Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas carols and traditional scenes

click photo to enlarge
The formulaic dirge, "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night" is, to my ear, one of the worst of Christmas carols. Unless that is, it becomes transmuted into a thing of fun by the substitution of silly schoolboy lyrics beginning, "While shepherds washed their socks by night...!" Equally mind numbing is the cacophonous jangle of "Ding Dong Merrily On High", a song in which the jolliness quotient has been cranked up to 11, making it a veritable Bruce Forsyth among carols - not a good thing! And don't get me started on "Away in a Manger", "Silent Night", or modern carols such as "The Little Drummer Boy", all of which turn sentiment into sentimentality and put me in mind me of Oscar Wilde's observation about Dickens' "The Old Curiosity Shop" - "One would have to have a heart of stone to read of the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears...of laughter."

Those comments probably mark me out as a Christmas curmudgeon. And, I suppose, I'm guilty as charged. Except, there are Christmas carols that I absolutely love. They are songs that struck me as beautiful when I was younger, and which I consider beautiful still. Only when I was older, and had a wider interest in music, did I realise that the carols that appealed to me the most were the traditional ones, usually based on English folk tunes, and those that I disliked were, in the main, written by Victorian churchmen and women. So, I can listen to "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlmen", "The Holly and the Ivy", "The Boar's Head Carol", "The Cherry Tree Carol", "The Sussex Carol", "I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In", "Sans Day Carol", "The First Nowell" and "Here We Come A-Wassailing" every year, appreciating the beauty of their melodies and the, usually, simplicity and unaffectedness of their words. Any one of them, to my mind, trounces carols of the low calibre of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" or "Once in Royal David's City." And it's not just England that produces fine carols based on folk tunes. One of my favourites is the Basque carol, "Birjina gaztettobat zegoen", translated into English by Sabine Baring Gould as "Gabriel's Message". In fairness I should add that there are some "composed" as opposed to traditional/folk carols that I do actually like, one of which was quoted in yesterday's post, "In the Bleak Midwinter." The pairing of Christina Rossetti (words) and Gustav Holst (music) produced a masterpiece that appeals to my sensibilities, though I understand that some (clearly very strange!) people don't like it. So, whilst I have decided views about what makes a good carol, I'm not altogether a Scrooge as far as Chrismas goes. Honest!

Speaking of Christmas traditions, which carols most certainly are, the recent snow has allowed me to gather a few traditional-looking wintry church photographs, of which one of my best is this view of St Swithun, Bicker. Sharp eyes will note the rounded arches in the short nave, and the unbuttressed crossing tower revealing its origins in the 1100s.

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen
Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 11mm (22mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f6.3
Shutter Speed: 1/320
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation: 0 EV
Image Stabilisation: On