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History of Christmas Music: more than just carols?


Music early became a marked feature of the Christmas season. But the first chants, litanies, and hymns were in Latin and too theological for popular use. The 13th century found the rise of the carol written in the vernacular under the influence of Francis of Assisi. The word carol comes from the Greek word choraulein. A choraulein was an ancient circle dance performed to flute music. In the Middle Ages, the English combined circle dances with singing and called them carols. Later, the word carol came to mean a song in which a religious topic is treated in a style that is familiar or festive. From Italy, it passed to France and Germany, and later to England, everywhere retaining its simplicity, fervor, and mirthfulness. Music in itself has become one of the greatest tributes to Christmas, and includes some of the noblest compositions of the great musicians.

Interestingly enough, during the British Commonwealth government under Oliver Cromwell, the British Parliament prohibited the practice of singing Christmas carols as pagan and sinful. Its pagan roots in the 13th century and its overly “democratic” 14th century influences made it an unsuitable activity for the general public and it was to be mandated so, by the Commonwealth government of 1647. Puritans at this time disapproved as well of the celebration of Christmas, and did not close shop on that day, but continued to work through December 25. This was true too in New England in America, where in Boston one could be fined five shillings for demonstrating Christmas spirit. During this brief interlude in English history, during which there was no monarch, this activity by the populace was to remain illegal. But this activity was prohibited only as long as the Commonwealth survived, and in 1660, when King Charles II restored the Stuarts to the throne, the public was once again able to practice the singing of Christmas carols.

No musical work is more closely associated with the Christmas season than “Messiah” by George Frederick Handel (1685-1759). It may come as something of a surprise that it had nothing to do with the Christmas season when it was composed. It was initially performed for Lent, but since Handel’s death is usually performed during Advent. Incidentally, the full title of the work is merely “Messiah” although it is widely but inaccurately referred to as “The Messiah”. The composer was German by birth but became a naturalized Englishman in 1726. He wrote “Messiah” in the summer of 1741 in his characteristically quick 24 days, and his first performance was the following spring in Dublin.

“Messiah” is usually attributed to have been originally done at Christ Church Cathedral, but that is only half true. While the Christ Church choir performed it, along with the choir from St. Patrick’s Cathedral located three blocks away, (pictured at right) the actual performance was done at Neal’s Music Hall on Fishamble Street half a block away from Christ Church on April 13 (pictured below.) For a while, Handel lived about a mile away, north and across the River Liffey. The music hall no longer exists, but the plaque below commemorates its location. The premiere was a benefit for prisoners in jail for debt as well as for a hospital and an infirmary. Enough money was raised to free 142 unfortunate debtors. It premiered in London a year later, but under the name “A Sacred Oratorio.”

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

2 comments… add one
  • i’m in my school choir and since i didn’t make it to the preformance i had to write a 3 page report and i had 1 and a half pages to go and this did not help at all!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Ashlyn,

      I’ll try harder next year to do your home work :-)


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