Four Double Basses. Eight well-known Christmas carols in a new guise. Score and parts.
The Programme of Christmas Carols was first performed in New Orleans in 1976. In its original version, the players were required to wear Dickensian costume and a seasonal narrative preceded each of the carol arrangements. The texts appear below.
Duration without text: c.20 minutes
Duration with text: c.45 minutes
Introduction by Robert Rohe
The introductory text, assembled with the kind assistance of Father Peacock of Loyola University of New Orleans, was designed for use where the receptivity of the audience warrants. So little is known about the beloved Christmas carols, it is fitting that a brief sketch of the carols' past be used to enhance the familiar music.
If desired, the introductory text may be omitted at the discretion of the performers.
The brief text preceding each carol should be used to acquaint the audience with what to expect, from a quartet that will be playing the unexpected. The text also will pace the program and will extend performance time to around 45 minutes.
In performance, the bass viol quartet of New Orleans wore peaked caps, and turtle necked sweaters to simulate the street performers of Dickens' time. The choice of four string basses for this program was to bring the closest relatives of the true viol into play.
History and development of the Christmas Carol
The celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ has been observed for nearly 2,000 years, through the ritual of the Christian Church, with part of that ritual being devoted to celebration in song. In those early days, church music was sung only, no musical instruments taking part in the service.
The type of song used by the church had the name 'plain-song'. It was a single line of melody, plain and unadorned, sung by one or more voices. By the year 1660 A.D., it had developed a second name, 'The Gregorian Chant', after Pope Gregory, who encouraged the use of the plainsong as an integral part of church services.
In the early days, people found the need to sing and celebrate the birth of Christ outside the church as well as in, and although no method of writing music down had yet been devised, it is conceded that adaptations of church music as well as newly created folk music were being used in their celebrations. Here then were the beginnings of Christmas carols.
By the year 1200, the first method of writing music down was being used.
By the year 1400, songs were being sung in two and sometimes three parts… The beginning of harmony.
Groups of troubadours – singers and players – began to move west across the European continent and into England, which was destined to be the most fertile area for development of the Christmas carol. The troubadours brought with them musical instruments in a highly developed form, the two most popular being the lute and the viol. The lute, a pear shaped instrument, had 6 pairs of strings and was plucked. It would fill out harmony very nicely by playing chords, and it also had the advantage of being easy to carry.
The viol, a stringed instrument played with a bow, could sustain melody. Its shape was much like the present day violins, which derived their shape from viols around 1550.
Viols come in all sizes, from small, to large, to very large. You see before you 4 very large viols, known as bass viols. These viols are our closest link to the viols of the past, and that is why we are playing these instruments today in a program of Christmas carols, songs of the joyous times of Christ's birth, songs that seem to be ageless.