As we sat at our cappuccino frappes in the trendy café at the Colonnade on Bloor St back in the early 70s my friend John peered over his black forest cake – keep in mind it was the 70s – and demanded to know why they were playing Christmas carols when it was only December 15th. He summoned a rather perplexed waiter and asked for an explanation as to why we were not hearing Advent carols. The poor waiter, and I must admit I until that time, had never heard of Advent carols. But as I quickly found out carols were meant for any festive occasion and though it was a minor penitential season in the church calendar indeed carols had been written to be sung in sacred and secular settings.
I was first introduced to the Advent carol “Lo He Comes With Clouds Descending” on a recording by Maddy Prior that Bob Kerr often played on the lead up to Christmas. In her rendition Maddy follows John Wesley’s admonition to “sing lustily and with great courage” and brought out the dance-like qualities of the melody. There seems to be some discussion as to the origins of Helmsley, the most popular – and possibly original – tune setting with some suggestion it may have come from a folk opera written by Michael Arne and subsequently arranged by either Thomas Oliver or Martin Madan. Madan was definitely the author of a revised version of the original text. Written in 1752 John Cennick‘s text had distinct anti-Semitic overtones and was Evangelical fire and brimstone at its best. Six years Charles Wesley adapted it and gave it a more hopeful and finally exultant mode. Then in 1760 Madan made further refinements to the lyrics to bring us to the version most often heard today. It is also possible at that time that he arranged the music as we most commonly know it.
I had hoped to find Maddy’s very individual jig-like rendition on video but failing that there is a beautiful version by the Lichfield Cathedral Choir. Lichfield is one of the cathedrals in England that is not often on the tourist path which is a shame as these picture reveal that it would be well worth the visit. I believe the descant arrangement on the final verse is by Ralph Vaughn Williams.
I was reminded of this carol last Sunday when we attended a concert by the choirs of the Basilica of Notre Dame here in Ottawa. I’m sure its Wesleyan authors would have been astounded to hear it sung in a Roman Catholic church. And sung “Lustily and with great courage”.
22 dicembre/December – San Demitrio