Arts Blog

The Stories of Twelve Carols: 2020 Edition

As we look forward to this year’s Festival of Carols on All Classical Portland, it’s time to again share the stories of twelve famous carols! Our Program Director, John Pitman, has chosen a lovely selection of twelve carols for us to explore this year, and as All Classical’s Music Researcher, it’s been my mission to track down their origins, following the trails of Renaissance dance tunes, Valencian shepherds, plays by Molière, and sixteenth-century English tailors. Enjoy the journey! 

Check out last year’s edition of The Story of Twelve Carols! 

Be sure to tune in to our annual Festival of Carols: five full days of carols from December 21 – 25. Listen at 89.9 FM in Portland, or anywhere at 

Check out our Spotify playlist inspired by this list, with a similar lineup of music.

Riu, riu, chiu

This villancico, or Spanish carol, comes to us from the Aragonese royal court in Valencia in the early sixteenth century. The carol appeared in Villancicos de diversos autoresa 1556 collection of Valencian villancicos published in Venice. Riu, riuchiu has been attributed to Catalan composer Mateo Flecha the Elder (1481-1553), who worked in Valencia as director of the chapel choir of the Duke of Calabria. The carol’s text, which is possibly by Juan del Encina (1468-1529/30), uses a real Spanish shepherds’ call, “Riu, riuchiu.” It tells of God, portrayed as a shepherd, protecting the Virgin Mary from Satan, portrayed as a wolf. 

Partamos a Belén

In Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and many other parts of Latin America, groups of carolers, or parranderos, travel from house to house to sing songs of Christmas called aguinaldosThe word aguinaldo can also refer to a Christmas gift: a musical aguinaldo is really a gift of music. Sometimes these seasonal greetings are sung unaccompanied, but often instruments are involved, especially the cuatro, a four-stringed Latin American guitar. Partamos a Belén (Let Us Go to Bethlehem) is an aguinaldo by Venezuelan composer César Alejandro Carrillo (b. 1957). Carrillo is a choral conductor and composer who is particularly interested in preserving Venezuelan folk music traditions like the aguinaldo. In his preface to his score, Carrillo explains that his composition teacher “always instilled in us the cultivation of this genre in the repertoire of our choirs and as creative work, in order to preserve it from disappearance before the overwhelming invasion of other musical genres strange to our traditional Christmas holidays.” (Carrillo, Dos alguinaldos venezolanosMusicarrillo Ediciones, 2018) 

The Huron Carol

The Huron Carol, or Jesous Ahathonhia, is Canada’s oldest Christmas carol. Its tune is even older than its text: the music first appeared in Italy in the 16th century as a song to a dance rhythm, called La monica. The tune became popular throughout Europe, eventually making it to France as a song called Une jeune fillette, which was transformed into a noël, or French carol, around 1557, with the text Une jeune pucelle. 

The text of The Huron Carol is by St. Jean de Brébeuf (1593-1649), a Jesuit missionary to the Huron-Wendat Native peoples in what is now the province of Ontario. Using the tune of Une jeune pucelle, Brébeuf wrote Jesous Ahathonhia, a new hymn in the Wendat language. Brébeuf’s hymn places the Christmas story into the context of Huron-Wendat religious concepts. The 1927 English version by Jesse Edgar Middleton, ’Twas in the Moon of Wintertime, is not a translation of Brebeuf’s text, though it does honor the spirit of the original by using indigenous imagery. 

Go, Tell It on the Mountain

This Christmas spiritual was first cataloged in 1907 by John Wesley Work II (1873-1925). A professor of history at Fisk University, and director of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Work was one of the first musicologists to make a scholarly study of African-American spirituals. His book Folk Song of the American Negro, co-written with his brother, composer Frederick J. Work, was one of the first authoritative volumes on spirituals. The Fisk Jubilee Singers had included arrangements of Go Tell It on the Mountain in their repertoire for years before the spiritual was first published in a 1909 anthology. The Work family musical dynasty continued with scholar and composer John Wesley Work III, who wrote a new anthem arrangement of Go, Tell It on the Mountain in 1940. The tradition of anthem arrangements continued with settings by composers like R. Nathaniel Dett and Moses Hogan. 

Mary Had a Baby

This haunting carol was first published in N.G.J. Ballanta-Taylor’s 1925 collection, Negro Spirituals of Saint Helena’s IslandBallanta-Taylor (1893-1961) was a Sierra-Leonean composer and ethnomusicologist, and one of the first scholars to study spirituals in the context of African musical traditions. The Penn Normal Industrial School of St. Helena, South Carolina, enlisted Ballanta-Taylor in the 1920s to make a special study of African-American spirituals, especially in the Sea Islands. These isolated islands had historically been a center of the Gullah, a community of African-Americans who created a unique culture blending Native American, European, and African languages and traditions. Ballanta-Taylor likely collected this spiritual from Saint Helena Island, off the coast of South Carolina. 

The Sussex Carol

We can thank Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) for the popularity of this English folk carol. The text had been known since 1684, when it was published by Luke Wadding, a Franciscan bishop from Ireland. Many tunes subsequently became attached to Wadding’s text, but the one heard most today comes from the early 20th-century efforts of British composers to collect and transcribe authentic folk music. Vaughan Williams collected the tune known now as The Sussex Carol from the singing of Harriet Verrall, a resident of the village of Monk’s Gate, near Horsham, in Sussex. Vaughan Williams published his arrangement of the tune in his Eight Traditional Carols (1919), and soon it became a classic of the English carol repertory. 

Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen

This lovely carol is sung in English as “Lo, How a Rose E’er-Blooming.” It is thought to come from the diocese of Trier in the fifteenth or sixteenth century. This ancient city is located on the western border of modern Germany, near Luxembourg. Both text and tune probably developed gradually as a regional folk carol. It draws on a passage from the biblical book of Isaiah which tells of a “branch coming from the stem of Jesse,” traditionally interpreted as prophecy of the birth of Christ. Since the Middle Ages, the “stem” had frequently been depicted in art as a rose. (You may have heard similar iconography in medieval English carols, like There Is No Rose of Such Virtue.) Es ist ein Ros’ is most frequently sung to a 1609 arrangement for four voices by German composer Michael Praetorius (1571-1621). 

The Coventry Carol

Mystery plays, which tell biblical stories through drama and song, originated in the Middle Ages as church-sponsored religious education. By the time The Coventry Carol made its appearance as part of the Coventry Mystery Plays in the 16th century, the tradition had wandered out of the church and become more entertainment than edification. The Coventry plays were presented during Midsummer festivals, performed not by clergy, but by the guilds of the Shearmen and Tailors. The Coventry Carol comes from a mystery play depicting the birth of Christ, where it is sung by the mothers of Bethlehem on the occasion of the Massacre of the Innocents: a story from the gospel of Matthew in which King Herod tries to kill the Christ Child by destroying all the infants in Bethlehem.  

In 1940, The Coventry Carol took on an added poignancy. After the city of Coventry was bombed by Axis forces on November 14, the provost of Coventry Cathedral broadcast a Christmas Day radio message of forgiveness, and then the cathedral choir sang the Coventry Carol from within the cathedral’s ruins. 


The Holly and the Ivy

Evergreen plants like holly have been a fixture of British solstice celebrations since the time of the Druids–in fact, the plant’s name derives from an Old English word for “holy or “sacred.” When Christianity came to the Europe, the church borrowed several pagan traditions for the midwinter Christmas festival: holly, with its blood-red berries and thorny leaves, was used to represent Christ, and evergreen ivy became a symbol of the Virgin Mary. The Holly and the Ivy is a traditional English carol on this topic: its text has appeared in English broadsides since at least 1710, though the carol may be older than that. In the early 20th century, English folk-song scholar Cecil Sharp (1859-1924) collected the carol’s music and text as sung by Mary Clayton of Gloustershire. Published in 1911, this became our standard version of the carol.  

Noël nouvelet

This traditional carol is at least as old as the fifteenth century, when its text was preserved in a French manuscript. The original French poem tells the charming story of a dream which begins with a garden and a rosebud and goes on to reveal the story of the Christ Child. The carol’s final stanza explains that the poem is structured to tell its story in twelve verses, one verse for each of the twelve days of Christmas. The lovely minor-mode tune of Noël nouvelet may be as old as its text. In English-speaking countries, the carol is sometimes sung to the text “Sing We Now of Christmas,” which is such a loose translation of the French that is can be considered a new carol altogether. 

Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella

This is a traditional carol from Provençe: its original title in Provençal is Vénès leou vieira la Pieoucelle. French poet Émile Blémont (1839-1927) adapted a French version of this carol in 1901, as Un flambeau, Jeannette, Isabelle! The best-known English versions are based on Blémont’s translation. The text is inspired by traditional Provençal Christmas celebrations, including processions with torches, and the building of cribs (small Nativity scenes) placed inside model villages with tiny figurines called santons (which means “little saints”). The santons generally included the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, the Christ Child, and other members of the nativity story, as well as visiting Provençal villagers (presumably, in this carol’s crib, two of the visitors were named Jeannette and Isabelle).  

The tune of Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella, comes from an air à boire (drinking-song) which the French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) composed for a production of Molière’s farcical play Le Médecin malgré lui (The Doctor in Spite of Himself) in 1666. Charpentier also composed a delightful Messe de minuit pour Noël (Christmas Midnight Mass), which he built from the melodies of old French carols, including our old friend “Une jeune pucelle” from the Huron Carol. Charpentier might be amused to learn that one of his own secular compositions eventually transformed in the other direction, and turned into a carol. 

Ding Dong Merrily on High

If this carol tends to get your toes tapping, there’s good reason for that: the tune is actually a raucous Renaissance couples’ dance entitled “Branle de l’official.” The dance first appeared in Orchésographie (1588), a book on social dance by French cleric Jehan Tabourot (1520-1595). (He published the book under the anagrammatical nom de plume Thoinot Arbeau, perhaps because dance treatises were not the typical publications of priests.) Another ordained gentleman, the Rev. George Ratcliffe Woodward (1848-1934), wrote the carol text we now associate with Arbeau’s branle. Woodward was a scholar of Anglican church music who published several collections of carols, including the Cambridge Carol Book (1924), in which “Ding Dong Merrily on High” first appeared with a harmonization by Irish composer Charles Wood (1866-1926). As you may have guessed, the Rev. Woodward was also a devotee of bell-ringing. 

For Further Reading

Crawford, Eric Sean. The Negro Spiritual of Saint Helena Island: An Analysis of Its Repertoire During the Periods 1860-1920, 1921-1939, and 1972-Present. PhD Diss. Catholic University of America, 2012. 

Jones, Dorothy E., and William E. Studwell. “George Ratcliffe Woodward, Editor of The Cowley Carol Books.” Music Reference Services Quarterly, 6:4 (1998), 73-75. 

Keyte, Hugh, and Andrew Parrott. The New Oxford Book of Carols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. 

Lamport, Mark A., Benjamin K. Forrest and Vernon M. Whaley. Hymns and Hymnody: Historical and Theological Introductions, Volume 2: From Catholic Europe to Protestant Europe. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2019. 

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