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.

©Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2022. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Hannah and the first Magnificat : 1 Samuel 2

Hannah’s Magnificat

The Responsorial Psalm for December 22nd (Tuesday of Christmas week this year) is the Canticle from 1 Samuel, and although you will never have sung it before as a Sunday psalm, the words are oddly familiar. It is solidly reminiscent of the Magnificat, Our Lady’s chant of joy when she goes to see Elizabeth, which we also don’t use as often as we might, but it is much earlier in date. It is another chant of joy by a mother, but this one is voiced by Hannah, one of the great Mothers of Israel.

from left to right, Hannah, Penninah with children, and Elkanah
Women’s words?

I have to put in a disclaimer here, because of the culture in which the Bible was written and its great age.  It is most likely that the words of both Hannah and Mary herself have been mediated through a male writer, and we have no way of knowing what is authentically women’s words and what is artistic recreation, but as I have said before, there is so little even ostensibly by women in the Bible, that we have to grasp at what we can get. 

Women's voices singing
women singing, a rare picture

So I am taking both Hannah’s words and Mary’s in good faith as women’s words.  Traditionally, her mother taught Mary to read, but we don’t actually know whether she was literate, and it’s very unlikely that Hannah was.  So someone else must have written the words down; but they are given to us as women’s words, in the same way that Shakespeare’s heroines speak women’s words.

Familiar words, unfamiliar speaker

As I say, the most striking thing about Hannah’s words is how familiar they are, even to Christians who barely know Hannah’s name and story.  Part of the narrative is prescribed reading just once in the three-year cycle of Sunday readings (Holy Family Year C).  It finishes before Hannah’s prayer/song, but tells only a small part of the story even so.  I know I’ve talked of Hannah before, but only briefly, as one of a group (Women’s voices in the Bible).  Here I’d like to pursue her further, as she has a great story, which is worth studying.

Who is Hannah?

Hannah is one of the two wives of Elkanah.  She has no child.  Her barrenness is her defining characteristic at this stage in the story.  Her co-wife is Penninah, who has several children, but even so Elkanah prefers Hannah. He goes up to Shiloh once a year, to make a sacrifice to God.  Elkanah hands out parts of the sacrifice to all his family, so Penninah and her children all get some of it, but Hannah gets only one portion, because she has no children.

Hannah sad and Penninah just possibly flaunting

Penninah taunts Hannah, and this happens year after year.   Hannah is reduced to tears and understandably does not want to take part in the meal;  Elkanah indicates one possible aspect of the problem when he says to her with quite stunning insensitivity, ‘Hannah, why do you weep?  Am I not more to you than ten sons?’

Childlessness in the early Old Testament

With all its limitations in approach (it’s always solely the wife’s fault or problem), the Bible in its early stories is surprisingly aware of the anguish that can be caused by involuntary childlessness.  From Eve’s desire for another son after the death of Abel, to the unsavoury jealous byplay between Hagar and Sarah, one fertile, one barren, and the similar  arguments between Leah and Rachel, which can only have been exacerbated by their being sisters, children are seen as not only God’s gift, a sign of favour which can be given or withheld, but the greatest gift, justifying almost anything. 

Sarah and Hagar
Sarah and Hagar : Sarah by now has a child, but the comparison is still fertile versus barren

Lot’s daughters make him drunk so that they can have children by him, because there is no other man available.   Tamar wants a child so much that she disguises herself as a prostitute and leads her father-in-law astray (she has twins).  These women will do anything to get a child.  There is a poignant moment in Genesis 35, where Rachel is delivering Benjamin :  ‘In her difficult delivery the midwife said to her, ‘Do not be afraid; you have another son here”. 

Rachel and Leah
Leah with child and Rachel without

Rachel dies, and is mourned with great grief by Jacob, but there is no suggestion that the child was not worth all her suffering in her own eyes; her only fear is not having a son.  Obviously, there is the practical viewpoint that a child will look after you when you are old and weak, but there is more to it, as a child-bearing woman in those days often didn’t make it to being old and weak.

Hannah prays for a child

So Hannah, like Sarah and Rachel, knows that only God has the power to give her the son she craves.  After everyone has had dinner, she slips away from the hall, and goes to the temple.  Eli the priest is sitting there by the door.  Hannah weeps and prays, and then makes God a promise : if he will give her a son,  she will give him back to God for the whole of his life, and his hair will never be cut (a symbol of this dedication).  Then there is a fascinating little exchange between Eli and Hannah.  She is praying under her breath; her lips can be seen to move but her voice cannot be heard.  Eli ‘therefore supposed that she was drunk’, and upbraids her harshly.  Hannah replies in a most dignified and impressive way.  ‘And Hannah answered and said, No, my lord, I am a woman of a sorrowful spirit: I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but have poured out my soul before the LORD’ (King James 2000 Bible. Some of the other translations are more modern and colloquial, but the dignity is constant).  She explains that she has been speaking from her grief and resentment.   Eli does not apologise (look at the situation and who is speaking to whom here), but to his credit, he does answer respectfully and kindly : ‘Go in peace, and may God grant what you ask’.  Interestingly, she doesn’t tell him what she is asking for, and he now behaves with tact.  She goes back to the hall, her sadness relieved.

Hannah praying with grief and resentment

Samuel is born
Hannah with Eli (and the Ark of the Covenant)(top), then Hannah with Samuel (and a midwife)

The family returns home, Hannah conceives and bears a son, Samuel.  The following year, she decides not to go on the annual pilgrimage because Samuel isn’t weaned yet, but she explains to her husband that when he is, she will bring him to Shiloh and present him to God in the temple, and leave him there.  Elkanah says, ‘Do as you think fit’.  We are told nothing about Hannah’s feelings, and it’s difficult to imagine them.  She has longed for this child, but he will not be hers to keep even as briefly as usual.   A ‘weaned child’, even in those days, is still quite little, easily able to fit on a lap (cf. Psalm 130/131:2). At this age, she gives Samuel up.

Hannah a real woman, not just a representer

In a way, it’s not Hannah’s feelings which are important here, because we aren’t thinking about her as an individual but as a representative of the heroic qualities she demonstrates.  It’s just like in fairy stories, where again, the longing for a child is frequently an engine of the plot (Snow White, Tom Thumb, The Gingerbread Boy, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin and so on).   None of these stories dwells on the yearning of the would-be parent(s).  The situation is stated and we move on into the story.  Hannah’s story takes us very quickly into the next stage.  She longs for this child so much as to beg God for him, and at the same time she promises to give him up.  Hannah is ready to give her son to God if she can only have a son to take away the reproach of her childlessness.  This does not make her a self-obsessed monster lacking maternal feeling, it is to show first how good God is to her when asked, and second how generous he is (after giving up Samuel, Hannah goes on to have five more children, three of them sons).  But what I find fascinating is the way the story is told and the tension between the events as they unroll and the human nature of the woman.  Some of it we can glean from Hannah’s words, some from her actions and the way they are recounted.

look how little he is
Le style, c’est la femme

Unusually, we are given all Hannah’s words in direct speech.  (I regret that we don’t have any answer to Elkanah’s first question, but it’s probably just as well.)  We hear first what she says to God, where she is simple, passionate and direct as she makes her vow. She is full of grief and resentment, and she says so.  This is a real relationship with God, person to person, which can cope with the stresses of reproach and challenge.  Then Eli questions her and she answers him, again with simplicity and directness.  Later she tells Elkanah what her plans are in relation to Samuel, and he agrees without any cavil. After Samuel is weaned, she takes him up to the temple, with various gifts.  There is no evidence that Elkanah takes any part in this trip; Hannah is an impressively independent woman in context.  She goes to Eli and reminds him, again with great simplicity and directness, of their previous meeting.  Then she says the crucial sentence twice. ‘Now I make him over to the Lord for the whole of his life.  He is made over to the Lord.’ (1 Sam 1:28)’.  Then there is one more performative sentence (There she left him, for the Lord;  alternative translation in several other versions, There he worshipped the Lord) and then there is her Magnificat.

Hannah offering Samuel to the Lord
Hannah’s heroic sacrifice

I find the simplicity and understatement of all this extremely moving.  We have learned that Hannah is a woman of dignity and self-respect, and she is doing this because she has promised, not because anyone has made her.  She is a strong woman with agency.  We know that she loves her son.  In another very touching detail later, we discover that each year when the family comes back for the annual sacrifice, she brings Samuel a new little tunic, having worked out how much bigger it needs to be this year.  There is so much in that tiny detail, and you can imagine the love that would have been woven into the cloth and sewn into the seams.

Two women, two Magnificats

Hannah’s prayer starts, like Mary’s, with a declaration of God’s might. She quotes the psalms (God is a rock, there is none like him), and moves swiftly to a celebration of his power to turn everything upside down.  Here the sequence is as in Mary’s Magnificat: we move from a statement of God’s power to his crushing of the powerful and raising the weak, the sated going hungry and the starving having their fill, the raising of the poor and humbling of the rich.   Mary’s words are more individual and powerful.  She is talking about what God has done for her, now, in this time;  Hannah’s words are more general (and more repetitive), as she describes what God does and has done repeatedly through history.  She also has one specific couplet which only makes sense if you know the context :’ the barren woman bears sevenfold,/ but the mother of many is desolate’.  It comes in as another example of God’s reversal of the current order, but it is chilling.  Hannah’s Magnificat is an Old Testament version, compared to the pure redemptive NT joy of Mary’s.  Jesus refers to the barren only once, and on the way to the Crucifixion, where he speaks to the women of Jerusalem, and it’s a passage to show how dreadful things will be : ‘The days are coming when they will say,’Blessed are the barren” (Luke 23:29).   This is a topsyturvey again, but a fearsome one.

Hannah’s Magnificat : form

We do not use all Hannah’s words in the Responsorial Psalm for December 22nd, because it is even longer than Mary’s Magnificat (and we omit parts of that, when we use it as a psalm), but we use all the parts which chime with Mary’s later version.  We have the first four lines on God’s greatness, then the six-line stanza about turning things upside down, and the later lines which continue the same theme.  It comes out as a psalm of four stanzas, a six-liner followed by a four-liner, twice.  The Response is tweaked to emphasize the similarity between the two Magnificats : Hannah’s Response as prescribed is ‘My heart rejoices in the Lord, my Saviour’, given as v 1 of the psalm but in fact that is simply ‘My heart rejoices in the Lord’, and the reference to a Saviour is absent.  Mary’s first lines, on the other hand, are ‘My soul magnifies the Lord,/ and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour ‘(Luke 1:46f), so we are definitely pushing the parallels here.

Mary speaking
Mary rejoicing in God her Saviour
Giving it a tune

Setting it to music was difficult, but I think mainly because I would have liked to be able to do it so much better.  Setting women’s words is a rare privilege for me, but there are various essential limitations when you are writing a tune for a Responsorial psalm, especially for a weekday.  It can’t be too difficult to grasp or to sing.  Technically, this one has unequal verses, which means the tune needs to have room to expand and contract.  It seemed to fall naturally into a Handelian sort of shape, but the problem with that is that Handel is so much better at setting joyful women’s voices than anyone else (except Bach), so it’s embarrassing.    There is some laughing in the tune (verse 1), and at one point the tune itself has to turn topsyturvey because the words need it to go up when the rest of the verses take it down (end of stanza 3).  And I had to change the Response, because I first thought it started on an unaccented syllable (‘My’), but that didn’t work with the shape of the verse ending, so I had to allow the ‘my’ a certain stress.  It felt right after that; Hannah is a strong woman, and her words have a characteristic directness.  So I wasn’t satisfied with it when it was done, but at least it now has a tune and can be sung.  And I had a chance to find out more about Hannah, and write about her, an early Christmas present I had not expected.  Because she was worth it, definitely.  Happy Christmas.

crib scene in illuminated capital
the joy of a baby….and music as well

 

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.