In 1928, Oxford University Press (OUP) published The Oxford Book of Carols. This was one of the earliest productions of the Press’s own new music department, founded in 1923. The Oxford Book of Carols (OBC) was a hugely popular landmark publication and remains in print to this day. It gathered together for the first time the music and words of many traditional British Christmas and Easter carols which, having been passed on orally, were in real danger of disappearing for all time. The editors Ralph Vaughan Williams, Percy Dearmer, and Martin Shaw also selected some “original” choral compositions on Christmas themes, and these were loosely embraced in the book as “carols” too. Christmas hymns such as “O little town of Bethlehem,” and “O come, all ye faithful,” however, were excluded on the basis that they were not really “carols.”
By the late 1950s, OUP was beginning to consider a revision to OBC to include the by-now enormously popular Christmas hymns, which of course were included in almost every hymn book going (including OUP’s own English Hymnal and Songs of Praise). It was found, however, that the original contracts with the OBC editors prevented any form of later revision. Christopher Morris, the music editor for OUP in 1960 (who later became Head of Music), decided that OBC was “miles out of date” and that, because he was unable to revise it, a new carol book that was modern, practical, and inexpensive, giving the same accessibility to material but under one cover, was required.
In Cambridge in 1958, David Willcocks (then Director of Music at King’s College) had given a hugely successful Christmas concert featuring several of his own carol arrangements and descants. This piqued the interest of OUP editors and led to several of his arrangements being published. In an interview given in 2004 for A Life in Music (a book celebrating the musical life of Sir David Willcocks) Christopher Morris recalled how he approached Willcocks about a new anthology:
David … said it would be very nice if we could find a book, for instance, for choral societies’ annual carol concerts, that had everything included, so that the singers, instead of having fifteen sheets of paper under their seats, could merely turn to page seventeen for the next carol! So we worked on the idea of having a book which would provide music for a whole concert.
Preparation began with Willcocks working with Reginald Jacques (conductor of the Bach Choir of London) as joint editors. The selection of what became the now familiar contents list of the first Carols for Choirs was essentially complete by the summer of 1960. The archive files give a picture of what was not included, items considered but then, for one reason or another, rejected: a new carol from Britten, The Holy Son by Peter Hurford, and Lullay my liking by Holst, amongst others. Two crucial changes were made as work progressed: first, the original working title, Carols for Concerts, was altered to Carols for Choirs, opening the book’s market to choirs of all descriptions rather than choral societies only; and second, a decision was made to include an order of service for the benefit of church choirs, which modelled their services on the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s—by then enormously popular through the BBC’s annual live radio relays.
The content embraced at last the standard Christmas hymns, several with powerful descants and last verse arrangements by Willcocks, alongside four newly commissioned works (William Walton contributed What Cheer? and Arnold Cooke the delicate and pastel shaded O men from the fields), and, of course, traditional carols (some drawn from OBC). The editors also decided to orchestrate several of the items, and the orchestral parts were made available on hire: this alone contributed significantly to the eventual success of Carols for Choirs.
Carols for Choirs was published on 24 August 1961 in boards and limp editions. A note from Alan Frank dated 25 August 1961 reveals the atmosphere of excitement around the publication, with Frank noting “my colleagues and I have rarely felt as excited as we have done during the production of this book.” 30,000 copies were printed in the first run, and these had sold out completely by November. Barry Rose, then organist at Guildford Cathedral, succinctly encapsulated general reaction in a letter of thanks to Alan Frank: “… you obviously don’t need me to tell you that this is going to be a ‘winner.’ Never before, have I seen such a sensible & delightful collection of Carols under one Cover.” There was unanimous agreement, and since that August publication day Carols for Choirs has sold over 467,000 copies.