Are All Christmas Carols Carols?

220px-GalliardThe word carol comes from the old French word Carole, a circle dance accompanied by singers. Carols were very popular as dance songs during the 12 through 14th centuries. After that, their use expanded as songs sung during festivals.  Because they are dance songs many Christmas carols are in 3/4 time. In the early years of caroling, it was common to have one lead singer surrounded by dancers who sang the accompaniment. Traditional attributes of a Christmas carol include celebrating Christ’s birth, alternating verses and chorus, and danceable music. Over time, people began referring to any Christmas song as a Christmas carol. Are all Christmas carols carols? I’ll let you decide.

The History of Christmas Carols

Carols were first sung in Europe thousands of years ago, but these were not Christmas carols. They were pagan songs, sung at the Winter Solstice celebrations as people danced round stone circles. (The word carol originally meant to dance to something). The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year, usually taking place around the 22nd of December. The word carol actually means dance or a song of praise and joy! Carols used to be written and sung during all four seasons, but only the tradition of singing them at Christmas has really survived.

Early Christians took over the pagan solstice celebrations for Christmas and gave people Christian songs to sing instead of pagan ones. In AD 129, a Roman Bishop said that a song called “Angel’s Hymn” should be sung at a Christmas service in Rome. Another famous early Christmas Hymn was written in 760AD, by Comas of Jerusalem, for the Greek Orthodox Church. Soon after this many composers all over Europe started to write ‘Christmas carols.’ However, not many people liked them as they were all written and sung in Latin, a language that normal people couldn’t understand. By the Middles Ages (the 1200s), most people had lost interest in celebrating Christmas, altogether.

St. Francis’s Contribution

This was changed by St. Francis of Assisi when, in 1223, he started his Nativity Plays in Italy. The people in the plays sang songs or ‘canticles’ that told the story during the plays. Sometimes, the choruses of these new carols were in Latin; but normally they were all in a language that the people watching the play could understand and join in! The new carols spread to France, Spain, Germany, and other European countries.

The earliest carol, like this, was written in 1410. Sadly only a very small fragment of it still exists. The carol was about Mary and Jesus meeting different people in Bethlehem. Most Carols from this time and the Elizabethan period are untrue stories, very loosely based on the Christmas story, about the holy family and were seen as entertaining rather than religious songs. They were usually sung in homes rather than in churches! Traveling singers or Minstrels started singing these carols and the words were changed for the local people wherever they were traveling. One carol that changed like this is “I Saw Three Ships.”

via The History of Christmas Carols — Christmas Customs and Traditions — whychristmas?com.

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Christmas Carols on the Ballet Stage

nutcrackerThe Nutcracker is a two-act ballet, originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky composed the score.

The ballet is adapted from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” It premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg on Sunday, December 18, 1892. It was on a double-bill with Tchaikovsky’s opera, Iolanta.

The original production was not a success, However, the twenty-minute suite that Tchaikovsky extracted from the ballet was. Since the late 1960s, the complete Nutcracker has enjoyed enormous popularity. Furthermore, it is now performed by countless ballet companies, primarily during the Christmas season. Major American ballet companies generate around 40 percent of their annual ticket revenues from performances of The Nutcracker.

via The Nutcracker – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Those of you with daughters are probably intimately familiar with this piece, as am I. Maybe it even brings back fond memories of your days as a ballerina.

Here is a sample from the movement Waltz of the Flowers

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Beethoven’s Christmas Contribution

399px-Beethoven“Ode To Joy” is the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth and last Symphony. The German composer spent seven years working on this symphony. He started the work in 1818 and finished in 1824. The symphony is one of the best-known works of Western classical music. Importantly, Scholars consider it one of Beethoven’s masterpieces.

At the time it was a novel idea to use a chorus and solo voices in a symphony. Therefore it is also called the “Choral” symphony. Beethoven, in fact, had serious misgivings about portraying the music’s message with actual words. Even after the premiere, he apparently considered replacing all the vocal lines with instrumental ones.

The words, which are sung by four vocal soloists and a chorus, emanate a strong belief in mankind. They were taken from a poem written by German writer Friedrich Schiller in 1785 and revised in 1803, with additions made by Beethoven.

Beethoven was completely deaf when he embarked on this masterpiece. Tragically he never heard a single note of it, except inside his head. At the end of the symphony’s first performance, Beethoven, who had been directing the piece was facing the orchestra. Consequently, the contralto Caroline Unger had to turn him around so he could see the audience’s ecstatic reaction. Amazingly he had been unaware of the tumultuous roars of applause behind him.

via Ode To Joy by Ludwig Van Beethoven Songfacts.

I think Joy is a pretty good word to describe the people in this video.

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