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Georgina Boyes - A Challenge To Be Merry!

Mike Harding | 07:58 UK time, Thursday, 9 December 2010

Georgina Boyes writes:

"I love a carol" said Vaughan Williams - and if you enjoy singing, you'll probably agree with him. For me there's something extra special about joining in with a song in season. But not just any carol. I'll admit it, I'm choosy, I'm a sucker for the powerful, open-throated Yorkshire/Derbyshire approach to carol performance. Piping choristers or glacier-paced tunes intoned in all too obviously; voices just aren't for me. "Sing lustily", John Wesley told the earliest performers of Christmas hymns, proving that giving it some welly is a well-established and honorable tradition.

So how did we get stuck with sweet and slow singing in the choir backed by a far from merry organ accompaniment? As with many things, you can thank the Victorians for it. Old church and chapel choirs, the people who sang Christmas hymns and carols in the eighteenth century and later, took pride in singing vigorously and being heard. Sometimes this enthusiasm could mean they were more shouty than musical. They were also uninclined to take instructions from parish clergy in the way that vicars thought they ought to. Predictably, ecclesiastical argybargy followed. "Church music is at a standstill" wrote a contributor to the magazine, The Parish Choir, blaming an absence of "proper singers" in church. What was needed, he claimed, were "persons who had the proper devotional spirit" who would "evince and diffuse a devotional style of singing" And this, he assured his readers, could never be obtained from "the odds and ends of fiddlers, music-masters and ballad-singers making up church bands and choirs at present.". On top of this, other voices then demanded music written by "proper"; - classically trained musicians ; not the blacksmiths, shoemakers and glovers who wrote so many of the tunes parish choirs enjoyed.

That we have so much very "proper" singing of carols now is the result of all this nineteenth century agitation. But fortunately, a few rebels like Vaughan Williams were also on hand to collect and publish carols that were in direct opposition to those who were "professionally afraid of gaiety". What's more there were carollers in Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Cornwall and other places still keeping up the older traditions and doing it lustily! They're what I'd call "proper" carol singers!

Carols are "a challenge to be merry" says The Oxford Book of Carols and quotes a Wassail Song to prove it - "Love and joy come to you". For me, singing a carol is one of the best ways to ensure that they do.


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