Caroling the Nativity: Stories & a Playlist from the Department of Music

By Becky St. Clair

Have you ever watched a movie without a soundtrack? Imagine a silent scene of a forest in the early morning with fog drifting around the trees and an occasional bird or fox or squirrel darting out and then back in. This could be a creepy horror movie, a documentary about ecosystems, a war drama, a Hallmark Christmas film, or something else entirely. Without the soundtrack, it’s hard to know how to feel or what to expect. Music is a powerful and effective way to set the mood of a scene, and no story would be the same without it. 

Christmas has a soundtrack, too, and though it’s different for every person, we all find joy and comfort in the familiar music of the holiday. Yes, some of it is “Santa Baby” or “Linus & Lucy” style, but even some people who aren’t particularly religious will admit that “O, Holy Night” brings tears to their eyes.

In this month’s blog, we’re exploring the story of the Nativity through carols. At the end of the post there is a link to a playlist of all the pieces we review here today, so you can carol your way through the story of Christmas. (Pssst: Feel free to sing along. We won’t judge!)

“Gabriel’s Message” a Basque folk Christmas carol

Originally based on a 13th/14th-century carol called “Angelus ad Virginem,” this carol tells the story of the angel Gabriel visiting Mary to deliver the news that will change her life forever. Though not a well-known or popular carol, it has been recorded by popular artists such as Charlotte Church and Sting. A cheerful and catchy repeating line throughout the song is “Most highly favored lady; gloria!”

“Magnificat” by Johann Sebastian Bach

This lively piece is the only carol that comes straight from the Bible. The text, found in Luke 1:46-55, is titled in scripture as “Mary’s Song.” She has just found out–at 14 years old, mind you–that she’s pregnant, carrying the most important baby the world will ever know, and she has made her way to visit her cousin, who is also expecting an important child. Upon her arrival she bursts into song, proclaiming her adoration of God and her appreciation for what he has done. There are some unexpected political/historical points of significance in Mary’s song, as well. (Read this article for one perspective.) This piece was actually Bach’s first major liturgical composition on a Latin text.

“O Little Town of Bethlehem” by Phillips Brooks & Lewis H. Redner

This carol is, of course, is a poetic commentary on the important place this little town became, all because a specific baby was born there. Brooks spent Christmas 1866 in Bethlehem and was inspired to pen the lyrics known ‘round the Christian world today. The tune was composed by his church organist back home in Boston, though the tune we know in the Adventist Church is not the one they use in England and in many liturgical churches–they use instead an arrangement of an old folk tune put together by Ralph Vaughan Williams called “Forest Green.”

“Jesus, Jesus Rest Your Head” an Appalachian folk carol

This is a piece collected by Kentucky native John Jacob Niles, who began collecting folk songs and composing his own as a teenager in the early 20th century. The tune is beautiful, and it paints the scene of Jesus lying in his manger bed, while also pointing out that many terrible people sleep in “feather beds” so one’s station in life doesn’t matter so much as one’s character. 

“Away in a Manger” by an unknown composer

Though the text has been mis-attributed to Martin Luther, the fact remains that its origins are still relatively unknown; though it has been determined that the carol is most likely American. It depicts the Christ child in the stable on the night he was born, surrounded by what one might typically expect in a stable. Though in America we typically use a tune written by organist and songwriter James R. Murray, in the U.K. the more commonly used tune is “Cradle Song,” composed (interestingly) by a carpenter in Philadelphia by the name of William J. Kirkpatrick.

“While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night” by multiple composers/writers

In the late 17th century, Nahum Tate, a British poet known for his metrical psalms, turned his attention to the story of Christ’s birth in the book of Luke. He wrote a metrical version of the story of the shepherds so it could be sung directly from scripture, and he called it “Song of the Angels at the Nativity of our Blessed Saviour.” Interestingly, a specific tune was not created for it; rather, publications of the text indicated it could be sung to any number of tunes “of common measure.” 

“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” by Felix Mendelssohn, William Cummings, & Charles Wesley

Surprise! This wasn’t actually originally a Christmas song at all. Well, okay, that’s kind of a stretch. The tune was originally from one of Mendelssohn’s cantatas and had nothing to do with anything sacred at all–it was actually in honor of the 400th anniversary of the invention of the printing press, and paid homage to Johannes Gutenberg. However, in the mid-19th century, a former choir boy took the tune and put it together with a sacred poem from a collection of Christmas hymns and poems by Charles Wesley, creating the carol we know today. It is now regularly performed in celebration of the visit the angels paid to the shepherds to announce the birth of the Savior.

“The Coventry Carol” a traditional English carol

Dating from the Coventry mystery plays of the 16th century, this carol is one of the most hauntingly beautiful tunes ever written. One interesting thing to note is that it’s in a minor key–a rarity in the collection of familiar carols–but there’s a reason for that. While we all likely recognize the tune, it’s doubtful many have stopped to ponder the meaning of the words. This is likely the only carol honoring the part of the story where Herod loses his mind over being usurped by a baby of lowly birth and orders The Massacre of the Innocents. It is, however, an important part of the story of Jesus’ birth, because his life was spared and God’s plan of salvation marched on.

“The Adoration of the Magi” by Ottorino Respighi

We decided to try something different at this part of the story (other than “We Three Kings”), and opted to introduce our readers to something new. This piece is one of three known as “Trittico Botticelliano,” composed to musically illustrate a triptych of paintings by Sandro Botticelli. There are so many beautiful elements in this piece–the ethereal double-reed instrumentation woven throughout, the incorporation of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” the rich support of the strings, the calculated use of percussion–you can clearly imagine the kings making their way to worship the Christ child as you listen.

“Joy the World” by Isaac Watts & Lowell Mason

We end our caroling journey with one based not on the Nativity, but on the second Advent, and taken not from the New Testament, but from Psalms. Published by Watts in 1719, the poem was originally titled, “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom,” celebrating the kingly rule of Christ over all of heaven and earth. In 1836, Mason published the poem with a tune he attributed to Handel, but over the last 180-or-so years, no one has been able to figure out exactly which Handel tune he was referring to, though it’s suspected that some bars and lines of melody were inspired by parts of Handel’s “Messiah.” It is a fitting end to our musical Nativity to sing joyfully that the Lord has come. Let Heaven and nature sing!

Check out our playlist of the above carols on Spotify. (It’s free!)

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