Do we have any idea of how Victorian Christmas carolers actually sang Christmas carols? What chords did they use, did they use ornaments etc, were there special ways that they ended the Christmas carols?

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Do we have any idea of how Victorian Christmas carolers actually sang Christmas carols?

Yes, we have a pretty good idea. Victoria lived well into the age of sound recording, after all.

What chords did they use?

There are many choral and piano-vocal arrangements of Christmas carols (and other material) from the Victorian era. Some of these arrangements are still in use today.

Did they use ornaments, etc.?

Probably not very much. The practice of leaving ornamentation to the performer was more or less abandoned in those days. On the other hand, people singing Christmas carols as soloists were probably more likely to embellish the melody, especially those who were more comfortable with folk music or popular music traditions and practices.

Were there special ways that they ended the Christmas carols?

Not that I'm aware of.


Carols sung in church are well documented as Phoog says. We have the music: the tunes and their harmonies. The choirs would sing the harmonies. Cathedrals would all have had choirs and I expect most churches had smaller ones. There were probably plenty of imitations of that Victorian favourite Oh For The Wings Of A Dove, but its tweeness didn't infect any carols I can think of.

Thomas Hardy [http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2662/2662-h/2662-h.htm] remembered when a church in the countryside would have a group of amateur instrumentalists drawn from the farms and villages, who would accompany the carols at Christmas (and the hymns every Sunday.) They played mostly strings, though there had till recently been clarinets and serpents. They were paid barely enough to pay for new strings.

On Christmas Eve they would roam around, singing outside farmhouses until they reached the manor house, where they expected to be invited in. Their carols would often hint that they could use some money. Or certainly food and drink.

From Christ's Love for Sinners:

At this blest season of the year
Let faithful Christians far and near
Relieve the poor with charity
That they may feast as well as we.

From The Gloucester Wassail:

Come butler, come fill us a bowl of the best
Then we hope that your soul in heaven may rest
But if you do draw us a bowl of the small
Then down shall go butler, bowl and all

If the hints didn't work, veiled threats of class conflict were always a popular way to end a carol.

The Bellman's Carol:

Today you be alive and well,
With many a thousand pound;
Tomorrow dead and cold as clay
When your corpse lies on the ground.

The lord of the manor was probably glad to see the back of them.

I don't know when choirs took to giving carols in minor keys (like God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen) a final major chord, but I think the folk tradition suggests bare fifths were once preferred.

God Rest Ye (or rather Come listen to me, gentlemen) was first printed in Lambeth in 1836 under the words 'A New Carol'. It didn't have the two repeats of 'Glad tidings of comfort and joy' but it did have nine verses(!). It's unpolished, and it often puts puts weak syllables on strong beats:

Glo-RY to God in highest heaven,
Prai-SES to him belong;
Peace AND good will to earth is come,

Folk singers still occasionally negotiate lyrics this way.


One of the most famous traditional caroling all around the world is such of the Salvation Army:

The Salvation Army has a rich and unique heritage of instrumental and vocal music that reaches back to its earliest days in Victorian England. Beginning in the 1880’s, the Army’s International Music Editorial Department in London has published a full range of music for a world-wide network of bands and vocal groups.

If you look at a group of them and neglect the impact of contemporary tunes and rhythms of the newer x-mas songs you will have a good idea of the songs, style of performance and caroling of those early days, because the members of this revolutionary organization are also known of keeping some traditional standards high.


Looking for further information I’ve found these sites:

The tradition of caroling from door to door originated with the "waits," an ancient English custom of going from house to house and singing in exchange for food. Singing carols outdoors on the front porches of houses became popular in both England and the United States as early as the late 19th Century and continued into the 20th. The English carol "Here We Come a-Wassailing" best describes the tradition of the waits.

Originally carols were part of secular holiday celebrations–something to sing at home. But with the substitution of new words to old carols and the composition of new religious songs about Christmas, people began to sing carols as part of church services.

The Victorians wrote or revised some of today’s favorite Christmas carols. Such all-time favorites as "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," "Good Christian Men Rejoice," "O Little Town of Bethlehem, "Away in a Manger," and "We Three Kings" reflected the religious side of Christmas while cheerful songs like "Jingle Bells" celebrated the joyous side of the holiday.




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