Carols in church : a partial guide

Carol, carol gaily

Each year I rummage through my (large and still growing) collection of carol books, to check everything will be ready in time, and I get distracted by the Oxford Book of Carols‘ insistence on definitions and distinctions, as it goes into detail which most people presumably just skip over; but it is all actually fascinating stuff, and written by great men (then) working at the coalface. Section 2,page xv, starts with a truth we can all acknowledge : ‘The selection of carols is not so easy a task as perhaps might be imagined’. I think every Church musician would say a heartfelt Amen to that.

Youths singing
singing with warmth and colour
Is it a carol? No, it’s a hymn

Even defining a carol is difficult. Some people suggest that it must be a song also for dancing; it must be of a certain age; it must be popular rather than literary; it must have definite roots of place, and so on. The problem is that everyone can think of exceptions to every rule. Much ink has been spilt over the distinction between carols and hymns, but I’m not sure that it is a useful distinction (if it ever was), especially now when most parishes have only one music book which has to cover everything, and all the parish hymn books I can think of have had carols in for years.

How many carols can dance on the head of a pin?
Saint Joseph with tree
Same legend, different tree; this is a palm tree, pretending to be the cherry tree in The Cherry Tree carol

We are blessed with a large number of carols (and hymns) in the English-speaking church, and I find the problem every year is getting as many as possible into the festive season. You can’t sing carols before the end of Advent, and you are unlikely to sing them beyond Candlemas; so that’s not so many Sundays when you can plan to sing them, though there are also some extra feastdays during this period (St. Stephen, and Mary the Mother of God, among others). You need to include particular favourites and requests (where possible) and cover as many groups of people as you can (small children who only know Away in a Manger, older people who feel cheated if you don’t include Adeste fideles, choir members who love singing Ding dong merrily, and my husband who will settle for either Good King Wenceslas or It came upon the midnight clear, but will be very upset if we don’t sing at least one of them).

Most people will come to only one of the Christmas Masses (up to four options, in many parishes), and they will all want to hear or preferably sing their favourite carols. But you need a bit of variety for the choir, and as I said, there is a lot of wonderful material. Squaring that circle is difficult.

Welcome, Yule, but not here, or just at the moment
Banquet with sheep on table
singing and banqueting at the same time

There’s a large group of carols which I don’t think you can sing in church, and those are the ones which stress the Yule factor rather than anything religious. This can be diplomatically difficult, because some people will disagree with your classification. We wish you a merry Christmas is a good example, and various Wassail carols; The boar’s head in hand bring I starts like one of these, but has holy words later, and the same goes for I saw three ships, or Past three o’clock. That shows how tricky it can be, and I suspect that carol ‘services’ were invented partly to have the possibility of blurring the line. These are great carols for carol singing, it’s just difficult to fit them properly into one of the Christmas Masses. But every family Christmas needs a sing-song, partly for its nuisance factor as well for the sake of tradition; and of course, if you go out carol singing, you sing anything that will bring the money in, and the Yule carols are great for that.

Carols for other times of year

I’m not including in this discussion any of the ‘carols’ for different times of the year, like the Easter carols, the May carols, and carols from other parts of the Bible narratives (Job, Jacob, the Passion narratives, parables). I did say it was only a ‘partial’ guide. I’m thinking about Christmas carols as part of the liturgy over the Christmas season, even though many of the others are great carols; and even here, there is an exception, because many people love the Coventry carol (Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child) and would be sad not to include it, but the massacre of the innocents must be some time after the birth of Jesus, or Herod would not have included all babies under two.

Angel choir
angel choirs enabling a singalong
Sweet singing in the quire

Our church, like many others, has a half-hour of carols before Midnight Mass starts. We try to keep the programme varied, but we also keep to the holy carols rather than the secular, just because it feels appropriate in church.  And it’s before Midnight Mass, even if not by much, so we are still careful not to sing the most intensely triumphant ones. It helps to imagine the running order  as  telling a story, so we start gently with Once in Royal. That ‘Once’ is a clear sign that the story starts here, and you never need to apologise for old favourites at Christmas. We use Come, come, come to the manger for the procession to the crib, and we sing Adeste fideles as the first hymn of the Mass proper. There is plenty of room for others.  We keep the gentle ones for Communion (Silent Night on Christmas night, Away in a Manger on Christmas Day, when there are more children). Hark the Herald is always our last hymn at the end of Mass, for several reasons. You have to have it because for many people it is a crucial element of Christmas, but the words are a celebration of what has just happened, rather than setting the scene like (say) O little town of Bethlehem. From a practical choir point of view, Hark the Herald is loud and high, even higher with the descant, and your sopranos will be grateful if that’s the last thing they have to sing (until the next day, at least).

Even more choices

You have to have some of the old carols, but for some people that means Victorian, whereas others want mediaeval. If you want something new to your choir and congregation, there are lovely Czech and Polish carols, as well as the more familiar French and German ones. You can adapt the wedding outfit couplet to carols too: something old, something new, something borrowed and instead of ‘blue’, I’d go for ‘snew’, because there are lots of great carols with snow in : In the bleak midwinter, See amid the winter’s snow, Good King Wenceslas, and add your own. Myself, I’m very partial to the macaronic German carols, where there are Latin lines mixed into the words : In dulci jubilo, Quem pastores, Unto us a boy is born, Angelus ad virginem, but I think this is because they have such wonderful tunes. The French gave us the carols with the long Gloria in the chorus, which everyone remembers from school (Angels we have heard in heaven, Ding dong merrily).

carols are for dancing as well as singing
Get everyone singing

There are so many to choose from. Personally I’m not keen on the more operatic ones designed for soloists (O holy night) or an accomplished choir (Carol of the Bells, sorry, dear Ukrainians), or arranged so that the congregation can’t join in (several of the versions in Carols for Choirs). For many people, Christmas is the one time they come to church and know the tunes, and even some of the words, and I think we should lean into this at our Christmas Masses. Sing something trickier or more unfamiliar at Communion, while people are away from the pews, but give them lots of chances to feel part of a singing congregation, because that is so special at Christmas.

Don’t forget David
David touching tongue
David , to whom we owe so much

And sing the psalm, because the psalms for the Christmas season are exciting and jubilant, and should be sung. You will find suggested tunes for the Psalms and the Alleluias on our website  and you can read more about my Christmas music  in general if you would like.   From lullabies to jolly celebrations, songs are one of the best ways to join in the Christmas festivities. And even if you don’t feel happy when you start, with so much still to do, after a carol or two, you will indeed feel merry like Christmas.

Starting singing again in church

A long and winding road

We are slowly easing back towards normality in our parish, but it’s taken a long time and we still have a long way to go. There have been long periods when many of us couldn’t go to Mass in person, either because it wasn’t allowed because of lockdowns or because somebody in the family was self-isolating. We all got used to Masses on-line, or gave up altogether and hoped for a better future, but I don’t want to go in detail through all the stages of that gloomy period.  My memory of it is thankfully fading, and I don’t want to sit down and work it all out in detail again.  But we have now reached a stage when we can look back in general terms, I think.

a long and winding road…to get back to where you started from
Silence in the pews

It seems almost like a bad dream, so I may be a little out in my sequencing, but as I remember,  we went from nobody being allowed to go to church in person,  – to being allowed to attend Mass, but only in small numbers and no singing,  – to a small group (six) people being allowed to sing on behalf of everyone else,  – to less emphasis on the numbers, but still compulsory (according to the parish itself, no longer by law)  masks in churches.  So we had more people allowed in the churches, but no congregational singing.  Different countries  (like different denominations) have had different patterns of Covid precautions; some churches have had some music as part of their recorded Masses, some live, some from CDs.  It’s been very confusing, very patchwork and rather unhappy.  Some church musicians have done heroic work, like my friend in Adelaide in Australia, who has been singing a daily psalm at the Cathedral Mass all the way through the pandemic, whenever it was allowed (I know about this because she emailed me to ask for settings of the weekday psalms, which is why there are more of those in the Australian version on the website than for any other country).

Swans singing
Hunting for extra voices to boost choir numbers
Bringing things back to life

I want to think about how we can get the machinery of liturgy and church music grinding back into action, and what it feels like as we are doing it.  So here’s an account of what’s been going on in one of the Sunday Masses in one parish in England, and how it feels to be doing it.

Starting with hymns

When we were finally allowed, and those who would be constituting the choir wanted, to start singing again, there were immediately problems because you were allowed only six singers and we could not even muster those.  Many singers were either still self-isolating or had not returned to Mass in person yet.  But we had an organist, a few (double-jabbed) voices, and a deep sense that even limited music was a good idea.  So we started just with hymns, and nothing too ambitious.  We did not even try to sing the Mass; the usual Mass setting for that particular Mass previously was an old one in English (from before the ‘new translation’, so the words were not the current version), and in four parts, which we certainly couldn’t manage.  So we just had hymns, and quite short ones, too, because the time needed at Communion, for example, was much reduced as the congregation was so shrunken.

Little organ
teamwork makes the dreamwork
Humming along

Just starting with the hymns was touching, because the congregation didn’t have any hymn books and wasn’t supposed to join in anyway, although there was a bit of audible humming from behind masks.  What struck me, though, was how they patiently stood and waited at the end until we had finished.  They clearly didn’t see the music as a mere accompaniment, or a sound track to their leaving the church,  but an integral part of the service, and several people said how glad they were to have it back.  Of course there are people who don’t like any singing at Mass, but there are several Sunday Masses available, and only two have any music, so people do have a choice.

…but which hymns?

Choosing the hymns : now is not the time for interesting new versions and unfamiliar tunes.  If you pick fairly well-known ones, the congregation will hum along, and some of us even remember the words, having an alarmingly good memory for hymns with short lines, nurtured by years of school assemblies (no hymn books because they are too hard to sanitise).  But we are also trying to avoid anything too dirge-like.  In our church there are even too few singers to manage parts or some of the big hymns reminiscent of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  We’ll get there, but for now, we’re thinking more of gentler hymns which encourage a prayerful atmosphere and make people feel comfortable and reassured.  He who sings, prays twice; especially if the words are good and you enunciate them clearly.  I shall stop sitting on the fence and offer some solid examples : anything by George Herbert, anything translated by Catherine Winkworth or E. Caswall, anything with an old German psalm tune, and don’t forget the old favourites like Soul of my Saviour, and the familiar psalm-hymns (The Lord’s my shepherd, All people that on earth do dwell, O God our help in ages past).   The words are very important!  They have to make sense and not just be emoting, because people are actually going to be listening to them.

Youths singing
only six singers at a time
Then the Alleluia and the Responsorial Psalm

Moving on from the hymns, we wanted to reintroduce singing the Alleluia, and then the Responsorial Psalm.  We did the Alleluia first because it is one of the shortest elements, especially if you don’t repeat it at the beginning.  The congregation still wasn’t supposed to join in, so we limited the number of repeats, and avoided using the lectern and making eye contact.  This all felt very peculiar, as usually what you are doing is desperately trying every body-language way you can think of, to communicate that you do want people to join in.  Now in contrast we were just doing a pared-down version of these parts of the Mass, on everyone else’s  behalf, which felt like quite a responsibility.  Some of the time there were gaps, pauses and hitches, as the readers tried to remember which parts they were no longer doing, but that’s fine, I’m sure God does not expect a perfectly choreographed offering every Sunday! 

Last week we sang the Response to the psalm just the once, as we had been doing since we restarted the singing, and went straight on into the verses, only to hear the congregation trying to repeat it (still with masks on).  The rules about congregational singing, though a bit unclear, have apparently been eased, so next week we will reinstate the repeat and see how it goes.  That coming psalm (53/54) has a nice easy Response, too.  The Lord is on our side.

Snail shell with person emerging
encouraging the singing (once it’s allowed)
Singing the Mass (or bits of it)

For the last few weeks, we have been singing the Kyrie, the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei out of my Mayfield Mass setting, with just the tiny choir singing it and the congregation listening.  It is a new setting for this congregation, but I’m actually delighted to be able to introduce it in this way, as they are learning what it sounds like without any risk of embarrassment over making mistakes, and I think they will move into singing it with no trouble (we’ve had some positive feedback, and I’m delighted to say that the congregation toddlers are swaying to the Agnus Dei, which I love to see).  It will probably be a while until we can tackle the Gloria, but there’s no rush.

mediaeval dancers in a line
Hold hands and keep together : another group of six
Still a work in progress

We are still a scanty congregation.  This week we put the pews back to the way they used to be instead of bunching them up and labelling them so that people had to sit two metres apart.  It looks very strange, even though we know it never used to.   The pews look astonishingly close together,  and the Communion queues bunch up and spread out unexpectedly as people try to remember what version of social distancing is current.  I’m more comfortable with the uncertainty than with those who ostentatiously push for going faster,  because we are in fact still being asked to wear masks and keep some distance in our church.  I would like there to be more open doors, and to have the fans in use.  I know we usually keep them only for summertime, but they are an easy way to encourage ventilation, and our church is modern and low, not one of the soaring Victorians with a big ceiling space.

Singing hopefully on the journey

Repeating the Response and the Alleluia seemed to run smoothly, so we’ll keep those going.  Our aim is to glide smoothly into more singing, letting people join in as much as they feel able to.  A church choir is meant to lead but not replace the singing by the congregation, at least since Vatican II.  It is going to take a while, even as the pandemic restrictions have taken a while.  Christians have always sung together,  borrowing psalms from the Jewish tradition and writing their own hymns from the earliest days.  Singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (nice distinctions, there),  as St Paul urges in Ephesians 5.19,  is for many of us a completely natural and integral part of the Mass.  We have missed it.  It is wonderful to hear it coming back.

Church choir
all singing together : something to look forward to

 

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