Saturday, December 20, 2008

Christmas Music

The word carol comes from the Latin cantare (to sing) and rola (joy). They began as hymns the clergy sang in church. Da, puer, plectrum (Of the Father's Love Begotten) written by the Roman Christian poet Aurelius Prudentius in the 3rd century, is considered to be the oldest documented Christmas carol. 

It is said, however, the “Angels Hymn” was first sung at a Christmas service in Rome in 129 A.D. We know the song today as Angels We Have Heard on High. It was translated into English in 1862. The golden age of carols stretched from the 14th -16th centuries. A court songbook called the Fayrfax Manuscript contained the works of ten famous 15th century composers. In Britain, one of the oldest secular carols is the 16th century song, We Wish You a Merry Christmas.

Known hymns of the Regency period include:
 While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks at Night
(written in 1702 )

Adestes Fideles (O Come All Ye Faithful) translated into English in 1760
Joy to the World
written in 1719 (current melody not popular until 1836)
Hark the Herald Angels Sin
g written in 1739 (current tune written by Mendohlsson in 1

The Waits
During the Middle Ages, a “wait” was variously an oboe-like instrument and a kind of court musician who acted as night watchman. A wait’s job was to “pipe the watch” at night and “make the bon gayte.” By 1820, most large towns possessed officially appointed waits who had the right to “charm the ears” of citizens with nocturnal music, especially at Christmas. Waits were even known to help amorous gentlemen court their lady loves with serenades.

In London the post was purchased; in Westminster, waits were appointed by the High Constable and Court of Burgesses. The “Christmas boxes” they received for their efforts must have been lucrative because, in 1820, a police inquiry was instigated to determine which of three claimants would fill the Westminster wait position after it had been vacated by the death of one Mr. Clay.

A wandering minstrel in Scotland was known as a waith (waif in English). Generally they were blind men given license to roam the streets playing a violin during December. On New Year’s they called at homes to play, receiving a gratuity for their performance.

According to Robert Chamber’s Book of Days (1832) and The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1824, Vessel Cup Singers went about the week before Christmas with a chest con
taining the images of the Virgin Mary and Infant Jesus on a bed of evergreens. For a half penny they would sing the wassail song. It was considered bad luck not to make a donation. Neither did it auger well if the singers and their “Advent Images” failed to visit before Christmas Eve.
Before mechanical clocks, church bells marked the hours on land and at sea. In fact, the word clock comes from the Latin clocca, which means bell. Bells were used to communicate over long distances, to sound alarms and mark important events, like Christmas. In 968 A.D., Pope John XIII began the custom of baptizing bells at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome.

The inscription on the bell at Basle, Switzerland best exemplifies the thinking behind this practice: “The sound of this bell vanquishes tempests, repels demons and summons men.” Bells were hung in doorways to ward off evil. Visitors had to ring it before stepping across the threshold. As a person died, a bell was rung to prevent the devil from snatching their soul on its way to heaven.

Some time before the 1700s, change ringing became popular. To “ring the changes” means to ring a set of bells in a specific mathematical pattern.

The first peal of bells—called Plain Bob Triples, a pattern still popular today—rang in England on May 2, 1715 at St. Peter Mancroft Church in Norwich. A peal is 5,000 or more changes rung without breaks or repeating a row. It lasts for three hours.
The most common bell ringing pattern or “round” is a three-tone sequence from treble to tenor. 

British change ringers practiced their patterns on small handbells. Sometime during the 18th century people began ringing actual tunes on handbells. Thus was born the handbell choir.

Vikings believed the ringing of bells cleansed the air of evil spirits. This was especially important around the winter solstice when the veil between this world and the next was thin. Demons surfaced during this darkest time of the year.

Bells on horse harnesses date to the Roman occupation in England. During the Middle Ages, warhorses wore them to ward off disease and evil spirits, and to bring good luck. Sleigh bells became popular sometime in the 1800s.

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