The Origins of Christmas Carols

In The Life of Music, Nicholas Kenyon explores the enduring appeal of the classical music canon at a moment when we can access all music—across time and cultures.

He revisits the stories that make up the classical tradition and foregrounds those that are too often overlooked. His personal, celebratory account transforms our understanding of how classical music is made—and shows us why it is more relevant than ever.

In this extract, Kenyon charts the development of the carol, and their enduring association with Christmas.

Medieval music was not all high seriousness or lovelorn despair. There was drama, there was bawdiness, there were moments when the world was turned on its head and the rigorous certainties of life were disrupted. One of the most colourful pictures of medieval life is conjured up by vivid reports of the Feast of Fools, celebrated on 1 January. But the origins of the celebration were more to do with the growing practice of liturgical drama, which was an important part of the way that the scriptures were brought to life for congregations. These made immediate and tangible the stories of the Gospels. The most popular were based around the search for Christ, either in the manger at Christmas (Quem quaeritis in praesepe) or in the tomb at Easter (Quem quaeritis in sepulcro).

“Nativity”, Sandro Botticelli, Public domain

Out of such liturgical dramas also emerged one of the most long-lasting musical developments of the medieval period: the carol. Growing from a simple form, the ‘circle dance’ with a regular refrain, it began a tradition of verse and refrain structures which has flourished to the present day. Most tell stories of the birth of Christ, often featuring the Virgin Mary giving birth, and draw simple moral conclusions for the listeners. A famous early example is the Coventry Carol written (or perhaps first written down) in the sixteenth century for one of the liturgical dramas of the time: it tells the story of Herod’s order to kill all young children at the time of the birth of Christ, with the lament as refrain ‘Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child, Bye bye, lully, lullay’. It was copied out by Robert Croo in Coventry, who ran the city’s entertainments, so his manuscript tells us, on 14 March 1534.

Carols have now become associated with Christmas, but it was not always so, and other feasts were marked. The verse with refrain has become a long-lasting feature of the carol genre, with many modern variations on the theme; the nineteenth-century carols which feature in so many Christmas services have lent themselves to the provision of extra descant lines and varied harmonies which have created a musical genre in themselves, indissolubly linked to the Anglican service of Nine Lessons and Carols that originated in King’s College Cambridge during the First World War. This enduring example of an ‘invented tradition’, which seems much older than it is, has been reinvented in recent years with the commissioning of fine new carols from a wide range of contemporary composers including Judith Weir and James MacMillan.

“Kings College Chapel, Cambridge”, CC BY-SA 3.0

About the author:

Nicholas Kenyon was managing director at the Barbican Centre 2007–2021 and was previously director of the BBC Proms and controller of BBC Radio 3. He is now opera critic of The Telegraph and a visiting scholar at Pembroke College, Cambridge.

Immersed in music for much of his life as writer, broadcaster and concert presenter Kenyon has long championed an astonishingly wide range of composers and performers.

About the book:

The Life of Music is an inclusive, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic guide, which highlights the achievements of the women and men, amateurs and professionals, who bring music to life.

Taking us from pianist Myra Hess’s performance in London during the Blitz, to John Adams’s composition of a piece for mourners after New York’s 9/11 attacks, to Italian opera singers singing from their balconies amidst the 2020 pandemic, Kenyon shows that no matter how great the crisis, music has the power to bring us together. His personal, celebratory account transforms our understanding of how classical music is made—and shows us why it is more relevant than ever.

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