Where our carols came from

While looking on-line for some information about various Christmas carols, I came across an informative series of lectures given by Jeremy Summerly, the Sterndale Bennett Lecturer in Music at the Royal Academy of Music and Visiting Professor of Music History at Gresham College, London, where these lectures were given.

The Gresham College website has downloadable video, audio, transcripts, and even Powerpoint files for each of these lectures. Gresham College has been giving free public lectures since 1597. This tradition continues with five or so public lectures a week being made available for free download from their website. There are currently over 2,000 lectures free to access or download from the website.

Each of these lectures on Christmas carols is illustrated with musical examples, sung by a small ensemble of music students.

The first lecture (from December 2014) was entitled “A Cause for Carolling.” In this talk, Summerly discusses some of the most popular carols from the past 300 years.

In 2015, the title of Dr. Summerly’s lecture was “The 19th-century Taming of the Christmas Carol, from St Erth to Truro.”

Dr. Summerly’s account of “Medieval Carols,” was given in December 2016. His lecture includes a discussion of the “O antiphons.

In December 2017, Dr. Summerly gave a lecture entitled “Now That’s What I Call Carols: 1582!” In this talk, he discussed Piae Cantiones, a remarkable collection of carols published in that year. As Summerly explains, Piae Cantiones was a collection of of Christmas music assembled by a student of Danish parentage who was born in Finland, grew up in the Russian Federation, studied in Germany, worked in Sweden, and died in Poland. Without one of Queen Victoria’s ambassadors who rescued the collection from obscurity, the English-speaking world would never have known “Good King Wenceslas” and a number of other Christmas “classics.”

In 2018, Jeremy Summerly celebrated the centenary of the world’s most famous carol service: the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge.

In addition to his scholarly work, Jeremy Summerly has conducted various choral ensembles. In 1993, Oxford Camerata, conducted by Summerly, released an album called Medieval Carols. The carols included: Ave Maria, What Tiding’s Bringest Thou, O Virdissima Virga, Alma Redemptoris Mater, Deo Gracias Anglia, Be Merry Be Merry, Riu Riu Chiu, There Is No Rose, Planctus Guillelmus, Eya Mater Stephane, Gaudate Christus Est Natus, Hail Mary Full Of Grace, Now We May Singen, Nowell Sing We, and Planctus David.