A Carol for Christmas VII – The Innocents

More years ago than I care to remember I was part of a group performing the “Nativity” from the Coventry Mysteries at St Thomas Huron Street in Toronto.  In the spirit of the original we performed the pageants on stages set up around the church and the audience followed from stage to stage.  The plays had been freely adapted by our director Don Mcgill – whose voice was known to anyone who listened to CBC radio in the 1960-70s – but keeping a good deal of the language of the original at times it was almost like performing in a foreign tongue.  To this day I remember that “mickle” is Middle English for “great”.  And I had a role in the pageants involving Mickle Herod – Herod the Great, his interview with the Magi and the Slaughter of the Innocents.

This Slaughter of the Innocents is one of the
Rotterdam Bible tiles adorning the walls of the
kitchen at Wachau Castle in Saxony.

My dear friend Jim was a big man – well over six feet five and stocky – and he got the “big” role of Herod and I – smaller and, in those days, slimer – was his snivelling, groveling clerk.  Herod was of course the “bad Jew” – and was always dressed in black and gold with flaming red hair, red side-locks, a large hook nose and a bombastic bellow meant to elicit laughter from the crowd.  In those first performances he would probably have been the butt of catcalls, heckling and perhaps even the odd piece of rotten fruit. That half-comic, half-villainous Herod of the Mysteries was to greatly influence the portrayal of Jews in both Marlowe and Shakespeare.  Until Edmund Kean’s sympathetic Shylock in 1814, perhaps the most famous Jewish character in English literature had been played as a repulsive and evil clown.  It has been suggested that the famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech would have been greeted with great laughter in Shakespeare’s time.

The face of Herod is created by the bodies of
 the innocents he is said to have slaughter in this
grotesque painting by Giuseppe Arcimboldo.
Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum, Innsbruck

In our version Don had Jim ignore Hamlet’s advise to the players that they must not “out-Herod Herod”.  A great bellowing figure in black with a flame red beard and side-locks wielding a gigantic scimitar he chased me – cringing, whinging and dodging – around in a knockabout routine – sort of the Frick and Frack of Middle England. 

Being St Thomas music was very much a part of the performance as it would have been during the Middle Ages.  As I noted earlier many carols were meant to accompany these pageants and were sung – and perhaps even danced – as interludes as the wagons moved from place to place.  Though the Coventry Carol did not appear in written form until the early 1500s it is quite possible it was written earlier as musical accompaniment for the Slaughter of the Innocents in the Cycle of Mysteries that had been presented by the the Shearmen and Tailors’ Guild at Coventry beginning in 1392.

There are many versions available but I find this one by the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers has a particularly lovely blending of voices.

Though there is a great deal of ambiguity in the lyrics – the only know copy of the original text was burned in 1875 and it has come down to us in two very bad transcription – it is both a lullaby and a lament.  A mother – perhaps the Virgin herself – rocks her child and sees in its future a sad ending.

Historically this is some doubt about the events as described in St Mathew’s Gospel – there is no historical record of such a massacre.  It is recorded that Herod had his own young sons put to death to secure his throne.  Perhaps Mathew expanded on this event as a link to the prophecy of Jeremiah concerning the coming of the Messiah: A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and greet mourning, Rachel weeping for her children.   And perhaps that is what we are really hearing in this simple but beautiful carol – Rachel weeping for her own and all children lost to violence.

28 dicembre/December – Strege degli Santi Innocenti

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Lunedi Lunacy

To All My Left-wing and Liberal Friends:

Please accept with no obligation, implied or explicit, my best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low-stress, non-addictive, gender-neutral celebration of the summer/winter solstice holiday, practiced within the most enjoyable traditions of the religious persuasion of your choice, or secular practices of your choice, with respect for the religious/secular persuasion and/or traditions of others, or their choice not to practice religious or secular traditions at all. I also wish you a fiscally successful, personally fulfilling and medically uncomplicated recognition of the onset of the generally accepted calendar year 2012, but not without due respect for the calendars of choice of other cultures whose contributions to society have helped make Canada a great nation. Not to imply that this country is necessarily greater than any other country in the world. Also, this wish is made without regard to the race, creed, colour, age, physical ability, religious faith or sexual preference of the wishee.

To My Right-wing Friends:

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

With thanks to Vicki for the initial wish – I am assuming she considers me right-wing?????


26 dicembre/December – San Stefano protomartire

A Carol for Christmas VI – Silent Night 1914

The most famous story about, perhaps the most popular of Christmas carols, “Silent Night” involves a broken organ in the Nikolaus-Kirche in Oberndorf in 1818.  Legend says that Joseph Mohr brought the lyrics to Franz Gruber and asked for a melody that he could play on his guitar.  Whither that is fact or legend is a small point – it is a carol that has been recorded by artists as varied in musical genre as Mahalia Jackson, Kathleen, Battle,  Luciano Pavarotti and Annie Lennox and translated into at least 40 different languages.

It is this universality that led to one of the strangest episodes of the First Great War: the Christmas truces of 1914.  Those unexpected episodes leading up to Christmas of that year when British, German and to some small extent French troops left their trenches and met in New Man’s Land.  For a brief time in that bloody conflict men exchanged greetings, cigarettes, played football and it is said sang carols together – the one carol each knew, in their own language, was Silent Night.

I’ve chosen not one of the many versions of this beloved carol that is on YouTube but a song that commemorates that fragile and brief peace.  It appears that Cormac MacConnell who wrote the song may have altered the year but captures the spirit of those amazing moments; and Jerry Lynch brings a sincere beauty to even the sad brutality of the last verse.

And this is for all my dear friends and all those serving overseas – may there soon be a peace that will bring you home to your families and loved ones so there is never again a need for a Christmas truce.


24 dicembre/December – La Vigilia di Natale

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A Carol for Christmas V – For Dolly

On Christmas morning 1745 Dorothy Byrom received a special gift. Though he had several children little Dolly was John Byrom’s particular favourite and he had promised her that he would write something just for her to celebrate the Feast Day. Amongst the presents waiting for her that morning Dolly found an envelope and an excited little girl opened it before anything else. To her delight it was a poem bearing the heading Christmas Day for Dolly. We know it better by its first line: Christians Awake, Salute the Happy Morn.

John Byrom’s original text of “Christians awake, salute the happy morn”
which little Dolly found amongst her Christmas gifts on that morning in 1745.

It was to be published the following year in Harrop’s Manchester Mercury and was set to music in 1750 by John Wainwright. Little is known about the composer – he was organist at the Collegiate Church in Manchester and in 1766 published a collection of Hymns, Psalms and Chants. 
Somewhere in my collection I have a recording of this joyous carol by The Huddersfield Choral Society – arguably the premiere amateur choir in the British Isles – and again was hoping to find them on YouTube. Unfortunately their full-throated – is there anything quite like an English choir in full voice? – rendition was not there but I did find an equally delightful if smaller scaled version.

This quartet of well-known British singers recorded it in 1948 for Victor.  Regarded as one of the great English oratorio singers of the 20th century Isobel Baillie was a petit Scottish soprano with a silvery voice. She is joined by Gladys Ripley, a well-respect contralto who was a great favourite of Sir Adrian Boult, tenor John McHugh and Australian baritone Harold Williams.   Perhaps this is the way it was sung in the Byrom great room and many other homes on Christmas mornings after Wainwright had set it to music.

23 dicembre/December – San Giovanni da Kety

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A Carol for Christmas III – The Watchman’s Cry

Before the creation of the unified Metropolitan Police in 1829 the twisting alleyways and dark streets of London were guarded at night by watchmen. In medieval times the watch fell to local householders who, as part of their civic duty, were required to serve a watch, patrolling the streets from 8 or 9 o’clock at night until sunrise. Unpaid and unarmed they were expected to challenge any villainous characters lurking in the boundaries of their parish.  As the city grew so did the problems of urban unrest and the task of patrolling the streets and seeing to the disreputable and unruly fell to a salaried force of watchmen.  The rising merchant class saw an advantage to get a full night’s sleep and in paying a small tax to have their homes and boundaries guarded by a paid force.

The Watchmen at St Marylebone prepare for their nightly duties.
The Microcosm of London published 1808-1810.

The watchmen were employed by parish and city councils and armed with little more than their lantern, a staff and their dogs their duty was to apprehend loose women, drunks, armed thugs and, perhaps worse, gentlemen out on a rout and take them to the local watchhouse.  They would then be turned over to the authorities to be seen to and punished – often harshly – for their criminal deeds or unseemly behavior.   The watchmen were often ridiculed in the playhouse and literature  – Shakespeare takes the mickey in Much Ado About Nothing with bumbling Dogberry and his coherts – but still to the average householder the watchman’s cry of the clock and assurance that all was well – if indeed it had not disturbed them from their sleep – allowed them to rest easier. 

Though by 1924 the watchman’s cry had long disappeared from the streets of London it was to reappear in the carol “Past Three A Clock and A Cold Frosty Morning” in The Cambridge Carol-Book, Being Fifty-Two Songs for Christmas, Easter and Other Seasons, published by the Society for Promoting Christian KnowledgeGeorge Ratcliffe Woodward wrote the text and the music was arranged by Charles Wood.  An Anglican clergyman, Woodward was fascinated by old carols and  known for his ability to write verse in a pseudo-Renaissance style and frequently Wood collaborated with him,  adapted his lyrics to old melodies or composed new tunes in the old style.  A teacher at the Royal College of Music Wood counted Ralph Vaughan Williams and Herbert Howells amongst his students.  His settings of the Anglican mass and various canticles and anthems can still be heard in many churches with traditional choirs in England and Canada.

The refrain that gives the carol its title is based on the actual cry of the watchman and appears as a refrain to a song in Playford’s Dancing Master in 1665.  The tune itself is based on an old  melody used by Waites.  Like the watchmen the Waites or town pipers were paid by their local civic or parish council to play on special occasions and to awaken people on dark winter mornings with the shrill sound of their pipes and shawms.    

This version of Woodward and Woods’ carol is performed by the Stairwell Carollers, an a cappella choir from here in Ottawa. 

Throughout the year the Stairwell Carollers raise money for local charities with concerts and the sale of CDs.  As the name suggests they specialize in “carols” in the old sense of the word – music for secular and sacred feasts.


18 dicembre/December – San Malachia Profeta

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