December 3, 2012
Sing we Noël!
by Christopher O. Blum
Speaking of his medieval ancestors and ours, d’Alembert once said that “Poetry for them was reduced to a puerile mechanism.” James Madison, echoing him, judged the result of fifteen centuries of Christian civilization to be little more than “pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.” But while luminaries such as these and their latter-day followers find the singing of noëls and Christmas carols to be a mark of childlike sensibility and credulity, men and women and children of stout hearts and true faith take particular glee in the annual return of the chance to raise their voices in praise of the newborn King.
It is from the medieval Church and from her very life, the liturgy, that the custom of singing songs to the Christ child descends. The earliest noëls sprang directly from such chants as the Carolingian anthem Puer natus est and the O antiphons sung before the Magnificat at vespers during the octave leading up to Christmas. The word noël itself derives from the Latin natalis and appears in the form of the salute Noé! in Christmas Masses in the 12th century, meaning approximately “Hail, newborn one.” In the 13th century, the O antiphons emerged from the monastic choirs and took to the streets in the form we still know and love as Veni, veni Emmanuel. Many of the earliest Christmas songs that survive today are similarly bound to the liturgy and its language, often taking the form of what is called macaronic verse, in which Latin lines alternate with vernacular, with Bl. Heinrich Suso’s In Dulci Jubilo and the anonymous Célébrons la Naissance Nostri Salvatoris being particularly fine examples of the type.
Towards the end of the medieval period, the invention of the printing press led to the preservation of many early carols and noëls. Back when England was still Merry, the publisher Winken de Woorde produced an edition of English carols (1520), and French, Spanish, and German publishers were not slow to follow suit. Thanks to Martin Luther’s own love of singing, the custom of celebrating Christmas with song survived in Lutheran Germany and Scandinavia, and even enjoyed a new flourishing with such hymns as Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen by Michael Praetorius (flourished ca. 1600) and the immortal Cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Calvinist Europe and North America were not so fortunate. Calvin himself insisted that his followers’ singing be closely tied to the Psalms and, what is more, that it be plain. What resulted were tunes like the Old Hundredth, which may now bring some comfort even to Catholics thanks to its familiarity, but can hardly be accused of being spirited, light-hearted, or festive. In England, the Roundhead dictator Cromwell even tried to abolish the outward celebration of Christmas. Some have seen in The Twelve Days of Christmas a covert Catholic or even Jacobite attempt to keep Christ in the holiday. Be that as it may, there is a wondrous contrast to be contemplated between whatever muted remembrance of Christ’s birth was able to be summoned up by the staid and stolid Pilgrims in Boston, and, hundreds of miles to the west, St. Jean de Brébeuf’s candlelit Mass with the native children of Ontario singing their Huron Carol, a French tune with Indian words of praise to Jesous Ahontonia.
It was in France that, arguably, the popular custom of singing noël found its artistic culmination in the music of Marc-Antoine Charpentier...
You can read the entire article here.
For your listening pleasure, here is a recording of Charpentier's Messe de Minuit pour Noël.