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Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Wexford Carol (058)

With Christmas just around the corner, I decided it would be a good time to bring out one of my favorite Christmas carols. So for this Episode, I'll be talking about The Wexford Carol.

The Wexford Carol is an old, old carol, originally from Ireland. There are claims that it is among the oldest in the European tradition, but, naturally, a claim like that has many challengers.
That we know of it at all is due to a trend back in the mid- to late-1800s and early 1900s. As technology and communication started advancing quicker than ever before, people started to feel like they had lost their identity. Thankfully, we don't have this issue today.
To rediscover where they came from, musicologists started going around the countryside and collecting "folk" music, such as Christmas carols.
What resulted were compilations of songs in book form. Often, the song would have an inscription on it, such as "As sung by this random person or clergyman" or "As heard in such and such county." The song itself would be cleaned up a bit, written out, put into an anthology, and published for widespread use.
The most important of these works was the Oxford Book of Carols, originally published in 1928. This unique book captured exactly the right balance of scholarly work and singable music. Much of that is due to the talented editors: Percy Dearmer, Martin Shaw, and none other than Ralph Vaughan Williams himself.
The Wexford Carol was included in this book. It was collected and transcribed by William Grattan Flood, an organist in Enniscorthy, in the Wexford County in Ireland. He brought it to the editors of the Oxford Book of Carols, and thereafter it became a big hit.
By the time it was collected, it had already acquired a mostly standard English text, having been translated from Irish long ago, possibly as far back as the 12th century.
In the U.S., the Wexford Carol is not as well known. Our caroling culture is not as strong here as it was in the British Isles during the Victorian era.
Lucky for us, we have a wide variety of pop singers and celebrities who make Christmas albums! And through them, the Wexford Carol is starting to make its way into the mainstream. Singers such as Alison Kraus and Celtic Women have recorded renditions of the song in recent years.
Choral arrangements are also starting to show up, such as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's Mack Wilberg, just a year ago.
The arrangement that I am using is by Philip Maue, of whom I know essentially nothing. It comes from a collection Sarah happened to own one year as I was looking for something to sing.
Whether it is by pop singers or choirs or Singerreise, exposure for the Wexford Carol in my mind is a good thing. It really is one of my favorites, and I have performed it for various functions for about a decade, for parties, church, etc.
The text is pretty standard fare as carol texts go - it recounts parts of the Christmas story. The first verse starts with an invocation to consider what Christmas means to us today.
The second verse recalls the traveling of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, and that there's nowhere for them to stay. The third verse (at least in this arrangement), recounts the arrival of the shepherds at the manger.
What's interesting about the text is not necessarily the narrative, since it's all pretty much stuff we've heard before. It's that the text is always in a unique, story-telling mode.
Several times the speaker points backwards to what was "foretold". And at other times he reaches into the present, connecting the old story to our everyday, modern day life,
What really grabs me is the melody. It goes back and forth between two different scales, the first, a major scale, and the second, some version of its parallel minor. This creates a sort of mixolydian or dorian sound. (And if you have no idea what I just said, send me a message and I'll make another video about it!)
As it turns out, having those two keys makes it easy to play on the lute, lending credence to the claim that it is as old as people say.
What results is a lovely, sometimes mysterious carol that draws the ear to the magnitude of the story being told.
I hope you enjoy the Wexford Carol as much as I have these last many years. Thanks for reading, and Merry Christmas!

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