Notes from “The Yuletide Ukulele”

Yuletide and Christmas

There’s nothing like a carol or hymn during the Yuletide (Christmas) to raise the spirits.  This book is a collection of favorites from ancient times – and still sung today!

The words may have changed but the melodies have survived.  Who knows “Tempus adest floridum”?  Not I.  But we all know “Good King Wenseslas”.

Many of the pieces in this book were published in Piae Cantiones (1582), such as “Personent hodie” from the 13th or 14th Century.

How to Use This Book

Each piece in this book has the following components:

  • A brief history of the words and/or music are at the back of this book
  • The words, modernized in spelling and usage so that we can read and understand them. Verses are in plain text and choruses, if any, are in   Note the words are in a separate booklet
  • The melody written out in modern musical notation and tablature, along with a simple accompaniment or bass line
  • Often, the words to the first verse and/or chorus written under the corresponding musical notes
  • The corresponding chords written above the notes

NOTE: Chord charts are not included in this book.  It is recommended that you obtain a one-page laminated chord chart for the instrument you’re playing (e.g. ukulele or guitar) as a reference.

Here’s an approach to learning and playing the pieces:

  1. Learn the melody by picking out the music on your ukulele or guitar. Match the words with the notes and start to sing along.  Repeat often so that the melody is firmly fixed in your mind.
  2. Learn the chords.
  3. Pick a strumming or picking pattern that appeals to you.
  4. Play your strumming or picking pattern with the chord progression until it becomes “automatic” (i.e. you can play it without thinking too much about it).
  5. Start singing while strumming/picking. The goal is to have the chords/strumming/picking memorized so that you can read the words and sing along.  Repeat and play often.
  6. Put together a performance. You can “vamp” on a chord until you’re ready to sing or you can play the melody/bass line as an introduction before you strum/pick and sing.

Notes on the Pieces

All sources are Wikipedia and “The Hymns and Carols of Christmas (A Treasury of Christmas Carols)”.

Cherry Tree Carol – The song was reportedly sung in some form at the Feast of Corpus Christi in the early 15th century. It is thought to be combinations of up to three separate carols the merged through the centuries.  As a result, there are numerous versions of the text and music, including modern folk versions (Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary), choral arrangements (John Rutter) and even Appalachian variants.  It is catalogued as Child #54 and Roud #453.  Two versions are presented; one is based on music documented in the 1800’s and the other is much more modern.  Even the words are slightly different.

Coventry Carol – This lullaby was simply “Song 2” from the Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors.  It was named after the city of Coventry where theatrical performances about the theological mysteries of God’s creation were performed as early as 1392 until suppressed in 1579.  Only two manuscripts survived because they were copied by Robert Croo in 1534 (the originals were destroyed in a fire in 1879).  The pageant has roots in the 14th century and an unusual aspect is that it is written using the “Picardy Third” in which the piece, written in a minor key, ends on a major chord (this technique was popular in the early Renaissance).

In dulci jubilo / Good Christian Men, Rejoice — The carol is macaronic text of German and Latin with a melody dating from the 14th Century Subsequent translations into English, such as J.M. Neale’s arrangement “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” have increased its popularity.  The first version in this book tries to be true to the original as published in Piae Cantiones (1582) with the Gernan text is translated to English, and in The English Carol Book (1910).  The second is a more modern rendition that most people today would know where the harmonies are simpler and an additional bar appears with “News! News!”.

Personent hodie – The music and Latin dates from the 12th Century and the German version is from 1360.  The version in this book is based on one published in Piae Cantiones (1582).  The Latin text is written in honour of Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of Russia, sailors and children – to whom he traditionally brings gifts on his feast day, December 6th (a date still celebrated in The Netherlands, my native country).  The carol is still often associated with Holy Innocents’ Day.  This music is generally used as processional because of its strong rhythmic nature.

Tempus adest floridum / Good King Wenceslas – The music is a spring carol from the 13th Century (“Spring has unwrapped her flowers”).  The words for “Good King Wenceslas” by John Mason Neale first appeared in Carols for Christmas-Tide in 1853.  He may have written the words some time earlier, related in Deed of Faith (1849).  This historical Wenceslas was Duke Vaclav of Bohemia.

Un Flambeau, Jeanette, Isabelle / Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella – The tune to this carol has been known since the 14th Century but as dance music for the French nobility.  The carol, with words and music, first appeared in Cantiques de Premiere Advenement de Jesus-Christ (1553). The story refers to two female farmhands who have found the baby and his mother in a stable and run to the nearby village to tell the inhabitants. Visitors are urged to keep quiet so the newborn can sleep.

Branle de L’Official / Ding Dong Merrily on High – The tune was found in the 1588 work Orchesographie a 16th-century study of French dance forms, by Thoinot Arbeau (the anagrammatic pen name of French cleric Jehan Tabourot (1519 – 595). It provided information on social ballroom behaviour and on the interaction of musicians and dancers, and contained numerous woodcuts of dancers and musicians. It also included detailed instructions for the various dances. It is considered perhaps the most valuable book on 16th century dance. The Branle de L’Official was considered primarily a dance for the common people, although it did become somewhat popular among the nobility.  Lyrics for this dance tune were written by George Ratcliffe Woodward and, as such, this is one of the clearest examples of the carol as dance, although not the English carol form of burden and stanza.

Es ist ein Ros entsprungen / Lo, how a Rose e’er bloomin – By an unknown composer of German origin, this first appeared in print in 1599 and was harmonized by Michael Praetorius in 1609.  The rose in the text is a symbolic reference to the Virgin Mary, and the hymn makes reference to the Old Testament prophecies of Isaiah which in Christian interpretation foretell the Incarnation of Christ, and to the Tree of Jesse, a traditional symbol of the lineage of Jesus. The song is popular during the Christian season of Advent.

The First Nowell – This well-known carol is from the 16th or 17th century but possibly dating from as early as the 13th century.  It’s also spelled “The First Nowel” or “The First Noel” in versions printed starting in the 1800’s.  The melody is consists of one musical phrase repeated twice, followed by a refrain which is a variation on that phrase. All three phrases end on the third of the scale.

Greensleeves / What Child is This?Greensleeves is a traditional English folk song and tune, likely Elizabethan in origin.  The words were written by William Chatterton Dix in 1865, said to be adopted from Dix’s poem The Manger Throne.  In the original, all the choruses are different but many modern renditions use only the first chorus.

Psallite unigenito – Music by Michael Praetorius and English words written by G. R. W. Tune.   One of the central tenets of the Lutheran Reformation was to allow the Gospel message to be known in the language of the people.  Even so, the text of Psallite unigenito is “macaronic” — in other words, it uses two different languages.  The first version in this book has been simplified to allow it to be sung by a single voice (and presented with two different keys).  The second version is for four voices or quartet and is based on the original by Praetorius with interchanging voices and overlapping phrases.

Riu Riu Chiu – This is a Spanish villancico, a common poetic and musical form of the Iberian Peninsula and Latin America popular from the late 15th to 18th centuries.  It has achieved contemporary fame as a Christmas carol.  This is attributed by some sources to Maeo Flecha the Elder who died in 1553.  The nonsense syllables “riu riu chiu” represent the song of the nightingale or kingfisher.  This is best performed “A Cappella” (i.e. voices only) with perhaps a tambourine to keep the rhythm.

Wassail Song – This is the best known of the traditional wassail songs, well known in England in the 19th century.  However, its roots go back to James I or Charles I and Shakespeare may have heard this sung outside his house at Christmas.  The rhythm of the music changes half way from 6/8 time to 4/4 time (although the tempo is the same).  Only three of the eight verses are commonly sung today (the other verses beg for money or food).

The Holly and the Ivy – This is based on an old French carol from the 17th or 18th century.  The custom of decking houses and churches with evergreens appears to be of ancient date.  It being pagan, was forbidden by the councils of early Christian Church, but had too strong a hold on people to be readily discontinued (and so it continues to the present day).  Two quite distinct versions of the carol are presented.  The first (in the key of D-minor) is older and used up to 1911 when the second (in the key of G major) was published and became established as the version we sing today.

Tocher Zion, Freue Dich / Daughter of Zion, Rejoice – This was composed by George Frideric Handel with lyrics by Johann Joachim Eschenburg and Friedrich Heinrich Ranke.  This was originally composed as “Chor der Jünglinge” (in English, “See the conquering hero comes”).  Handle also inserted this into Oratoriums Josua, and Judas Maccabäus.  Around 1820, the text “Tochter Zion, freue dich” was added and the song became an advent carol. Currently, it is well-known and sung in German-speaking countries.

Ar Hyd y Nos / All Through the Night – This welsh folk song was first recorded by Edward Jones in Musical and Poetical Relics of the Welsh Bards in 1784.  The melody is also used in the hymn “Go My Children with My Blessing”.  The song is popular with male voice choirs and is sung at festivals and is also considered a Christmas carol.

El Noi de la Mare / The Child of the Mother –This is a traditional Catalan Christmas song of unknown age, also known as “The Son of Mary”.  The song was made famous outside Spain by Andrés Segovia who used to perform the guitar transcription by Miguel Llobet (1878 – 1938) as an encore.  Classical vocal arrangements have been made by Joaquín Nin-Culmell for soprano and John Rutter for choir.