The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Carols for Christmas-tide

Rev. John Mason Neale and Rev. Thomas Helmore

London: Novello, 1853.

In 1853, a copy of the rare 1582 edition of Piae Cantiones was acquired by Rev. John Mason Neale and Rev. Thomas Helmore from G. J. R. Gordon, Her Majesty's Envoy and Minister at Stockholm. Helmore adapted the carol melodies and Neale either paraphrased the carol lyrics into English or wrote entirely new lines. Excerpts from both the music and words were published in Carols for Christmas-tide (London: Novello) in 1853 and Carols for Easter-tide in 1854, each of which contained 12 carols. At the time, Piae Cantiones was virtually unknown in England; thereafter, its words and music would be read, adapted and performed throughout the English-speaking world.

The Christmas songs included in Carols for Christmas-tide include

Although this volume is extremely rare — a search of WorldCat in June 2009 disclosed only four copies — the lyrics to all twelve are contained in the collection Collected Hymns, Sequences and Carols (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1914); Collected Hymns at Google Books. Regrettably, this collection lacked Helmore's musical scores. Fortunately, Neale and Helmore published The Condensed Vocal Parts to the Carols for Christmas-tide in 1854, which contains all of Rev. Helmore's musical settings, plus all of the lyrics and settings to Carols for Easter-tide! These scans of his settings have been added to all 12 carols web pages. You can get a scanned copy from Google Books: The Condensed Vocal Parts to the Carols for Christmas-tide. [Thanks, Mary!]

In addition, the Helmore settings have been reprinted in other sources in the last century and a half. See: George Ratcliffe Woodward, Piae Cantiones: A Collection of Church & School Song, chiefly Ancient Swedish, originally published in A.D. 1582 by Theodoric Petri of Hyland. (London: Chiswick Press for the Plainsong & Medieval Music Society, 1910). See: The Christmas Songs in Woodward's Piæ Cantiones.

Dwight's Journal of Music contained this review

A beautifully engraved selection of twelve of those ancient melodies, which were sung at Christmas time, all over medieval Europe, the ground-work of words and music being the same, in spite of national peculiarities. Their quaint old words, half Latin, half vernacular, are in this case freely and very cleverly imitated. The music is given without alteration, as found in the Piae Cantiones, published by the Lutheran Communion in Sweden, in 1582; and the melodies are harmonized in plain old church style for our voices, with piano. The Carols have the charm of antiquity, of hallowed association, of quaintness and a certain rude intrinsic beauty.

An advertisement near the back stated that the cost of this volume, "folio music size," was $1.13. This collection was published in several formats. In the 18mo size, for example, the cost ranges from 13 cents to 25 cents ("bound in scarlet cloth").

Collected Hymns contains a segment "From the Preface To The First Edition":

    The want of a good and cheap collection of Christmas Carols must have been felt by most parish priests; the present is an attempt to supply the deficiency.

    We have felt with regard to these, what is now generally allowed with respect to hymns, that it is impossible at one stretch to produce a quantity of new carols, of which words and music shall alike be original. They must be the gradual accumulation of centuries; the offerings of different epochs, of different countries, of different minds, to the same treasury of the Church. None but an empiric would venture to make a set to order.

    We are not about to enter into the origin and nature of carols: how far they partake of the character of the sequence — how far of the hymn — how far of the Lay. It will be sufficient to observe that, scattered over the whole of medieval Europe, there were a certain number of thee compositions — the ground-work of words and music being the same; but certain national pecularities, in the course of ages, finding their way into both. They belong, exclusively, to no one portion of the Western Church — though one carol might be more popular here, and another there. They were generally in Latin — often had a vernacular translation — and were sometimes composed in a patois of the two.

    Of these ancient melodies we have selected twelve, which, set to imitations of the original words, we now offer to the Church of England. The immediate source from which we derive them is the very rare Piae Cantiones, published for the use of the Lutheran communion in Sweden, in the year 1582.

    The words, for the most part, are only free imitations: sometimes of the carols in hand, sometimes of others. Those of two, Good King Wenceslas and Toll ! Toll ! are, as it will be seen, original.

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