Lis­ten Up

James M. Keller on par­tridges and pear trees

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - James M. Keller

Even as we la­ment the frac­tur­ing of com­mon cul­ture in th­ese our mod­ern times, Christ­mas carols ring out as a great na­tional uni­fier. Nei­ther the so­ci­ety ma­tron nor the des­per­ate street dweller is likely to get through this or any other Christ­mas sea­son with­out re­peated ex­po­sure to “Silent Night,” “We Three Kings,” or “Jin­gle Bells.” Just what are th­ese pieces that so de­fine the au­ral land­scape of the sea­son? Where did they come from and how did they travel from their hazy ori­gins to reach the broad­cast speak­ers in Wal­greens at the Cor­ner of Happy & Healthy®?

An­swers ar­rive in abun­dance in An­drew Gant’s The Carols of Christ­mas: A Cel­e­bra­tion of the Sur­pris­ing Sto­ries Be­hind Your Fa­vorite Hol­i­day Songs, just out from Nel­son Books, which is an im­print of the Thomas Nel­son com­pany (it­self a di­vi­sion of HarperCollins). Thomas Nel­son is fa­mous for be­ing the lead­ing pub­lisher of the Bible, a book it cur­rently of­fers in some 600 dis­tinct for­mats, in­clud­ing the Amer­i­can Pa­triot’s

Bible, the Bal­le­rina Bible, and the Skate­board Bible (“highly de­signed with ex­treme graph­ics to cap­ture the at­ten­tion of boys who want a Bible that’s just a bit dif­fer­ent from Mom and Dad’s!”). Apart from that, Nel­son mostly re­leases ti­tles about Bible study and Chris­tian liv­ing, but ev­ery now and then it lets loose a book des­tined for the non-sec­tar­ian reader, like The Best Jokes Min­nie Pearl Ever Told (2000) or Kids’ Let­ters to Pres­i­dent Bush (2009).

The Carols of Christ­mas strad­dles the di­vide be­tween the sa­cred and the pro­fane in an ap­peal­ing way. Gant writes from a po­si­tion of author­ity; for­merly the choir­mas­ter of Worces­ter Col­lege, Ox­ford, he now serves as lec­turer in mu­sic at St. Peter’s Col­lege, Ox­ford. He ob­vi­ously knows his hym­nal from the in­side out, but he wears his schol­ar­ship lightly. As a species, hym­nol­o­gists tend to be ge­nial, and the best of them can seem down­right al­ler­gic to piety. Most of them have spent years on the or­gan bench or in the choir loft, and their repet­i­tive ex­po­sure to the be­hind-the-scenes tra­vail of Holy Wor­ship

duces de­creased sen­ti­men­tal­ity and height­ened alert­ness to ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal irony. Gant ap­pre­ci­ates that is­tic in oth­ers. About the hym­nol­o­gist Erik

ho au­thored The English Carol (1959) and niver­sity Carol Book (1961), he ob­serves, “He is funny, hu­mane, thought­ful, and the only writer man enough to ac­knowl­edge in print that ‘The First Now­ell’ is ‘really a rather ter­ri­ble tune.’ Hear, hear.” Gant proves to be no less funny, hu­mane, and thought­ful.

The book’s In­tro­duc­tion of­fers ef­fi­cient and en­gag­ing back­ground to the topic, ex­plain­ing how most of the pieces we rec­og­nize as Christ­mas carols evolved from cross-pol­li­nated in­ter­na­tional roots, nearly al­ways from songs of strictly sec­u­lar im­port. By the 16th cen­tury, the word carol started to be “loosely ap­plied to any song with a sea­sonal con­nec­tion, still definitely not just Christ­mas.” The church en­ters the pic­ture be­lat­edly. “The liturgy, the con­tent of divine wor­ship,” he writes, “was pre­scribed by law and was no place for most of th­ese ir­rev­er­ent im­pos­tors. … Carol singing used to be­long in the street far more than in the pew.” But in the 19th cen­tury, cler­gy­men took an in­ter­est in com­pil­ing and edit­ing th­ese pieces, adapt­ing them for Christ­mas-sea­son ser­vices and even com­pos­ing new ones. As the cel­e­bra­tion of Christ­mas be­came stan­dard­ized and com­mer­cial­ized, so did the mu­sic to ac­com­pany it, with im­pres­sive re­sults. “Christ­mas carols,” Gant writes, “are, per­haps, the near­est thing we still have to a folk tra­di­tion — an oral tra­di­tion. We know them be­cause we know them. We never really learned them; they’ve just al­ways been there.”

Twenty-one Christ­mas songs then pa­rade be­neath his hym­no­log­i­cal mi­cro­scope, ar­ranged in the or­der in which they are con­nected to the telling of the Christ­mas story, from Ad­vent to Epiphany. All of the pieces are tra­di­tional ex­am­ples, and most of them have his­to­ries that reach back cen­turies. (This is not the book in which to re­search “Frosty the Snow­man” or “Grandma Got Run Over by a Rein­deer.”) Most of their sto­ries are cir­cuitous, but Gant proves a clear and co­gent do­cent. Stroll with him through his eight pages on “O Come, O Come, Em­manuel,” for ex­am­ple, and you will come away with an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the “O An­tiphons” of me­dieval liturgy and how the Bene­dictines of north­ern France de­rived them from the ear­lier Ro­man au­thor Boethius and the An­glo-Saxon poet Cynewulf. You will learn that the song was not pub­lished in its fa­mil­iar form un­til the 1850s, as­cribed by its ed­i­tors (tan­ta­liz­ingly) as hav­ing been taken “from a French Missal in the Na­tional Li­brary, Lis­bon,” and how the em­i­nent plain­chant scholar Mother Thomas More (a.k.a. Dr. Mary Berry)

fi­nally stum­bled across what seems to have been that very 15th-cen­tury Missal, by then housed at the Bi­b­lio­thèque Na­tionale in Paris, where the fa­mil­iar tune (no­tated in neumes) sud­denly jumped off the page at her from where it had been in­scribed as an added verse for a fu­neral litany. This is a de­tec­tive tale that any mu­si­col­o­gist would find ex­hil­a­rat­ing.

Gant’s ac­count of “While Shep­herds Watched” starts with sim­i­larly thrilling de­tec­tive work. The old­est part of the melody was lifted ver­ba­tim from a set­ting of a text from the Acts of the Apos­tles made by the English com­poser Christopher Tye in 1553. But in Tye, we find only the back end of the melody, the part nor­mally sung to the words “All seated on the ground,/The an­gel of the Lord came down/And glory shone around.” The mu­sic of the open­ing phrase hooked up with Tye’s tune only later, and at the out­set of the 18th cen­tury a new text got at­tached to it. The piece in this form, ti­tled “Song of the An­gels at the Na­tiv­ity of our Blessed Saviour” was “the only Christ­mas carol that could legally be sung in English churches for most of the rest of the eigh­teenth cen­tury, which is at least partly why it caught on quite as spec­tac­u­larly as it did.”

Al­though it is cease­lessly rep­re­sented in sea­sonal dec­o­ra­tions, “The Twelve Days of Christ­mas” is prob­a­bly the most de­spised of tra­di­tional Christ­mas carols — at least while it is go­ing on, and on, and on. Gant sit­u­ates this “Twelfth Night song” in the folk reper­toire of count­ing songs, which in­clude such fa­mil­iar num­bers as “This Old Man” and “Green Grow the Rushes-oh.” He gives the text a care­ful go­ing-over, not­ing a wealth of vari­a­tions. “In the very many ver­sions found be­tween 1780 and 1909, the first seven gifts stay pretty much the same (with the no­table ex­cep­tion of the ‘call­ing birds,’ which are, var­i­ously, col­lie, col­ley, colly, Cor­ley, cur­ley, col­ored, and ca­nary birds, most of which are terms for a black­bird). One version has ‘squabs a-swim­ming’ in­stead of swans, which are baby pigeons and can’t swim. From verse eight up­ward singers swap, sub­sti­tute, and gen­er­ally mud­dle up the rest of the gifts, in­clud­ing ‘boys a-singing,’ ‘ships a-sail­ing,’ ‘lads a-loup­ing,’ in­stead of ‘lords a-leap­ing,’ ‘hounds a-run­ning,’ and ‘bad­gers bait­ing.’ ” A par­tic­u­larly fas­ci­nat­ing “et­y­mo­log­i­cal di­ver­sion” (as he calls it) in­volves the gift that serves as the song’s an­chor, the par­tridge in a pear tree. “Ac­cord­ing to Greek mythol­ogy, the first par­tridge was cre­ated when Daedalus threw his nephew off a tower. The nephew was called Perdix. The or­nitho­log­i­cal name for the Grey Par­tridge is Perdix perdix. The French deriva­tion from this is per­drix.” (We might add that the French word is pro­nounced “per-DREE .”) He con­tin­ues: “We have our pear tree. It’s a per­drix. It’s a half-re­mem­bered mis­trans­la­tion, or, per­haps, a mis­re­mem­bered half-trans­la­tion, giv­ing us, oddly, not one par­tridge up a tree, but two, both on the ground. One English, one French. A par­tridge et un per­drix.” How cool is that?

“The Carols of Christ­mas: A Cel­e­bra­tion of the Sur­pris­ing Sto­ries Be­hind Your Fa­vorite Hol­i­day Songs” by An­drew Gant was pub­lished by Nel­son Books this year. A com­pan­ion CD, in which Gant con­ducts the Bri­tish cham­ber choir Vox Tur­turis, con­tains all the songs dis­cussed in the book. Ti­tled “Christ­mas Carols: From Vil­lage Green to Church Choir,” it was re­leased in 2014 by Signum Records.

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