On the history of Christmas carols and brass bands

The Canadian Staff Band joins the TMC and the Canadian Children’s Opera Company on December 5th and 6th for Festival of Carols 2017.

On Christmas Carols

“The typical carol gives voice to the common emotions of healthy people in language that can be understood, and music that can be shared by all.” Percy Dearmer (1867-1936)

The singing of Christmas songs and carols with music for brass instruments goes hand-in-hand – like mistletoe and eggnog, or turkey and cranberry sauce. Christmas carols date back to pagan times, originally used to mark the end of one season and the start of the next. As Christianity grew, carols gradually developed a link to the birth of Jesus, but the association to paganism remained in the shadows and the singing of carols was prohibited at times. In the 19th century, the Victorians reinvented Christmas as a sentimental festival of good cheer with families and friends and the carol enjoyed a renaissance. Many new carols and songs, in a pseudo-traditional style were written, and there was a conscious shift from the nativity story to a focus on the more secular, festive pleasures of Christmas like the winter solstice, eating, drinking and Santa Claus. By the end of the 19th century, small English parish churches began the Christmas Eve practice of lessons, prayers and a short sermon mingled with a variety of carols. It was later expanded to a festival of nine lessons and carols, made popular around the world in the 20th century by King’s College, Cambridge in England.

Although the traditional Christmas carols are always a hit, the arranging and composing of new carols is an ongoing tradition. Arranging is the art of reworking and adapting a composition for a medium, or in a style different from that for which it was originally written. The goal is to leave the basic musical substance essentially intact. Arranging or transcribing occurs throughout music history – from vocal music like motets and madrigals, to J.S. Bach’s keyboard transcriptions of concertos by Vivaldi, to Franz Liszt’s piano arrangements of popular operatic scenes of the day. Carols were fair game for arranging and even the texts were occasionally altered. When King Edward VIII abdicated the British throne in 1936 to marry the American socialite Wallis Warfield Simpson, one of the most popular carols was changed to, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing/Mrs. Simpson’s pinched our King!”

The TMC’s annual Festival of Carols program regularly includes new compositions or arrangements.

On Brass Bands

One of the joys of Christmas is its predictability. Every year, we associate the Christmas season with familiar images, tastes, activities, objects and sounds. Santa Claus and Ebenezer Scrooge, Handel’s Messiah and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, roast turkey and cranberry sauce, mistletoe and eggnog…….. brass instruments and choral voices. They all provide a joyous, festive and warm mood to which we enjoy returning year after year.

Brass instruments appeared in many ancient cultures, originally made from animal horns, seashells or tree bark and blown into to produce a sound. Today, they are the family of instruments made from brass or other metals that use a cup-shaped mouthpiece, often defined as lip-vibrated aerophones. In other words, the sound is produced by the vibration of the player’s lips acting like a reed inside a metal mouthpiece. The length of metal tubing combined with the pressure between the player’s lips and on the mouthpiece produces a selection of notes. On modern brass instruments, the length of the tube can be altered by the use of valves.

The brass band dates back to the early 19th century and usually consists of cornets, flugelhorns, tenor horns, baritones, euphoniums, trombones and tubas with percussion. At first, it was associated with the military, but quickly became popular in civilian life. Brass bands are especially prevalent in Great Britain where they became an important part of recreational and educational programs offered by industry, religious groups and schools. Where in Canada, companies and schools feature hockey and sports teams, in Britain, it is often the brass band. At the peak of their popularity in the early 20th century, it’s estimated that there were over 20,000 brass band members in the U.K. Regular festivals and competitions have only added to the success of the movement and its repertoire.

Here in Canada, the British-style brass band existed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but our vast distances between communities made travel for festivals and competitions next to impossible. Salvation Army brass bands have existed since the 1870s, ranging from small church bands to the top level of staff bands, the latter made up of the finest Salvation Army players in the area. The Canadian Staff Band, based in Toronto, is one of the few British-style brass bands still active in Canada, consisting of men and women in a variety of occupations – from university students to teachers to corporate executives, who come together over their love of music for brass. As well as regular visits to Salvation Army centres across the country, the Canadian Staff Band has performed on tour in countries like England, Germany, Italy, Norway, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand.

These historical notes were written by Rick Phillips and included in Program Notes for Festival of Carols in previous years. Rick Phillips is a Toronto writer, broadcaster, teacher, host and music tour guide. www.soundadvice1.com