The Hymns and Carols of Christmas


Sir Richard Runciman Terry


Gilbert and Sandys' Christmas Carols
London: Burns Oates & Washbourne Ltd, 1931


Note: a version of this Preface which contains full-sized embedded graphics is available. Caution: this file is large and may be slow to open.
Full Preface - 'Gilbert and Sandys' Christmas Carols'

The classifications ‘From Gilbert’ or ‘From Sandys’ are the commonest feature of every modem carol book. But the original publications of these two collectors seem (I cannot discover why) to be as much of a mystery as were the sources of the Nile. Not only do modem reprints labeled ’Gilbert‘ or ’Sandys‘ differ widely from the originals, but they also differ considerably from each other. In only one carol described as ‘From Sandys’ (The First Nowell) do we find absolute uniformity in the melodic text. But, unfortunately, that particular version is not the one to be found in either Gilbert or Sandys. (Personally, I think it an improvement on the original, but that is not the point at issue.)

Neither Gilbert nor Sandys could be called a musician, but they did valuable work (considering their dates — 1822 and 1833), and we owe them a debt of gratitude for rescuing from oblivion such popular ‘favourites' as, The First Nowell, A Virgin most pure, The Lord at first did Adam make, When righteous Joseph, A Child this day is born, To-morrow shall be my dancing day, I saw three ships, In those twelve days, etc., etc.

There is a popular belief (for which I can find no reason) ‘in quires and places where they sing‘, that ‘Gilbert and Sandys’ constitute a rich mine of folk-carols from which — as yet — only a few gems have been hewn. But Gilbert (1822) published only eight carols with tunes. Sandys (1833) published only eighteen tunes.

In view of all these facts there seems no reason why the work of these two collectors should remain a mystery, hence the present publication, where the text of the melodies (be they good, bad, or indifferent) is at least a faithful transcript of the originals. I say melodies, because such ‘harmony’ as either Gilbert or Sandys attempted is too bad for reproduction.

As the book is intended for the practical use of choirs, some explanation of its plan is desirable.

Firstly, every carol is given for which Gilbert or Sandys (or both) provided a melody.

Secondly, those which are unsuitable for performance (e.g., the hymn-tune Miles Lane) are not harmonized, and do not appear in the body of the book; but the musical text is quoted in full in this Preface.

Thirdly, as this book will form Part I of a larger collection, it has not been thought necessary to harmonize Sandys’ foreign carols (they are, however, quoted in full in the Preface), since they will appear in the larger collection under the headings of their respective countries. One exception has been made — in regard to carol No. 18 (This new Christmas Carol). Sandys’ tune to it (he includes it amongst English carols) is nothing more than a fourfold repetition of the first phrase of an old Breton Chanson de danse (‘Me anvez eur goulmik ‘), — though Sandys clearly did not know this. I have therefore given a harmonized setting of the complete tune and made a cento of Sandys’ words to fit it.

Fourthly, the term’ collateral tunes ‘means that where other tunes or other versions of tunes to Gilbert’s or Sandys’ verses are current, (e.g. God rest you merry, gentlemen; I saw three ships, etc.) or where a different tune with the same title as Gilbert’s or Sandys’ exists (e.g. The First Nowell) these additional tunes are added to the collection. Also, in order that a complete version of The Cherry Tree carol should appear in the larger collection, I have printed all three parts of it here in full. Sandys gave a tune for Part I only. But Fyfe (1860) gave a tune for Part II which I have included. To Part III I have given a traditional melody.

It will therefore be seen that although ‘ collateral tunes ‘ have been added to the book, all the carol-melodies of Gilbert and Sandys are here in their entirety.

* * * * *

Davies Gilbert’s name was originally Giddy; he assumed his wife’s name of Gilbert in 1817. He was born in 1767; died 1839. According to the Dictionary of National Biography, he was educated at Penzance and Pembroke College, Oxford; M.A., 1789; D.C.L., 1832; High Sheriff of Cornwall, 1792-3; M.P., Helston, 1804; Bodmin, 1806-32; promoted the cause of science and art in parliament; acquired large property in Sussex by marriage, 1808; published Plain Statement of the Bullion Question, 1811; F.S.A., 1820; early encouraged Sir Humphry Davy; Treasurer of Royal Society, 1820; President, 1827-30; selected Brunel’s design for Clifton Bridge, 1830; published Parochial History of Cornwall, 1838; edited two Cornish mystery plays, and in 1822 published the work under consideration here; — Some Ancient Christmas Carols with the tunes to which they were formerly sung (in the West of England Collected by Davies Gilbert, F.R.S.,F.A.S., etc. (London - Printed by John Nichols & Son - 25, Parliament Street - 1822.

Gilbert was clearly a man of wide culture, and when we come to examine the defects in his musical editorship we would do well to remember that he lived in an age when the pursuit of music was considered ‘no occupation for an English Gentleman’. That being so, it is surprising how well he succeeded.

* * * * *

William Sandys, F.S.A. (1792-1874), was educated at Westminster. He practised as a solicitor in London from 1814 to 1873. He was well known in his day as an antiquary and seems to have busied himself much with musical matters (antiquarian and otherwise). He collaborated with Simon Andrew Forster (1807 - 1870) — the younger son of 'Royal‘ Forster, the violin maker — in The History of the Violin and other Instruments Played on with the Bow (1864). In spite of his devotion to music as a hobby, we shall find when we come to examine his musical editorship that Gilbert, the country gentleman, made a better job of his work than the ‘musical’ Sandys.

Sandys’ first carol book was published in 1833, and entitled Christmas Carols, ancient and modern, including the most popular in the West of England, with the tunes to which they are sung. Also specimens of French Provincial Carols. It has an Introduction of 144 pages [See: Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern - Introduction], followed by PART THE FIRST, containing 34 ‘Ancient Carols and Christmas Songs from the early part of the fifteenth to end of the seventeenth century’. PART THE SECOND, ‘containing a selection‘ (of 40 carols) ‘from Carols still used in the West of England’. PART THE THIRD contains 6 ’French Provincial’ carols: a total of 80 carols, all without music. Then follow (a) ‘The Christmas Play of St George as represented in Cornwall‘ [See: Christmas Play of Saint George - William Sandys], (b) 9 pages of explanatory ’Notes‘, (c) a page of ’Explanation of some of the French Provincialisms’, (d) 4 pages of publisher’s advertisements, and then (e) 12 pages of music, roughly lithographed on one side of the paper only. [See: Table of Contents - Sandys]

I give this lengthy account of the volume, because it seems to have been displaced in popular favour by its author’s later and inferior book Christmastide (its History, Festivities and Carols. My copy bears no date, but all authorities give it as 1852.

Even Julian’s Dictionary of Hymnology has nothing to say about the earlier book, but takes its material from the later one of 1852.

This second book was obviously designed for the ‘British Home‘ of the period. The introductory matter (of a goody-goody character) now spins out to 214 pages. The number of carols drops from 80 to 42, and the tunes (which are now printed in music-type) drop from 18 to 12. Sandys has tried to touch up some of them from their original (1833) form without much success. [See: Sandys - Christmas-tide]

* * * * *

Neither Gilbert nor Sandys attempt to harmonize their melodies for a choir. Gilbert’s tunes have a melody and a bass only (save in the case of Hark! Hark! What news the Angels bring). They are clearly printed on one side of the paper only. (See facsimiles at end of this Preface.) Sandys is a trifle more ambitious, he gives more actual notes than Gilbert, but they are more in the nature of a pianoforte part for the left hand.

Neither of them shows the smallest acquaintance with the rudiments of harmony. But one thing seems clear: they both had a definite idea of the relative values of their melody notes, though Sandys achieves some comic effects when he attempts to put the tunes into bars. The example on page x will show the extent of his musical equipment.

Gilbert does at least (with one exception) get his barring and time-signatures right. His basses show more musical feeling than is usual with Sandys, but their naïveté is apt to raise a smile, as witness the example on page xi.

As all the eight carol-melodies of Gilbert’s 1822 edition are given in the body of this book, no comment on them is called for save in one case to be mentioned presently.

In his 1823 edition he adds another eleven carols, all without music, as follows :—

*IX (9 stanzas) The First Nowell.
X (12 stanzas) Augustus Caesar having brought.
*X (11 Stanzas) This new Christmas Carol.
*XII (15 stanzas) When Jesus Christ was twelve years old.
*XIII (12 stanzas) In these twelve days.
XIV (5 stanzas) Zacharias being an aged man.
XV (5 stanzas) Now Carol we, and Carol we.
XVI (5 stanzas) Hark! all around the welkin rings.
*XVII (8 stanzas) Saint Stephen was a holy man (‘For St Stephen’s Day’).
XVIII (5 stanzas) When bloody Herod reigned King (‘For St John’s Day‘).
XIX (7 stanzas) When Herod in Jerusalem (‘For Innocents’ Day').

Those marked with an asterisk appear with tunes in Sandys. Then follows Carol XX, which is prefaced by an italicised note to the effect that it was ‘sent to the Editor from Yorkshire, since the preceding Carols were in the Press’. Comment is needless on this familiar tune, which is certainly not a carol (pages xii and xiii).

The remaining contents of the book cannot be classed as carols; they were possibly popular at Christmas merrymaking. I give the tunes of them in their order (see pages xi to xiii and xix to xxv).

A word is necessary concerning my transcription of 'A Virgin most pure.' The tune is in the seventh mode; the modes were not understood in Gilbert’s day, consequently he falls into the common error of treating the final note of a seventh mode tune as Do, whereas it should be Sol.* His tune ends on G, so he puts it into the key of G, with F sharp in the signature and the recurrent F naturals as accidentals. But (to be accurate) it should be the other way about, viz.: F natural the normal note and F sharp the accidental.

By removing Gilbert’s F sharp from the signature we get a perfectly balanced seventh mode melody, — written in the open key and ending on G. I have treated the tune in this way without altering a single note of the original. I italicise this remark for the following reason : Gilbert’s transcription ends thus :—

Realizing the anachronism of the F sharp (in Gilbert’s clumsily-written appoggiatura) all modern editors up to the present (myself included) have ignored it. But I have come to the conclusion that it is illogical to accept Gilbert’s other grace notes and ignore this one, especially as it ceases to be an anachronism when the melody is given its proper key-signature and the F thereby becomes natural. Consequently my transcription ends:

Before leaving Gilbert, it is interesting to note what he has to say about that (now popular) tune which he calls The Helstone Foray, and which in England to-day is variously entitled The Furry Dance, The Furry Song, The Furry Carol, The Furry Day Carol, etc. All manner of derivations are given of the word ‘Furry’. (I have even seen a ‘learned‘ attempt to derive it from ’Feria‘.) But Gilbert puts the whole thing in a nut-shell. (Remember, he wrote in 1833, before the ‘Furry’ dance had become modernized, therefore he speaks with greater weight than any twentieth century authority.) Here is his note :— ‘This specimen of Celtic Music is heard in Ireland and in Wales, when the people dance round their bonfires, originally kindled in honour of the Summer Solstice, although now dedicated to St John. In Cornwall it is almost peculiar to the town of Helston, where a Forey was annually celebrated up to recent times, with all the pantomime of a predatory excursion into the country, and a triumphant return of the inhabitants dancing to this air’. [My italics. See the example, right, from Dunstan's Cornish Song Book. See, also, Ye Maids of Helston — ED.] .

What explanation could be simpler or more convincing? (i) ‘The ancient ceremony had died out even in Gilbert’s time. (2) It represented a foray or raid. (3) Foray was corrupted into furry. What more could one want? and yet we have modern critics drawing other deductions from a modern ritual from which the old original features (which save the function its title) have disappeared.

Page x

Page xi

Page xii

Page xiii

Page xiv

The first thirteen tunes of Sandys will be found in the body of this book; the only one of them which needs comment is Joseph was an old man, Sandys bars the tune in common time, and in order to maintain that rhythm modern editors have freely altered Sandys’ note-values. Most modern editions follow Husk’s garbled reading, and the latest one I have seen begins thus :

Notice the editorial insertion of a note within brackets at the start. That is necessary to meet the exigencies of the remaining verses which have seven syllables in their first line as against the six syllables of verse 1.

To my mind, it seems more logical to treat the first verse (with its first line of six syllables) as the exception in the matter of scansion, and the other verses (with their first line of seven syllables) as the rule. To do otherwise is to resemble the fond mother who watched her newly-recruited son on drill in barracks, and exclaimed that all the soldiers were out of step except her boy Bill. Accepting the extra note, and adhering to Sandy? note-values, the tune resolves itself into an easy-flowing triple measure, e.g. :— etc.

Such an interpretation seems more logical than the wholesale alteration of Sandys’ note-values which the first example entails. Every modern editor has rejected Sandys barring (in common time) of A Virgin most pure. It seems equally reasonable that it should be rejected in this carol, I have not inserted Sandys fourteenth tune (Hark! Hark! what news) in the body of the book as it is the same as Gilbert’s (see page 16) save in the matter of its ’counterpoint’. Both tunes are of the ’Psalm-tune’ variety around which parish clerks or other amateur musicians used to weave their primitive ‘additional parts‘, — the melody being always in the tenor. Here is Sandys’ specimen

Page xv

Gilbert's example need not be quoted as it is constructed on the same plan, though the individual parts flow more easily.

Sandys' fifteenth tune is nothing more than our old friend 'Miles Lane' (in the tenor) tricked out with parish-clerk 'counterpoint.'

Page xvi

Page xvii

The sixteenth tune is headed 'Noel', and has no words under it. As will be seen, it is now familiarly known as 'The Bird Carol.'

Page xviii

The seventeenth tune is also headed 'Noel.' No words are given to it, but it seems meant for some verses also headed 'Noel' in the body of Sandys' book (pp. 172-3) beginning Venes veire din l'estable. After the title of the secular origin of the tune is stated ('Sur l'air, Dans le fond de ce bocage'). The tune (as will be seen above) is found in many French carol collections, and the Dictionnaire de Noëls et Cantiques gives a version of it to the words O vous don’t les tendres. Above is Sandys' version.

Sandys' eighteenth (and last) tune is entitled Lord Thomas. It has no words, nor do there seem to be any in the letterpress portion of the book to which it would fit. It has all the characteristics of an old ballad and is consequently not unsuited for carol singing; I have therefore included it in the body of this book, set to words (which Canon Gray has written for it) in keeping with the simplicity of the melody. This is how it appears in Sandys: —

Here follows (in facsimile) the remainder of the music in Gilbert (i.e., in his 1823 edition), the items being in the order in which they appear in his pages.

Page xix

Pages xx

Page xxi

Page xxii

Page xxiii

Page xxiv

Page xxv

One inevitable criticism must be anticipated. I have claimed accuracy for my transcriptions, but in the 'Cherry Tree Carol,' I have not always followed the original text as regards the words.

The carol is typical of that large class — popular in medieval times — in which the topic is the doubts of St Joseph concerning Our Lady’s virginity until reassured by the Angel, To the medieval mind — less sophisticated than our own—it seemed perfectly natural (in Carols and Mystery Plays) to enlarge on a theme which had the authority of Holy Scripture, and writers did so with a wealth of intimate detail and a naïve disregard of what we should now call niceties of expression. To tamper with crude expressions in a critical edition would be a crime, but those in charge of present-day choirs (for whom this collection is intended) can and do legitimately urge that it is quite a different matter to put them into the mouths of choirboys.

It may be said that even the crudest carol of this particular type contains nothing contrary to either Faith or Morals. But the commonsense answer to this criticism is that there are a hundred topics in everyday life that are not contrary to Faith or Morals, but which we nevertheless forbear to discuss with our children.

As this collection is designed for practical use, it seems to me that an editor may legitimately modify such a text as I have described, provided that he states clearly what he has done; gives his reasons for so doing; and (most important of all) leaves the inquiring reader in no doubt as to where the authentic text may be found.

R. R. T.

August 1931.

Table of Contents
Page xxvii

Terry's Note:

* Gilbert shows similar unacquaintance with the Modes in 'The Lord at first did Adam make.' The tune is in Mode I (with its final on Re). Gilbert treats it as in E minor, with its final on the key-note. His signature has one sharp, whereas it should have two. Return

Print Page Return Home Page Close Window

If you would like to help support Hymns and Carols of Christmas, please click on the button below and make a donation.

Related Hymns and Carols