Collections of Christmas Carols
I recommend three collections of carols, each with a different strength:
The collection Carols for Today, by Jubilate Hymns, edited by Michael Perry and David Iliff (Hodder and Stoughton, London/Sydney/Auckland/Toronto 1987).
The editors are evangelical Christians who desire to provide both good music and clear Christian teaching for use in worship from Advent to Epiphany.
The emphasis is on usefulness for the church today; consequently, there are numerous new carols (13 by Timothy Dudley-Smith) and contemporary settings of older texts.
The editors also link some traditional, secular tunes of the season with contemporary words appropriate for Christian worship.
All in all, a marvelous resource, containing more than 180 carols and over 30 pages of suggested readings for use in services.
Although this book is out of print, it is frequently available through ABE Books. Follow the link and search for the title. About one-third of these carols are also included in Hymns for Today's Church, edited by Michael Baughan, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1987. This fine hymnal is still available through Amazon UK, and other booksellers in Britain.
Carols for Choirs, in its various incarnations, is the most widely used compilation of carols for choral singing.
The arrangements and descants of David Willcocks and his associates are contemporary and lovely.
Volumes 1, 2, and 3 each contain 50 carols set primarily for SATB singing, mostly traditional but some modern, mostly sacred but some secular.
Volume 4 contains 50 carols for SA only, and is appropriate for use with both women's and children's choirs.
100 Carols for Choirs is primarily a selection of popular carols from the first three volumes, but also includes 24 carols new to the series.
Click here for lists of the carols contained in each volume.
Follow these links to order via Amazon: Carols for Choirs Volume 1; Volume 2; Volume 3; Volume 4; 100 Carols for Choirs.
For a two-CD set of Willcocks conducting 37 of the carols contained in these volumes, follow this link.
The New Oxford Book of Carols edited by Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott (Oxford Univ Press, NY & Oxford, 1992), is an amazing work.
More than 700 pages long, this volume contains over 200 carols (see the contents), along with a discussion of their history, suggestions for performance, and, often, more than one musical setting (for example, seven settings for "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks").
The historical notes frequently are extensive (approximately 2700 words for "While Shepherds Watched"); many of these tidbits are fascinating and, at times, amusing:
The collection is unusually strong on carols from the Middle Ages and pre-1700 Europe.
Many secular carols are included.
The editors have a strong preference for historically-accurate performances, and speak with some disdain of Willcocks' contemporary arrangements. Similarly, the 20th century selections are rather thin, and surprisingly include nothing by Dudley-Smith. Nevertheless, this is a unique collection that will provide hours and hours of enjoyment both for reading and playing music for anyone who loves carols. Order the main book in paperback or hardback (the latter is quite expensive).
Since it's rather difficult to sing from a 700-page book, the publishers also offer a briefer version, containing about half the number of carols, and leaving out the historical notes. Order that version here.
- "While Shepherds Watched" was the only legally authorized Christmas hymn in the Church of England for decades;
- The "five gold rings" in the "The Twelve Days of Christmas" probably were originally not rings at all, but 'goldspinks' or 'gulderer,' Scottish dialect for goldfinches and turkeys. (Can you imagine singing, "Six geese a-laying, five big, fat turkeys,"?)
- "I Wonder as I Wander" probably is not a traditional Appalachian carol, but was composed by John Jacob Niles in the 1930's.
- On William Billings (page 280): 'William Billings, the outstanding American composer of the eighteenth century, was "a singular man, of moderate size, short of one leg, with one eye, without an address, and with an uncommon negligence of person." Time has rendered the language of this contemporary description ambiguous: in reality he had one leg shorter than the other, did indeed have only one eye, and lacked not a home but a winning manner.'
- William Walker, collector and editor of The Southern Harmony, 'was called "Singin' Billy" to distinguish him from two other Spartanburg [SC] William Walkers, a father and son known as "Hog Billy" and "Pig Billy."' (p. 290).
- On Martin Madan, the composer of the most common setting for "Lo! He Comes With Clouds Descending:" 'As a law student in London he had gone to hear [John] Wesley preach, with the sole purpose of studying his mannerisms for a later impersonation in a drinking club. . . . Immediately converted, he was soon laboring energetically in the social and spiritual morass that was eighteenth-century London. . . . [He was] the first chaplain and director of music at . . . a charitable institution . . . that cared for women suffering from (usually fatal) venereal infections. It was Madan's experience of the problems of these women, mostly driven to the streets by a combination of poverty and a shortage of marriageable men, that eventually led to the publication for which he is chiefly remembered, . . . which advocates polygamy as the lesser evil. Forced to resign from the hospital in the resulting furore, Madan spent the rest of his life quietly in Kew, translating literary and theological works from the Latin.' (p. 256) (The operative phrase here is "lesser evil;" Madan believed polygamy to be wrong, but argued that when a married man seduced an unmarried woman, he should marry and support the girl, as under the Mosaic Law. He wrote "We may boast of our marriage and condemn polygamy, but there is not a nation under heaven where polygamy is more openly practiced than in this Christian country, for, though a man can marry but one at a time, he may have as great a variety as he pleases without ever marrying at all...To punish a poor deserted creature for being a prostitute, when it is put out of her power to force her seducer to provide for her as the divine law enjoins, is equally cruel and foolish, not very unlike the man who threw his child into a ditch and then beat him for being dirty.")
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Copyright © 1999, Thomas C. Pinckney.