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The Oxford Book of Carols

Christmas with Ralph Vaughan Williams and The Oxford Book of Carols

The Oxford Book of Carols (1928) was the brainchild of Reverend Percy Dearmer. Dearmer was a socialist, high church Anglican liturgist who believed that music should be at the core of Christian worship, and was the author of The Parson’s Handbook, published in 1899:

“The parson should beg his people to discourage small boys from begging in Advent under the pretext of singing carols—if it can be called singing. It is really a sin to give pence to children for degrading themselves and dishonouring sacred things. Perhaps the best remedy is for members of the congregation or the choir themselves to sing carols in the streets.”

From The Parson’s Handbook

He worked with musical editors Ralph Vaughan Williams and Martin Shaw. The three of them had recently collaborated on Songs of Praise, and Vaughan Williams and Dearmer had edited The English Hymnal in the early years of the century. 

Dearmer wrote that “Carols are songs with a religious impulse that are simple, hilarious, popular, and modern.” “Hilarious” must mean light-hearted in this context, and “modern” for their time: he dates them from the fifteenth-century “because people wanted something less severe than the old Latin office hymns, something more vivacious than the plainsong melodies.” Many early carols survived only as folk songs after the temporary abolition of Christmas celebrations under the Puritans in 1647. The Oxford Book of Carols (OBC) was an attempt to bring together the best of what had survived both at home and abroad, in its original form as far as possible, with the addition of several new tunes. 

The OBC covered far more than just material for December. Certainly, there were carols for Advent, Christmas Eve (both sacred and secular) and Christmas, but also for Epiphany, Candlemas, Lent, Passiontide, Easter, Ascension, Whitsun, and Trinity. Seasonal carols for spring, May, summer, harvest, autumn, and winter were joined by a selection of Nativity carols that were also appropriate for general use, carols for saints’ days and dedication festivals, and carols “suitable for use in procession.” And there were a number of general carols, some of which were labelled cradle songs, medieval, legendary, and carols of praise.

It is argued that 1928 was the annus mirabilis of the carol, particularly the Christmas carol. Not only was OBC published, but the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was broadcast from the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge for the first time. 

The King’s Carol Service has become a global phenomenon, and its repertoire over the years relied heavily on the late-Victorian Christmas Carols New & Old and the modern Carols for Choirs. In between those multi-volume series, the inter-war OBC shone as a beacon of experimentation within tradition. It is that ritualised innovation that made OBC what it remains today: a visionary musico-poetic collection of the most profoundly partisan nature.

We have become used to atmospheric settings, with spectacular last verses, to be enjoyed as a performance. Vaughan Williams was writing more for carol singers and congregations than for cathedrals and choirs, and the settings are straightforward. However, Dearmer’s preface suggests that variety in the method of singing is important, with a mixture of harmony and unison verses, and antiphonal effects; he also endorsed the abbreviation of longer carols.

Albion Records (the recording arm of The Ralph Vaughan Williams Society) has recently released its second album of carol settings by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The new album, An Oxford Christmas draws heavily on OBC, with 20 arrangements from that book (including two with contributions from Martin Shaw), as well as two later carols.

The preceding album was A Vaughan Williams Christmas. This includes four original carols by Vaughan Williams and 19 of his arrangements, including Nine Carols For Male Voices written in 1941 for British troops serving in an army of “friendly occupation” in Iceland. The reviewer for Gramophone magazine wrote that the austerity of these nine carols “can stop you in your tracks; it’s difficult to hear the Mummers’ Carol without considering the British troops for whom it was written, stationed in windswept Iceland during the Second World War.”

The performers on Albion’s two Christmas albums are the Chapel Choir of Royal Hospital Chelsea, directed by William Vann, with organists Hugh Rowlands and Joshua Ryan. There are many solo verses, which are sung by about half of the members of the choir. 

Ralph Vaughan Williams’s 150th birthday in October 2022 will be marked by a wide range of events around the world throughout the year. 

Featured image by Aaron Burden via Unsplash

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