be much older.
At the Nativity (Alsatian) -- Noted as a cradle song in 1697 in Alsace, a region ceded to Germany in 1871, but part of France today.
Bethlehem's Stall (Basque) -- Of unknown antiquity, the Basque title is "Abets zagun guziek."
Fum Fum Fum (Catalan/Spanish) -- The nonsense words of the title are meant to catch the attention of the birds and stars, who then will warm the infant Jesus and light up the sky in his honor.
Patapan (Burgundian) -- The words were first published, in their original Burgundian dialect, in 1842. The credited author, Bernard de la Monnoye (1641-1728) was noted as a writer of both carols and ribald songs.
Christ Is Born in Bethlehem (Catalan) -- From northern Spain, collected by Erik Routley.
We'll Speak Very Softly (Galician) -- This unusually-structured carol comes from the north-east corner of Spain, to this day still conscious of its Celtic roots. Perhaps a whisper of Celtic influence still can be heard in it.
O Tannenbaum (German) -- Sung in America as "Oh Christmas Tree," this carol celebrates the ancient custom first popular in medieval Germany. Originally hung upside down from the rafters, Christmas trees were displayed upright by the 16th century, decorated with candles and tinsel. When the German Prince Albert came over to marry Queen Victoria, he introduced the tradition to England. German emigrants then helped spread it to Scandinavia and America.
Lippai (Austrian) -- A popular carol in the Tirol region of western Austria. The tune is typical of Austrian country dances called "Ländler."
Lovely Is the Dark Blue Sky (I) -- This traditional tune was given Danish lyrics by Nicolai Grundtvig in the mid-19th century.
Come Hear the Wonderful Tidings (Bohemian) -- Sung in both Czech and German in the bilingual region of Bohemia, this carol is based on a Bohemian folk song dating from 1870. The Czech title is "Nesem Vam Noviny."
In Dulci Jubilo (German) -- This medieval German carol was popularized in Victorian England when J.M. Neale put new lyrics to it in the 1850s.
Shepherd's Cradle Song (German) -- From the original "Schlaf wohl, du Himmelsknabe du," credited to Karl Leuner in 1814.
Canzone d'i Zampognari (Sicilian) -- "The Carol of the Bagpipers" has for centuries been played by carolers strolling in the streets the nine days before Christmas. Handel borrowed the air to use in one section of his Messiah.
Gabriel's Message Does Away (Finnish/English) -- The air was first published in Piae Cantiones in 1582. The current English lyrics date to 1853.
Adam and His Helpmate (Provençal) -- Sung in Provence as "Adam e sa coumpagno," this air is known all over France.
Masters in This Hall (French) -- Collected by English carol compiler Edmund Sedding in the cathedral city of Chartres, and first published with English lyrics in 1860. This ancient air is often used as a processional.
Wherefore This Great Joy (French) -- Best known in North America as "Angels We Have Heard on High" this version collected by Erik Routley has Cornish words set to the old French air.
To Bethlehem (Basque) -- Called "Eguberriren jitiaz" in Basque, the English lyrics were set by S. Baring-Gould.
The Message (Dutch) -- This carol was collected from Nederlandsch Volksliederenboek, published in 1896.
As Lately We Watched (Austrian) -- Both melody and lyrics are traditional, dating from the 19th century.
Primary sources used for compiling the carols in A Victorian Noël include:
Dearmer, P., M. Shaw, and R. Vaughan Williams, eds., The Oxford Book of Carols. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1928.
Students of the most ancient carols are also encouraged to find:
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