The Stories of Twelve Carols: 2023 Edition
Celebrating the magic of the season is one of All Classical Radio’s most beloved traditions. Each December, our Program Director, John Pitman, selects twelve carols from our extensive Festival of Carols library for a deep dive into their origins.
In 2019, we explored holiday classics like Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and O Tannenbaum, while 2020’s post delved into international favorites such as Riu, riu, chiu and Noël nouvelet. In 2021’s list of carols, we traversed centuries with Medieval pieces such as In dulci jubilo and Veni, veni Emmanuel, and in 2022, we featured some Hanukkah classics as well as the operatic favorite, O Holy Night.
This year, we’re expanding our celebration of the season to include a wide range of languages, origins, time periods, and more, from the 12th-century Wexford Carol to Pink Martini’s contemporary rendition of Vamos, pastores, vamos.
Be sure to tune in to our Festival of Carols on All Classical Radio from December 22-25, and check out the rest of our holiday programming!
Il est né le divin enfant
The buoyant traditional French carol, Il est né le divin enfant (He is born, the Divine Child), is thought to be from the 18th century. Adding to the carol’s mysterious origins, both the composer and poet are unknown. The mood of the piece is joyful and celebratory in appreciation of the birth of the baby Jesus. The text and music of the carol were first published separately in the 19th century, about a decade apart—At some point thereafter, the two were joined into what is now a staple of French Christmas music tradition. Follow along with an English translation of Il est né le divin enfant here.
The Wexford Carol, a traditional piece from Ireland, dates from as early as the 12th century and is among the oldest surviving European seasonal carols. Commonly sung as part of a traditional Irish Christmas celebration, the Wexford Carol tells the story of the Nativity in rhyming verse. The title of the carol refers to County Wexford on the east coast of Ireland. After centuries of aural passage, it was first written down by William Grattan Flood (1857-1928), music director of St. Aidan’s Cathedral in Enniscorthy. Versions of the lyrics exist in both English and Gaelic, though historians have yet to confirm which version came first. This carol is written in Mixolydian mode, so be sure to listen for its distinctive minor seventh.
Personent Hodie (On this day Earth shall ring) is a triumphant Medieval Christmas carol with anonymous origins that, along with other seasonal carols such as In dulci jubilo, Good King Wenceslas, and Gaudete!, was discovered in a 16th-century Finnish songbook called Piae Cantiones. Over the past century or so, the carol has been arranged several times—the version arranged by Gustav Holst has remained particularly popular. Interestingly, the text is based on a Medieval song referring to St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children and the historical prototype for Santa Claus. You can find an English translation of the text celebrating the Nativity here.
English composer and conductor John Rutter (b. 1945) is one of the most influential musical voices in 20th and 21st-century choral repertoire. Both his arrangements of known pieces and original works are familiar and beloved by choirs all over the world. Rutter’s original Christmas carol, Candlelight Carol, was written in 1984 and inspired by Geertgen tot Sint Jans’s 15th-century painting, “Nativity at Night.” Geertgen’s imagery shows Mary and a gathering of angels gazing down at the infant Jesus lying in a manger. Rutter’s carol beautifully captures the intimacy and serenity represented by the subjects of the painting.
A Spotless Rose
Similar to John Rutter’s Candlelight Carol, A Spotless Rose by English composer and organist Herbert Howells (1892-1983) has become a staple of the season, particularly in the U.K. The carol was included in a set of three early works composed by Howells called Three Carol Anthems and uses poetry by an anonymous 15th or 16th-century poet. A Spotless Rose comes across as both simple in its a cappella setting and highly expressive in its text setting. The poetry contains metaphors for Jesus’s birth and the purity of Mary, the “spotless rose” being Jesus and the “tender root” being Mary. The original poem was written in German, “Es ist ein Rose entsprungen” (Lo, how a rose e’er blooming), which may conjure up another popular Christmastime carol.
Cherry Tree Carol
Like many centuries-old songs, the traditional English carol referred to as the Cherry Tree Carol has anonymous origins and likely dates from the 15th century. Over the years, the piece has evolved into an extensive assembly of variations in text and music. One possible origin story for the carol is that it was first used in one of the Coventry Plays, a cycle of mystery plays performed in Coventry, England, in the late Middle Ages (and perhaps also the source of the famous Coventry Carol). To add to the fogginess around this piece, the versions sung today may be a composite of three separate but thematically related carols.
The lyrics for the Cherry Tree Carol relate to an apocryphal story in which a pregnant Mary and Joseph are traveling to Bethlehem and pass by a cherry orchard. Mary asks Joseph to pick cherries from one of the trees, but Joseph refuses, citing skepticism over their child’s paternity. Jesus then commands the tree to lower its branches from the womb, causing Joseph to repent.
Still, still, still
Still, still, still, a peaceful Austrian Wiegenlied (lullaby) originating from Salzburg in the early 1800s, is commonly performed today in both German and English. The melody comes from a traditional Austrian folk song, and the text comprises two to five verses (depending on what version you are singing) portraying Mary soothing the infant Jesus to sleep. The gentle, straightforward tune allows for numerous creative arrangements and makes it an accessible piece for larger groups of singers. Read an English translation of this seasonal Wiegenlied here.
The Seven Joys of Mary
While not exclusively a Christmastime carol, The Seven Joys of Mary has become closely associated with the season in recent years. The devotion to the seven joys of Mary has been a tradition since the Medieval era and has produced no shortage of musical material ever since. Historically, the subjects of the seven Joys have varied; in versions sung today, those Joys typically constitute the following: 1. Mary sees her infant son; 2. Jesus heals the infirm; 3. Jesus restores sight to the blind; 4. Jesus “reads the bible o’er;” 5. Jesus raises the dead; 6. Jesus bears the crucifix; and 7. Jesus ascends to Heaven.
Below is the most frequently performed version of the carol, composed by Sir Richard Terry (1864-1938):
Quem pastores laudavere
Like many of the carols featured in this article, the gentle Nativity carol, Quem pastores laudavere (He whom the shepherds praised), has Medieval origins. The anonymous source of the text is from 15th-century Germany, and variations of Michael Praetorius’s (1571-1621) arrangement from the early 1600s remains popular even today. The carol’s Latin text portrays an outside perspective of the Nativity—the worship of the shepherds and the wise men at Jesus’s birth. Sing along with an English translation of the Latin verses here.
Verbum caro factum est
Verbum caro factum est (The Word was made flesh), an oft-quoted passage from the Gospel of John referring to the Nativity, has been a facet of Christmas Day mass for centuries. Many composers have taken the liturgical text and set it to music, making it a harmonious fixture of the season. Among the most frequently performed versions of the hymn is Hans Leo Hassler’s (1564-1612) polyphonic motet from the late 16th century. In this style of musical writing, the singers are split into two groups and pass the melody back and forth, culminating in a satisfying tutti finish. Read an English translation of the Latin text here.
While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks
While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks is an English carol written by Irish-born poet Nahum Tate (1652-1715). Tate’s lyrics summarize the Nativity story in the Gospel of Luke 2:8-14. Fun fact: Tate’s hymn was possibly the first Christmas hymn authorized for worship by the Anglican Church. As for the accompanying music, two versions have remained popular. If you’re in the U.K., the standard version sung is “Winchester Old,” an anonymous tune from the 16th century. In the U.S., carolers typically use a melody from an aria from G. F. Handel’s opera, Cyrus, King of Persia.
The video below is a performance of the “Winchester Old” version of the carol. Click here to listen to the G. F. Handel melody.
Vamos, pastores, vamos
Vamos, pastores, vamos (Let’s go, Shepherds, Let’s go) is a popular Christmas villancico (Spanish carol) that evokes the excitement and celebratory mood of the shepherds hastening to Bethlehem to welcome the Baby Jesus. The Flor y Canto, a massive Spanish-language hymnal for Catholic worship, credits Spanish priest and musician Evaristo Ciria Sanz (1802-1875) with the authorship of the carol, while other sources assign credit to prolific Colombian songwriter Jeremías Quintero Gutiérrez (1884-1964).
Keep the Celebration Going
Read about more favorites from the Festival of Carols in previous years’ editions of The Stories of Twelve Carols: 2022 Stories, 2021 Stories, 2020 Stories, and 2019 Stories. And be sure to tune in starting December 22, 2023 to hear your favorites played on air.