Ye Merry Men’s Christmas programme notes

This season’s Christmas offering celebrates the various shapes, colours, and sounds of the male voice, with The 5 Singing Guys and a special Men’s Chorus joining the LSO for an event holiday hits, favourite carols, and other well-known tunes. It’s fun for the whole family!

If you prefer to download and print these programme notes, please click here (pdf version).

Symphony Series 3 – Ye Merry Men’s Christmas

Come December in the Western world, you’ll be immersed in a steady flow of songs exalting Christmas and the winter season. This tradition dates back to the days of early Christianity, though its popularity has waxed and waned over the centuries. The practice is rooted in early medieval devotional hymns dating as far back as the fourth century that focus on the birth of Christ, pieces much more austere and pious than the festive songs we are used to singing. As Christianity spread north into Europe, its practices were adopted with variations in the faith’s new homelands.

The English carol was a genre derived from the French carole form that first became popular in the mid-twelfth century, an import that was abetted by French being the courtly language of the English aristocracy. Interestingly, the carol initially combined a moral or religious message with dancing, though the passage of time eventually saw the latter aspect abandoned. What the carols did retain, however, was the lively spirit imbued by dance rhythms, which gave the songs a decidedly more celebratory tone. This tone was maintained at the Tudor court in the early sixteenth century, where courtiers would compose carols which could be either reflective or joyful.

It was during this period that the earliest songs that continue to be sung during the Christmas season, like God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, were composed. Following the advent of the English reformation in the mid-sixteenth century, the courtly carol began to decline as a genre. Its death was assured under the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell, whose puritan religious beliefs resulted in an outright ban on Christmas festivities. Though it did not survive as a courtly genre following the restoration of Charles II in 1661, it continued on as a popular folk genre, often by adopting hymns celebrating the birth of Christ into more festive pieces.

This was a compositional method that was perpetuated internationally in many different languages, with notable examples like Gabriel’s Message, a Basque carol, and The Huron Carol, originally written in the native Wyandot language. The latter carol is widely seen as Canada’s first carol due to its origins in New France in 1642. Its lyrics were set to the old French tune Une Jeune Pucelle by Saint Jean de Brébeuf, a French Jesuit missionary who worked with the Huron people and was later martyred in an Iroquois raid. Due to the Christmas carol’s status as folk music, the dating of the earliest performances of these simple songs is not so simple, as the date of a tune’s transcription is not indicative of its first performance.

The tradition of gathering in households or travelling door-to-door with songbooks was established in the late seventeenth century. Although from our modern perspective the tradition seems to have been a constant of the Christmas season, there was great fear in the mid-nineteenth century that the caroling custom would go extinct. This fear, however, ended up inspiring greater interest in the history of the practice, and new singers revisited older carols and hymns. These developments occurred congruently with the establishment of other Christmas customs including the mailing of Christmas cards and the decoration of indoor trees. In addition to the older songs there was a consistent influx of new pieces written for the Christmas season, with carols like Still, Still, Still emerging out of this period.

The early twentieth century saw the gradual transformation of the devotional Christmas carol into the secular Christmas pop song, more prone to celebrating the jollity of the winter season than the nativity. Fueling this development was the growth of the music market resulting from the invention of electronic recording methods and the evolution of the jazz style. Production of these songs, though still ongoing, peaked during the years of World War II, when songs like I’ll Be Home for Christmas were written to comfort homesick troops. Other works released during this period, such as White Christmas and The Christmas Song, were performed extensively by popular crooners of the time, including Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole.

Notes by Zain Solinski