|Carols of the Nativity - Program Notes by
1. What Child is This *
Except for a few variations, this is the beautiful Elizabethan pop
melody "Greensleeves". It was arranged as a Christmas song by the
19th century composer John Stainer and became a street musician's carol
for the New Year. Stainer, an organist at the University of Oxford and
at St. Paul's Cathedral in London arranged the music to go along with 3
stanzas from a poem about the nativity by poet William Chatterton Dix.
Dix, who penned the words in 1865, was both a writer of hymns and an insurance
company executive from Bristol, England.
2. The First Nöel *
This ancient carol melody is a simple folk song, probably the oldest
popular carol in the English language handed down through the centuries
by its constant use. Noel is a French word often associated with
Christmas, possibly derived from the Latin word "Natalis" meaning "birth".
When the word found its way to England, it was spelled nowell and
came to mean "now all is well". which was the message of the angel to the
shepherds ( Luke 2:10-11). Although the author is unknown, it first appeared
in print in a collection of ancient carols compiled by William Sandy in
3. O Come All Ye Faithful *
While the origin of the words remains uncertain, the melody is credited
to John Reading (1692), an English composer and organist at Winchester
College. In 1751, John Francis Wade, an English priest and music copyist
working in France, combined the Latin words with Reading's music resulting
in the hymn known in Latin as Adeste Fidelis. It was first publicly performed
in London at the Portuguese embassy and thus it became known as the Portuguese
hymn. This solo guitar arrangement attempts to capture the joy and triumph
of the Messiah's birth while inviting us to gaze upon Him with wonder and
4. O Little Town of Bethlehem *
The lyrics were penned in 1868 by an Episcopal minister, Phillip
Brooks (1835-1893) at the age of 30. The inspiration for the song
came from a visit to Bethlehem he had made three years earlier. His
visit came during a year-long sabbatical given in which he was able to
make a trip to the Holy Land. On Dec 24, 1865 he traveled from Jerusalem
to Bethlehem by horseback and saw a field of shepherds and attended a five
hour Christmas Eve service in the Church of the Nativity. The occasion
for the writing of this memory in song was a childrens Christmas program
in the Sunday School at Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia. Brooks
asked his friend and church organist, Lewis Redner (1831-1908) for
some music to accompany the words. Redner claims the tune came to
him as a "gift from heaven", the very night before it was to be performed.
5. O Come O Come Emmanuel
This melody has its origin in a Gregorian Chant. The version
we are most familiar with came from Thomas Helmore, who in 1854, adapted
this haunting melody from a Latin hymn. The words go back 800 years
ago in a style called plainsong from the days before written music.
It was sung in unison without harmony or strict meter by monks often in
the seven days leading up to the Christmas service. On each evening the
song would be sung a different Biblical name of the Messiah would be substituted
in the opening verses. Emmanuel or Immanuel is one of His names
meaning "God with us" as according to the Old Testament prophecy
(Isaiah 7:14 and 9:6) in which the the prophet Isaiah makes
reference to Messiah's deity and humanity.
6. It Came upon a Midnight Clear *
When American composer Richard Willis (1810-1876) composed this melody
he referred to it as "Study no. 23". Coincidentally, in the same year (1849),
Edmund Sears (1810-1876), a minister in Wayland, Massachusetts, wrote
words for a Christmas song reflecting upon that winter season and the sobering
reality that the country was on the verge of civil war. With that background,
the glorious song of "peace on earth, goodwill toward men" takes on added
significance. Interestingly, Willis, a graduate of Yale, and Sears,
a graduate of Harvard, possibly never even met. The words and music
were joined together in 1850.
7. Joy to the World **
The great hymn writer, Isaac Watts (1674-1748) introduced the concept
of paraphrasing the Bible into texts for hymns. In 1719, this carol based
on Psalm 98:4, was included in a collection of Psalms of David that he
had transformed into hymns and originally titled Messiah's Coming and Kingdom.
From a very young age, Isaac Watts sought to improve on the lifeless congregational
singing in the church where his father was a deacon in Southampton, England.
When his father challenged him to provide better hymns for them to sing,
he did. Athough he began to preach at the age of twenty-one, his
health failed and he devoted more time to writng hymns, poems, and books
of philosophy and theology. The melody for Joy to the World came from American
composer, Lowell Mason (1830) who apparently felt the need to credit Frederick
Handel as the co-composer, possibly for musical phrases that Mason borrowed
or simply out of respect for Handel's influence.
8. Once in David's Royal City *
Cecil Frances Alexander, 1823-1895 was born in Dublin, Ireland and
married William Alexander who was an Anglican archbishop in Ireland. She
wrote over 400 hymns of which All Things Bright and Beautiful is perhaps
the best known. She reportedly wrote this carol for her godchildren when
they complained that their Bible lessons were dreary. It was first published
in 1848 in Hymns for Little Children. The composer of the melody, Henry
Gauntlett, began his musical career at the age of 9 becoming an church
organist in Olney, England. He was devoted to composing church organ music
and designing organs. Felix Mendelssohn held him in high esteem. Mrs. Alexander's
poem was somehow paired with Gauntlett's melody which was originally titled
Irby. It was one among thousands of his compositions.
9. We Three Kings ***
The words and music were both composed by John Henry Hopkins (1820-1891).
Hopkins was known as a poet, composer, church rector, and a designer of
stained glass windows. This carol was one of several he wrote for
an annual children's Christmas pageant. Though written in 1857, it was
thought to be taken from an anonymous medieval composition because of its
unusual style and combination of modes.
10. Ding Dong Merrily On High *
Originally this tune came from a secular dance song called Branle l'Official
(The Dance of the Official). It was attributed to the Frenchman Thoinot
Arbeau (1520-1595). It was turned into a carol by Charles Wood (1866-1926)
with a carol text written by G.R.Woodward (1848-1934). Like the lyrics
for Carol of the Bells it reflects the ancient legends that associate
bell ringing with the celebration of Christmas.
11. Good King Wenceslas *
John Mason Neale (1818-1866) was born in London, the son of an Evangelical
clergyman. He taught at Cambridge University using his gift for Greek and
Latin to translated many of the hymns of the Medieval Church like O Come,
O Come Emmanuel. Among the many hymns he wrote, Good King Wenceslas
sets to poetry one of the many Bohemian legends about Duke Wenceslas
who ruled Bohemia between 928-935 A.D.and was renown for his kindness to
the poor especially at Christmas. The carol tells in dialogue form the
story of him delivering food, drink, and firewood to a peasants house in
the cold of winter The carol admonishes all of us that in helping the poor
we help ourselves.
12. Angels We Have Heard on High *
The words began as a poem by James Montgomery which he printed in his
newspaper on Christmas eve in 1816 in Sheffield, England. The melody was
composed by the blind composer and organist Henry Smart. The original title,
Regent Square, was named after the location of St. Phillips Church where
Smart was organist. The words and music were first published together
in a collection of carols in 1855. A high strung guitar (with four octave
strings) is used on this recording giving the carol a hammered dulcimer/harpsichord
13. O Holy Night
Adolphe Adam (1803-1856) was a French composer of several stage and
ballet productions. He took his melody to his close friend, the French
poet Cappeau de Roquemaure who supplied the lyrics. They titled their collaboration
"Cantique de Noel". The English words we use today were written by an American
clergyman and musical scholar, John Sullivan Dwight. Adam's composition
was initially met with criticism from French church officials who denounced
it for its "lack of musical taste and total absence of the spirit of religion."
Of course it has gone on to become one of the most popular and deeply moving
vocal solos in the repertoire of popular and sacred holiday music.
14. Carol of the Bells
Based on an old Ukranian motif, the lyrics are rooted in the legend
that upon Jesus' birth, all the bells on earth simultaneously began to
ring in unison. This is considered a Russian folk carol and is also often
sung in Bulgaria and Rumania as well as the Ukraine. Music by Leontovich.
15 Lo How a Rose is Blooming
The imagery of a rose miraculously blooming in the wintertime is reminiscent
of the amazing events and obstacles surrounding the birth of the Messiah.
"And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse and a Branch
shall grow out of its roots (Isaiah 11:1). The melody appeared in
Cologne in 1600 and was later harmonized by Michael Praetorious (1571-1621)
who published his beautiful harmonized version in 1609.
16. He is born the Divine Christ Child
This tune dates back to 13th century Poland where it was often sung
by boys as they made their way toward church for midnight mass. In
their processional to the church they would sing this song as they reenacted
the arrival of the Maji.
17. In Dulci Jubilo
Translated Sweet Jubilation. According to legend, Henry Suso, a Dominican
mystic heard this sweet waltzing melody in a dream and was able to wake
up and write it down. On September 14, 1745 it was sung in thirteen
languages simultaneously at the Moravian Mission in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
18. Bring Torch Jeanette Isabella
A French carol known since the 14th century as a lively court dances.
It first appeared as a Christmas carol in a compilation of Christmas music
titled Cantiqies de Premiere Advenement de Jesus Christ, published in 1553
by a wealthy French count who collected Christmas music as a hobby.
19. Hark the Herald Angels Sing
The lyrics are attributed to Charles Wesley (1707-1788) written in
1739, the year following Wesley's conversion to Chrisianity. The
music came 100 years later from Felix Mendelssohn who composed the melody
in 1840 as part of a celebration commemorating Gutenberg the printer, and
said that the the piece " will never do to sacred words." Years later an
English musician, William Cumming, applied Mendelssohn's music to Wesley's
hymn. The melody and lyrics were joined together by Cummings in 1855.
20. What Child is This? (2nd version) ***
This version was one of the few tracks that I have carried over from
my original 1988 Holiday release titled Seasons. Through the years
I have come to enjoy performing it in the key of E minor but wanted to
include this recording which was done in the key of D minor.
21. Away in a Manger **
Although sometimes known as Luther's Cradle Hymn, there is no basis
for the legend that Martin Luther both composed and sang it to his children.
The song originated in America in the mid 1800's. It remains an anonymous
carol considered a traditional, universal Christmas lullaby telling the
story of the nativity with gentle and sweet imagery. While the words have
been set to several different melodies, one of its most popular settings
is 'Flow Gently Sweet Afton which has been incorporated into the introduction
of this instrumental arrangement.
22. Night of Wonder (Carol of Peace) ***
A composition by Phillip Lester originally titled Come and Behold
Him as a part of a 1988 collection titled Seasons. The melody conveys
a peaceful state of mind as a result of the inner peace brought about by
being reconciled to God. It invites the listener to slow down for a time
of reflection and meditation.
23. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen ***
Meaning God keep you, Gentlemen, in merry spirits. The true origin
of this carol has never been established, however, it is likely a popular
London street song and even mentioned in Charles Dickens' A
Christmas Carol. The arrangement begins stately and then moves into an
upbeat resounding conclusion
24. Coventry Carol
Also known as Lully Lullay. The Medieval guilds in many English
cities put on public pageants around the Christmas time which included
"miracle" or "mystery plays" reenacting the story of the birth of Jesus.
In 1534, the pageant of the The Sherman and Tailors Guild of Coventry,
England included this song in a scene where the mothers of Jewish children
sing this lullaby upon the anticipation of Herod's slaughter of their children.
25. I Wonder as I Wander
A song collected in the South in the early 1900's by John Jacob Niles,
a singer and collector of folk songs. This Appalachian folk carol with
its haunting theme evokes a mood of contemplation on the wonder of
a Creator who would actually be humble and loving enough to step
down to earth in order to pay the price of our sin by taking
the penalty of our sin upon Himself. (cf. Romans 5:6-8; Phillippians 2:4-11)
26. In the Bleak Midwinter *
The lyrics combined with the melody are among the most heart felt of
all songs about the nativity:
In the bleak mid-winter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as
iron, water like a stone: snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
in the bleak mid-winter long ago.
Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain, heaven and earth
shall flee away when He comes to reign; in the bleak mid-winter a stable-place
sufficed the Lord God almighty, Jesus Christ.
Angels and archangels may have gathered there, cherubim and seraphim
thronged the air;
but His mother only, in her maiden bliss, worshipped the Beloved with
What can I give Him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring
a lamb; if I were a wise man, I would do my part; yet what I can I give
Him - give my heart.
Words: Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-94) / Music: Gustav Holst
27. Silent Night
On the day before Christmas in 1818, Joseph Mohr, a young associate
minister, brought a poem he composed to Franz Gruber, the church organist,
to be set to music. Since the organ was broken, the two finished
and performed the song that night using a guitar for accompaniment. The
story goes that the organ repair man finally showed up in the Spring. While
testing out the repaired organ, Gruber performed Silent Night. The
organ repair man, after hearing the song, was so impressed that he took
a copy of the hymn to his town. From there it was passed onto to
a traveling musical group and soon its popularity spread throughout the
world. In 1863 it was translated into English and began its popularity
28. The Little Drummer Boy *
Composed in 1958 by the team of Harry Simeon, Katerine Davis, and Henry
Onorati. The song tells the story of a shepherd boy who comes along
with the procession of the Wise Men and other admirers to the manger in
Bethlehem to see the holy infant. All he has to offer is his drum and gift
of making music. Whether Miriam (Mary), the young Jewish mother of
Jesus was happy about this gift it doesn't mention. I tend to doubt
she was so thrilled at the prospect of listening to the sound of a drone
drum after her delivery but it makes for a nice story(PL). The drone
percussion effect is performed on guitar using the pizzicato technique
on the right hand.
For more historical information on Carols and Holiday music I would
recommend the following website:
* These tracks were performed on a Takamine classical guitar:
Craig Russell engineer
** This track was performed on a James Goodall Acoustic guitar:
Craig Russell engineer
*** These tracks were performed on a Hernandis classical
guitar: Tim Coomes engineer,
**** This was performed on a Yamaha FG 200 acoustic guitar.
All other tracks were recorded on a Takamine acoustic and Hirade
These songs are used with permission:
The Little Drummer Boy by Harry Simeon, Katerine K.Davis,
and Henry Onorati.
EMI Mills Music Inc / International Korwin Corp
In the Bleak Midwinter by Gustav Holst / publishers Oxford University
Carol of the Bells by Leontovich/Wilhousky / publishers Carl Fischer
I Wonder as I Wander by John Jacob Niles / pubishers G.
All other selections are in the Public Domain except Night
of Wonder ( Carol of Peace ) which is composed by Phillip Lester / published
by Simple strings Music / BMI.
For guitarists a performance demonstration of many of these carols is
available on video. For more information on transcriptions, instructional
videos , and a list of guitar tunings used on these selections contact
Phillip at Guitarartistry@yahoo.com.
All the selections were arranged for solo guitar and performed by Phillip
Carols of the Nativity copyright 2003. All rights reserved.