'Hark The Herald Angels Sing': When Carols Met Christmas Carols and hymns weren't always sung around Christmastime. In medieval times carols had nothing to do with the church at all. Philip Brunelle explains how carols have changed over the years and why they are such an enduring tradition.

'Hark The Herald Angels Sing': When Carols Met Christmas

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Christmas music is a staple on the radio and in shops this time of year.

(Soundbite of song, "Winter Wonderland")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?

HANSEN: Singers croon about a winter wonderland or a red-nosed reindeer or jingle bells. And there are always some rather interesting covers of traditional carols and hymns.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: Oh, tidings of comforts and joy, comforts and joy. Oh tidings of comforts and joy.

HANSEN: The traditional tunes of the holiday season had nothing to do with Christmas, originally. Philip Brunelle, the founder and artistic director of the choral music organization Vocal-Essence is at Minnesota Public Radio to explain. Welcome back to the program.

Mr. PHILIP BRUNELLE (Founder, Artistic Director, Vocal-Essence): Thanks, Liane. Nice to be here.

HANSEN: Here's a basic question, Philip, what's the difference between a hymn and a carol?

Mr. BRUNELLE: A carol is really something that was originally thought of as kind of a circle dance that was often accompanied by singing. Whereas a hymn is something that's going to have more theological implications and it's more likely to be in a kind of straightforward four-four movement, not something you're going to dance to.

HANSEN: So, tell us a little bit then about the history of the Christmas hymn and this music when it started to be included in worship services.

Mr. BRUNELLE: Well, what happened was, of course, that in the Medieval Ages there were Gregorian chants that were sung.

(Soundbite of chanting)

Mr. BRUNELLE: Gradually, after about the time of the Reformation is when we started seeing some changes. Of course, Martin Luther was very, very interested in getting people to be singing. And carols then were sung rather than singing Gregorian chant. But that was not true in England, where we get many of our carols from, because they were forbidden during that time. We think of Oliver Cromwell and all of those characters. They were forbidden to sing in church, so the carols stayed outside, but they stayed alive. That's the important thing.

HANSEN: And many of them were incorporated actually into the ritual. There were many Christian rituals, for example, that begin with "O Come, All Ye Faithful," "Adeste Fideles."

(Soundbite of song, "O Come, All Ye Faithful")

CHORUS: (Singing) O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant...

HANSEN: What's the origin of this hymn?

Mr. BRUNELLE: Well, "Adeste Fideles" was, actually the words were, of course, in Latin originally by John Francis Wade, who was an English Roman Catholic. Then in the 1800s, a number of translators took those words, translated them into English. There's not really one person to have done those translation and no one really knows who wrote the melody. But many people think that Wade himself also wrote that and the original tune, whereas we would go (humming) originally had a different kind of meter. (Humming)

So, it was quite different than what we've now heard in our churches.

(Soundbite of song, "O Come All Ye Faithful")

CHORUS: (Singing) Oh come let us adore Him, oh come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.

HANSEN: "Hark the Herald Angels Sing."

(Soundbite of song, "Hark the Herald Angels Sing")

CHORUS: (Singing) Hark, the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king.

Mr. BRUNELLE: One of the great hymns that, of course, originally had zero to do with Christmas. The music by Felix Mendelssohn was composed for a male chorus in 1840 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg's printing press. And after the ceremony was done, people said, oh, that's just a wonderful, wonderful tune and it can be something else sacred. And he said it will -Mendelssohn said it will never work with a sacred text.

Well, how wrong he was because 20 years later, the combination of Wesley's words and his music came together and we got "Hark, the Herald."

(Soundbite of song, "Hark the Herald Angels Sing")

CHORUS: (Singing) Veiled in flesh the godhead see, hail the incarnate deity.

Mr. BRUNELLE: Every time you hear that, that spot (humming), those three notes right there are Gutenberg in the original. So, you can either sing "Hark the Herald" words or sing Gutenberg.

(Soundbite of song)

CHORUS: (Singing in foreign language)

HANSEN: Humming little bits of these hymns and carols, I mean, we know which one you're talking about just from three notes, but there's a carol that is one of the, I think one of the earliest ones, called "The Boar's Head."

(Soundbite of song, "The Boar's Head")

CHORUS: (Singing) The boar's head in hand bear I, bedecked with bays and rosemary.

Mr. BRUNELLE: "The Boar's Head," it was a very kind of fanfare kind of carol. The boar's head in hand bear I, bedecked with bays and rose-mare-I.

HANSEN: Rose-mare-I.

Mr. BRUNELLE: We had to rhyme it, you know.

HANSEN: Of course.

Mr. BRUNELLE: Right, of course. And it's a wonderful, wonderful story because what they say is that in the 15th century that there was a scholar at Queens College, Oxford who was walking to a little neighboring village where he was going to go to mass. On the way, a wild boar attacked him. And so this scholar grabbed the boar, stuffed a volume of Aristotle that he was reading down the boar's throat. He then cut off the boar's head, carried it on his staff to the church and after mass was over, took it back to the college where they had dinner and ate it.

HANSEN: With the book still inside?

Mr. BRUNELLE: I suppose. They never talk about that, but I suspect it was. But I love the idea, and it's been kept up at Queens College as a tradition ever since, to have a boar's head dinner, a big celebration. And they sing the Boar's Head Carol, which is a combination. It's what we call a macaronic carol, because part of the words are in English and part are in another language, in this case, Latin.

(Soundbite of song, "The Boar's Head")

CHORUS: (Singing in Latin)

HANSEN: Why do you think these songs endure?

Mr. BRUNELLE: One of the things about music that endures, and particularly music at Christmastime, you will find that you can remember melodies that are what we call step-wise. It's like going do-re-mi-fa-so. And they're up and down the scale. So, you take something like "The First Noel."

(Soundbite of music, "The First Noel")

Mr. BRUNELLE: (Humming) - it's very easy to sing. It's not difficult. "Joy to the World" - (humming) - very simple to sing. The ease is part of what it is. And then the other part is that they are telling a story. So, something like "Silent Night," even though it originally, of course, as German, "Stille Nacht." The words that people know - silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright - very easy to remember. They have a nice little bit of poetry. Every once in a while, someone likes to change the words and it never works. People go right back to what is the traditional.

(Soundbite of song, "Silent Night")

CHORUS: (Singing) Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.

HANSEN: When did popular music start to come into the mix of the traditional hymns and carols of the season?

Mr. BRUNELLE: All of that really began in the 1940s. There were a few before. "Rudolph" was written as a song for advertising for Montgomery Wards. And Gene Autry, of course, made it famous.

(Soundbite of song, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer")

Mr. GENE AUTRY (Singer): (Singing) The most famous reindeer of all. Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, had a very shiny nose.

Mr. BRUNELLE: And, of course, for every popular Christmas song that we know, there are about, I'm going to say, 100 that never made it. I mean, no one anymore sings "The Fruitcake That Ate New Jersey."

(Soundbite of song, "The Fruitcake That Ate New Jersey")

Ms. LAUREN MAYER: (Singing) This innocent season is all the more reason to watch out for elves you might meet. The fruitcake that ate New Jersey never shows any mercy.

HANSEN: I think we'll stick with "O Holy Night."

Mr. BRUNELLE: I would agree, totally.

HANSEN: Choral scholar Philip Brunelle is the founder and artistic director of Vocal Essence. He joined us from Minnesota Public Radio. Thank you and Merry Christmas to you.

Mr. BRUNELLE: And to you too, Liane. Thank you.

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