The Christmas carol is neither high art nor popular claptrap; it is neither austerely sacred nor tritely popular; it is both timeless and timely, traditional and modern.
In one of my favorite scenes from the long-time holiday favorite, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Lucy inquires of Schroeder (the mop-haired pianist and object of Lucy's undying if somewhat obnoxious affections): "Say, by the way, can you play 'Jingle Bells'?" Schroeder says nothing; he merely leans over his toy piano and plays an elegant rendition of the Christmas carol, replete with resonant four-part harmony and the rich timbre of a grand piano.
Lucy is not pleased. "No, no", she insists, "I mean 'Jingle Bells'. You know, deck them halls and all that stuff". Schroeder calmly returns to the keyboard to deliver himself of another version, again with full harmony, but this time his piano reverberates with the warm tones of a Hammond organ.
Lucy again interrupts: "No, no. You don't get it at all. I mean 'Jingle Bells'. You know, Santa Claus, and ho-ho-ho, and mistletoe... and presents to pretty girls..." Schroeder, having clearly reached the limit of his patience, gives her a defiant look and plunks his finger down on single keys, performing the simplest possible, staccato version of the tune with the tinny sound of a toy piano (ostensibly the instrument he has been playing all along).
He plays the first two phrases (complete with a few clunkers) and an ecstatic Lucy screams in his face: "THAT'S IT"!!! The enthusiasm of her response sends Schroeder flipping backward in that strange but classic Peanuts manner by which children turn momentarily into tumbleweeds.
With each performance, Schroeder lowers the stylistic register, so to speak, of the carol. That is to say, he moves from a sound world associated with so-called classical or art music to a harmonization and timbre that one might encounter at a hockey game to, finally, a single unadorned melodic line, almost wholly devoid of character. If the pristine musicality of the first version and the rich sonority of the second situate the simple melody in a sound world that connects it with the unpretentious yet satisfying harmonizations that serve as part of the history of the carol as a genre, the almost ludicrously facile approach to the final version denudes the melody of nuance, revealing it in all its banality; these are the trivial and barking tones of the modern insipid notion of Christmas that the Peanuts special deprecates. Not surprisingly, it is this version that inspires Lucy's rapturous approval. For Lucy, the carol (like Christmas itself) is only recognizable to her once it is stripped bare of its history and tradition.
And thus we are left with Schroeder's dilemma: just what is the carol? In what stylistic register does it belong? The carol seems to occupy a liminal space between the sacred and the secular, between the spiritual and the commercial, and between art and popular music. Perhaps it should not be surprising that this is so. After all, the carol, throughout its long and storied history, has wavered between these poles. And so, in the spirit of taking advantage of the holiday season to look back toward the places we've been, I suggest we take a moment to survey some of the peculiar circumstances that attend upon the history of the carol.
The tradition of the English carol stretches back to the Middle Ages. It seems to have derived from the French carole, a courtly dance-song popular in the 12th through the 14th centuries. The English carol often boasted religious or moral subjects, was monophonic (that is, it comprised a single melody without accompaniment -- although some accompaniment may very well have been improvised on occasion), and typically was associated with the Christmas season. (There were, however, carols for other seasons within the liturgical calendar, as well.) Carols alternate between verses and a refrain (referred to as a "burden").
Even those carols that focused on religious subjects were not necessarily devoid of choreography. Several sources refer to carols and related genres as "ecclesiastical dances". Furthermore, some carol texts may have been sung to popular melodies (some of which probably originally accompanied rather bawdy texts) in the attempt on the part of Franciscan monks to thwart the Devil from having all the "good tunes".
By the 15th century, the written tradition reflects the practice of singing polyphonic carols. It may very well be that earlier monophonic carols were rendered polyphonically through an improvised practice and that these 15th century sources are merely a transcribed version of that tradition. The earliest polyphonic carols are rather similar in style to the gymel or twinsong, in which two equal voices sing a variety of intervals ranging from the stark octave and unison to the warmer sounding thirds, sixths, and tenths. The voices are in the same range and therefore cross frequently. This approach may have a Scandinavian origin and seems to have entered England through the northern territories, occupied for prolonged periods by the Vikings.
Soon, carols exhibited the characteristic approach to polyphony known as "faburden". This was originally an improvised polyphonic practice that situated the melody in the middle of the texture while singing a third below it and a fourth above it. The resulting texture amounts to a series of richly sonorous parallel 6/3 harmonies -- or what we would now think of as parallel first-inversion triads. The full, warm sound of the imperfect consonances would (through the music of John Dunstable) have a profound affect upon the musicians of the Continent and would lead to what we now categorize as the harmonic practice of the early Renaissance.
A particularly fine carol from the first half of the 15th century is the Alleluia: A newë work that survives in a manuscript that was copied around 1450, and is now housed at Oxford University. The song celebrates the birth of Christ and contains two burdens (refrains): one for two voices and one for three. The verses of this carol alternate between a monophonic texture and polyphonic textures of two and three voices. The carol relies heavily upon imperfect consonance and the three-voice sections prominently feature streaming 6/3 chords. This music is simple yet refined and rather far removed from anything that we would now recognize as a Christmas carol.
With the Reformation in the middle of the 16th century, the carol went into a period of marked decline. In the 17th century, the Puritan reformers disparaged carols and religious festivities and the establishment of the Commonwealth witnessed the suppression of carols and many other traditional Christmas celebrations. With the Restoration, carols were again published but they were no longer associated with the court and indeed we might say that their stylistic register had been decidedly lowered.
The 18th and 19th centuries are responsible for our current view of the Christmas carol as a popular more or less secular tune on sacred subjects. Collectors published compilations of medieval carols and many new hymns were composed as "Christmas carols" to be published on an annual basis. Most of the carols that we think of as deeply traditional date from this period.
The lyrics for "Joy to the World" were written in 1719 by Isaac Watts, sometimes referred to as the "Father of English Hymnody". In actuality, the lyrics are simply a translation of a portion of the Psalms of David from the Old Testament. Lowell Mason, an American composer, set it to music in 1839. However, credit for the music and sometimes for the lyrics is often given to George Frederick Handel, although the lyrics predate the famous composer of opera and oratorio by several centuries and the music seems to have nothing to do with his work. Indeed, one can still find some aspect of "Joy to the World" attributed to Handel in various publications.
James Pierpont wrote "Jingle Bells" sometime in the middle of the 19th century. He applied for the copyright in 1857 in Savannah, Georgia -- a town where one-horse open sleighs must have been something of a rarity. (Indeed, the location of the song's composition is a bone of contention between Savannah and Pierpont's hometown of Medford, Massachusetts. Why the denizens of either town should care is beyond me.)
The lyrics are decidedly not about "Santa Claus, and ho-ho-ho, and mistletoe... and presents to pretty girls" as Lucy would have it. Rather they concern high-speed sleigh riding with a certain "Miss Fanny Bright", a benign accident, and the ridicule of a fellow sleigh enthusiast. The song seems to have been originally intended for Thanksgiving celebrations and was only repeated during Christmas because of its popularity. It captures well the frivolity (in the best and worst sense) of the holiday season -- something that Charles Schultz capitalizes upon when using it as the sly signifier for all that has gone wrong with Christmas as an institution.
In 1739, Charles Wesley (the brother of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist faith) wrote a hymn called "Hark, how the welkin rings" ("welkin" being a term for heaven). Although Charles vehemently decried the tendency of others to alter his poetry, a colleague named George Whitefield changed the line to the more familiar "Hark, the herald angels sing".
In 1855, the organist Dr. William Cummings struck upon the idea of combining the hymn with music that Felix Mendelssohn had composed in 1840 for a cantata celebrating Johannes Gutenberg and the invention of printing. It seems likely that both Mendelssohn (who insisted that this music was unsuited for religious expression) and Wesley (who wanted his text set to solemn music befitting its doctrinal import) would have been up in arms at the union. Yet it remains one of the most satisfying Christmas carols, at least to my ears.
Moreover it perfectly illustrates the hybridized stylistic register of the Christmas carol as it is familiar to us. It is a religious hymn set to secular art music. The words may be austere but when manifested through such a buoyant and lively tune the resultant whole is wholly infectious even for those of us who are rather staunch Agnostics.
It strikes me as wholly appropriate that this is the carol that the Peanuts gang sings to close the special. In the end, Linus's speech revealing the "meaning" of Christmas does not dispel at a stroke the specters of commercialism and banality that haunt Christmas celebrations and leave poor Charlie Brown feeling depressed during the season of hope. What I think the Charlie Brown special does so very well is that it seeks out a space in between crass commercialism and a heightened spirituality that many people might find rather cloying at its most dogmatic. That is to say, the Peanuts special carves out a hybridized, liminal space for modern Christmas that reconciles the profound and the banal not unlike that space occupied by the modern Christmas carol, which (not unlike modern celebrations of Christmas itself) has only a tenuous relationship to its medieval ancestors and yet feels deeply traditional.
And so perhaps this is the resolution to Schroeder's dilemma and it is a lesson we would all do well to learn in this season of contemplation, this season of looking back on our pasts, and, yes, this season of hope. In the final analysis, the Christmas carol is neither high art nor popular claptrap; it is neither austerely sacred nor tritely popular; it is both timeless and timely, traditional and modern. The answer to Schroeder's dilemma is to break through the great "Either/Or" that such categories impose in order to embrace the notion that there are many shades of gray between these poles, the modern is shot through with tradition (even if it is a tradition of relatively recent vintage), and there may be something deeply spiritual that suffuses even our most secular impulses.