Silent Night - December
The carol was already an old form of dance and song long before the beginning of Christianity. A popular misconception sometimes these days is that the carol emerged as a sort of jolly hymn in the Middle Ages and which persisted into Dickensian times and on to the present. To find the true origins of the carol we have to look far back in history and in doing this we find that it is not by any means the same thing as a hymn, and also that it is not exclusively linked to Christmas or even the main festivals of Christianity.
Carols did not originally have any religious intention as we find out from the origin of the word. The classical Greek philosopher Socrates had many followers — one of these was Plato (c 424-348 B.C.) who lived in a time when theatrical entertainment was well established. This would be made up of a chorus, acting, dancing and singing, frequently alternating with the classical Greek flute-like instrument the ‘aulos’. The Greek word ‘choros’ means ‘a circling dance’ as well referring to the chorus or choir which performed such dances. The compound word ‘chor-aulos’ as the forerunner of the word carol can therefore be said to signify an often pleasurable form of entertainment which has several elements. The influential Plato was determined that entertainment should not just be for the sake of pleasure but that there would also be an emphasis on truth and a degree of seriousness as well.
Hymns as we have looked at in the last three months have been used by people for thousands of years to give reverence to beings that were regarded as superior, starting in ancient civilisations and continuing into our Christian worship. However, the carol which originally involved singing, playing and dancing for community pleasure was a different category of music altogether from hymns - one in which a community expressed celebration and which might have content that was narrative or even nonsensical, and might contain symbolic language or even be satirical.
These days we have a large collection of songs sung as part of Christian worship and which are grouped under the term ‘Christmas Carols’. Some of these have only a loose association with Christmas e.g. ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ has content which could well refer to pagan rites rather than the birth of Christ; a printed version of this carol first appeared in 1710 but the phrase ‘the merry organ’ which appears in the chorus was first used by Geoffrey Chaucer in his writings in the 1300's. Carols such as these are termed ‘traditional’ and the older they are the more difficult it is to discover an author. Even some of today's well known carols have some strangely mixed authorship histories. An example of this type of composition is found in the well known carol ‘Hark the herald angels sing’ this was a compilation in 1856 by a William Henry Cummings who fitted texts of the 18th century by Charles Wesley (1707- 1788) and a couple of other writers to a gavotte style melody by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Cummings was a singer and organist who as a teenager sang in the choir when Mendelssohn conducted his first British performance of his oratorio ‘Elijah’, he later became a professor and then director at the Guildhall School of Music. However, Mendelssohn was accused of "borrowing" the tune from a Dr. Pepusch who had used it in one of his operas where it was called ‘Song of Mars’, but it may not have even been original to him ! But one thing is clear, out of the assortment of text and music of uncertain backgrounds we have a standardized version which quite rightly has a secure place in our Christmas worship. In this part of the country we cannot look at Christmas music without a quick word about our local carols. Many of the Christmas carols we sing today are from the Victorian era and as they took hold in churches particularly from the 1830's onwards, many older carols which had been sung in churches , often with the accompaniment of local self taught musicians , were in effect moved out to other singing venues, usually the local pubs. The words and music may vary from area to area and as we know have a particularly strong following in South Yorkshire and Northeast Derby shire.
"Silent night, holy night"
Silent night, holy night,
Sleeps the world; hid from sight,
Mary and Joseph in stable bare
watched o'er the child beloved and fair
sleeping in heavenly rest,
sleeping in heavenly rest.
This carol was first penned as a poem by the Austrian priest Joseph Mohr (1792- 1848) in 1816, nearly 200 years ago. The story goes that on Christmas Eve 1818 in the village of Oberndorf he had a dilemma as the church organ had broken. He gave the poem to his friend and choir music director Franz Gruber (1787-1863) who wrote a simple lilting dance- type melody for guitar accompaniment so the carol could be sung at the midnight service. The other verses tell us how the shepherds were affected by Christ's birth and how God's love shines on us, though of course this is not only at Christmas but all year through.