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Dancing day is a collection of Christmas carols by John Rutter, published in 1974. The collection, that is, is by him; none of the songs were actually entirely written by Rutter. The carols were arranged amongst two original instrumental harp bits (a prelude and an interlude), and the collection is written for three-part women's or children's voices, accompanied only by harp.

This is an unusual (and beautiful) collection, for several reasons. First of all, none of the songs are carols that have been overly done for the season, though some might argue that "Coventry Carol" walks the line in some circles. Secondly, choosing to accompany only with harp gives the collection its intended timeless sound, using an instrument that was available when even the older songs were written, something few instruments (besides the harpsichord) can do. And lastly, the songs almost exclusively cover unusual aspects of the Christmas story: Three of the songs simply glorify the Virgin herself, one song just tells the story of the birth, one song mourns the loss of young children born around the time of Jesus's birth, and one is even told in the voice of Jesus Himself!

The collection consists of the following carols:

    Part 1
  1. Angelus ad Virginem
  2. A Virgin Most Pure
  3. Personent Hodie
    Part 2
  4. There Is No Rose
  5. Coventry Carol
  6. Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day

The harp prelude begins the set and leads right into "Angelus ad Virginem," and the interlude separates the two parts and leads right into "There Is No Rose."

Prelude
The prelude is a gentle mix of soft harp music that sets the scene and establishes a flowing sort of mood over the piece. Like most harp pieces it is intricate and mostly dictated by the artist's own interpretation as far as tempo goes. However, as the prelude builds toward the chorus's entrance for "Angelus ad Virginem," a more steady beat picks up, and after four bars of this quick tempo, the first carol begins, majestic yet gently.

Angelus ad Virginem
Angelus ad Virginem hails from fourteenth-century England. It was popular in the Middle Ages sung in its original Latin in the British Isles and even got mentioned in one of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. In this particular arrangement, the first verse is Latin, the second verse is a musically-rendered English translation of the first verse, and the third verse is another Latin verse for which a translation is never sung.

This first verse is sung in unison by the whole chorus:

Angelus ad virginem
Sub intrans in conclave,
Virginis formidinem
Demulcens, inquit: Ave!
Ave regina virginum;
Caeli terraeque Dominum
Concipies
Et paries intacta
Salutem hominum;
Tu porta caeli facta,
Medela criminum.

This translates to:

The angel, stealing into the virgin's chamber
and soothing her fear, said, "Hail!"
"Hail, Queen of Women;
You, a virgin will conceive and bear the Lord of Heaven
and Earth, the Salvation of men.
You have been made the Gate of Heaven,
the redemption of sin."

The chorus now breaks into three-part harmony, with an unusual twist: The middle or second-soprano line features a counterpoint to the top or first-soprano line melody, in many cases singing higher notes than the top line. This is the approximate English translation of the above verse, and the harp accompaniment ceases for the duration of this next verse.

The angel to the virgin said,
Ent'ring into her bower
For dread of quaking of this maid,
He said "Hail!" with great honoure
Hail be thou queen of maidens mo
Lord of heaven and earth also
Conceive thou shalt and bear withall
The Lord of might,
Heal of all mankind,
He will make the gate of heaven bright,
Med'cine of all our sin.

Immediately, the harp comes back in again, accompanying voices that are again in unison. Latin text is resumed:

Quomodo conciperem
Quae virum non cognovi?
Qualiter infringerem
Quod firma mente vovi?
Spiritus Sancti gratia
Perficiet haec omnia;
Ne timeas,
Sed gaudeas, secura
Quod castimonia
Manebit in te pura
Dei potentia.

The Latin translates approximately:

"How may I conceive, I who have not known a man?
How may I break the promise which I vowed with a firm mind?"
"The grace of the Holy Spirit
will bring about all these things.
Fear not, but rejoice, free from care
Because virtue will remain undefiled in you
Through the power of God."

This first piece sets the theme by discussing Mary's role in her virgin birth, and her encounter with the angel Gabriel. In the first verse the angel explains to her her importance and her mission, and in the second she voices her concerns and questions and gets them answered. She is honored by the heavenly creature and called the queen of maidens.

The harp ends the song by repeating the last line of melody, and pauses before beginning the next carol.

A Virgin Most Pure

The words and music to this hymn are traditional, though the earliest printed version of it was from around the 1730's. It was included in a legitimate collection in 1822 by Davies Gilbert, a book called Some Ancient Christmas Carols. Set in rocking 3/4 time with a very gentle *boom*-ching-ching accompaniment from the harp, the song has the feeling of a lullaby, and is by far the longest of any of the carols in this collection, even if the optional verse is excluded.

Here is the first verse and the refrain, sung in unison by the entire chorus:

A virgin most pure, as the prophets do tell,
Hath brought forth a baby, as it hath befell,
To be our redeemer from death, hell and sin,
Which Adam’s transgression has wrappèd us in.

Refrain:

Aye, and therefore be merry,
Rejoice, and be you merry,
set sorrows aside;
Christ Jesus our Savior was born on this tide.

This second verse has the choir breaking into two parts, soprano and alto, harmony mostly in very traditional thirds. The refrain is again in unison until "set sorrows aside," when it again breaks into two parts.

At Bethl'em in Jewry, a city there was
Where Joseph and Mary together did pass,
And there to be taxèd, with many one mo,
For Caesar commanded the same should be so.

Refrain

The harp takes a dive in the tempo and trails off, leaving this next verse completely unaccompanied. The choir is now in three parts: One group of sopranos and the altos singing the lyrics with the just about same harmony and melody from the above verse, while the highest part delivers the lyrics in a descant. The harp returns for the refrain, and the singers continue the trend of three parts with a descant.

But when they had entered the city so fair
A number of people so mighty was there,
That Joseph and Mary, whose substance was small,
Could find in the inn there no lodging at all.

Refrain

Next we have a verse that is suggested for a soloist, the only indicated solo in the collection. It is four lines with the same simple melody and a particularly delicate harp accompaniment so as not to overpower the soloist, who should have a light and innocent boy-soprano sound rather than an overbearing opera singer voice. (Author's braggy bit: That's why I got this solo when we sang it in high school! I sound like a Renaissance boy! HAHA!) The chorus comes in with the same refrain harmony pattern as the one above.

Then were they constrain'd in a stable to lie,
Where oxen and asses they use for to tie;
Their lodging so simple, they held it no scorn,
But against the next morning our Savior was born.

Refrain

This next bit is the optional verse, which is more often than not cut out in the interest of slimming down an already-long carol and to avoid singing the same melody over and over--by the fifth verse it begins to feel repetitive.

The King of all glory to this world being brought,
Small store of fine linen to wrap Him was sought,
When Mary had swaddled her young Son so sweet,
Within an ox manger she laid Him to sleep.

Refrain

Now the alto line carries the melody, because we have two-voice harmony by the sopranos, delivered in a wordless "ah." The sopranos pick up words again at the refrain, remaining in three parts with the altos on melody.

Then God sent an angel from heaven so high,
To certain poor shepherds in fields where they lie,
And bade them no longer in sorrow to stay,
Because that our Savior was born on this day.

Refrain

And the last verse of this carol, finally; this changes format into two-part harmony, the altos again carrying the melody but only one soprano line, delivered in a bit of an echo effect. The sopranos' lyrics are shortened on every line, leaving out one or two unnecessary words, in order to have their lines end at the same time since the sopranos start after the altos. This continues again into the refrain, sending sopranos up to a high A in the last line--it's suggested there that any second sopranos uncomfortable with such heights drop down to the alto part for just that line or for the refrain.

Then presently after, the shepherds did spy
A number of angels appear in the sky;
They joyfully talkèd and sweetly did sing,
To God be all glory, our heavenly King.

Refrain

This song's meaning is fairly straightforward; it's just the story of Mary, the "virgin most pure," traveling to and giving birth to the Savior in the inn.

The harp again silences for a moment before picking up the rhythmic march-like single-stroke strumming for the next song.

Personent Hodie

This carol is often used as a processional because of its marching sound; singers often march down the aisles and take their places while singing it. The melody comes from the fourteenth century, and the words are from the Piæ Cantiones, a Finnish collection of holiday music from the late fifteen-hundreds. It is very majestic, and though the harp does little to enhance such majesty because of its comparative lightness as an instrument, its part is written to play up the rhythm of the song and consistently keep the choir in tune. The repeated syllables of the third to last and second to last lines in every stanza are not part of the original words, but are just a rhythmic musical pause, an interpretation of this and other composers.

This first verse begins in two-part harmony almost immediately; it announces that all the world is singing of the glorious birth of the savior by a virgin.

Personent hodie
Voces puerulae,
Laudantes iucunde
Qui nobis est natus,
Summo Deo datus,
Et de vir, vir, vir
Et de vir, vir, vir
Et de virgineo ventre procreatus.

This second verse is sung in unison with a more delicate harp part, it's more flowing; it is suggested to have it sung by only sopranos or only first sopranos to get the lighter, less filled-out feeling. The scene describes the newborn child wrapped for warmth in the stable, having arrived in the world to conquer the devil.

In mundo nascitur,
Pannis involvitur
Praesepi ponitur
Stabulo brutorum,
Rector supernorum.
Perdidit, dit, dit
Perdidit, dit, dit
Perdidit spolia princeps infernorum.

Now the harp again bows out for an a cappella verse. Three-part harmony, delivered gently and slowly, really makes this verse the most beautiful of the song, and rightly so because the subject is also delicate: The wise men are traveling far and wide just to deliver gifts to their newborn god.

Magi tres venerunt,
Parvulum inquirunt,
Bethelhem adeunt,
Stellulam sequendo,
Ipsum adorando,
Aurum, thus, thus, thus,
Aurum, thus, thus, thus,
Aurum thus, et myrrham ei offerendo.

Now we rejoin the harp, with majestic tones once again, powerful unison begins this verse in a decided forte. Triumphant three-part harmony arrives for "gloria in excelsis Deo," the last note drawn out under a fermata. The story is now describing all the world's common people singing with the angels to welcome the newborn king.

Omnes clericuli,
Pariter pueri,
Cantent ut angeli:
Advenisti mundo,
Laudes tibi fundo.
Ideo, o, o
Ideo, o, o
Ideo, gloria in excelsis Deo.

Now here is a more in-depth translation of the above Latin verses:

On this day youthful voices sing aloud,
Joyful praising Him who was born for us,
Given by God,
Born of a virgin.

Born into the world, wrapped in swaddling clothes,
Laid in a manger in an animals' stable,
The Ruler of all,
The Prince of Hell is robbed of his spoils!

Three Magi came and offered their gifts.
They sought the child, following a star,
To Bethlehem, offering gold, incense
And myrrh in adoration.

All clerks and choristers sing with angels:
"You have come into the world;
All praise to You;
Glory to God in the Highest!"

The accompaniment stops with the voices on this one.

Interlude

After a slight pause, we go into the dreamlike and haunting harp interlude, intricate and full of mystery and wordless poetry, with a minor sound to it, until it trails off and becomes the beginning point of the next carol.

There is no Rose

Another anonymously written text from the fourteenth century. This same text has been set to a number of different tunes in other carol collections (notably Benjamin Britten's Ceremony of Carols); here it is to be sung a cappella. However, because this song is quite long for a totally a cappella piece, it is very possible for any but the most professional choir to drift (usually downward) in pitch, which can cause a jarring surprise when the harp again comes in for the next accompanied piece ("Coventry Carol"). One way to get around this problem is to simply have the harp tastefully strum the base chord every two bars or so, if the choir cannot stop drifting.

This first stanza is to be sung by the choir in unison:

There is no rose of such virtue
As is the rose that bear Jesu.

Next we have a repeat of this that should be sung by a small group, usually the first sopranos. The "Alleluia" is sung in harmony by sopranos.

There is no rose of such virtue
As is the rose that bear Jesu.
Alleluia.

(Alleluia meaning "Praise God.")

The next verse is the whole chorus in unison, with "Resmiranda" sung in two-part harmony by the sopranos and altos.

For in this rose containèd was
Heaven and earth in little space;
Resmiranda.

(Resmiranda meaning "Wondrous Thing.")

The opening stanza is again repeated, in harmony.

There is no rose of such virtue
As is the rose that bear Jesu.

This song is of course glorifying Christ's mother, calling her in essence the rose that bore Jesus. None is more virtuous than the one who contained within her own belly all of Heaven and Earth. All of this glorification of the "Mother" figure may be some remnant of Pagan celebrations that glorified the Goddess giving birth to the God at this time; this carol would work completely as a Solstice carol except for the fact that "Jesu" is mentioned.

After the singing is finished on this song, the harp has some hesitant notes and leads tentatively into the saddest carol in the bunch, and probably the best-known. It enters with a lamenting string of minor chords to set the stage for the mourning of the mothers.

Coventry Carol

Here the chorus sings in gentle two-part counterpoint for the first two verses, the sopranos and the altos.

Lully, Lulla, thou little tiny child,
Bye bye lully, lullay.
Thou little tiny child,
Bye bye lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day.
This poor youngling for whom we do sing
Bye bye lully, lullay.

Now the harp gets aggressive and angry, and the chorus attains a forte or fortissimo dynamic in unison as they deliver a verse about a madman:

Herod the king, in his raging,
Chargèd he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

As the anger of that verse ebbs, the sadness returns, more poignant than ever, with the harp dancing in musical teardrops in its own sort of countermelody over the again two-part counterpoint of soprano and alto:

That woe is me, poor child for thee!
And ever mourn and day,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
Bye bye lully, lullay.

Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child,
Bye bye lully lullay.
Thou little tiny child,
Bye bye lully lullay.

This song describes the suffering of the mothers whose babies were killed in case they happened to be Jesus. As the legend goes, Herod the King was afraid of the prophecies about this infant coming to be the king of the world, and he ordered many innocent children killed, hoping that murdering any child newly born would assure his reign. Not only was this stupid, considering if he believed the prophecy then he also believed in trying to kill the son of God, but it was cruel, because many infants died, to the intense sorrow of their parents. This carol commemorates the sacrificed babies, so that they aren't forgotten.

The harp now plays out the last of the sadness in some sorrowful chords, but they gradually begin to speed up and turn major in preparation for the next carol, until the happy glissandos spread joy intended to take this production out with a bang.

Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day

Another traditional English tune tops off the collection. It was apparently first published in William Sandys's Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern back in 1833. However, it comes across fairly modern, and describes Jesus's joy.

The first verse is usually sung by just the sopranos or another small group, fairly loudly and merrily. The 6/8 time signature feeling gives it a flow unusual in Christmas carols. Each repetition of "my love" in the chorus is softer than the last, then back to normal dynamics at "This have I done."

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play,
To call my true love to my dance.

Chorus:
Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love!

Now the entire chorus sings it again, in unison, where the song really blooms:

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play,
To call my true love to my dance.

Chorus

Here we split into three parts, with the altos in a bit of an echo part to the sopranos. The chorus continues that echo.

Then was I born of a virgin pure,
Of her I took fleshly substance
Thus was I knit to man's nature
To call my true love to my dance.

Chorus

After a very merry string of accompaniment in between the verses, three-part harmony erupts once more, with the first sopranos in a wordless "ah" descant. The second sopranos carry the melody here.

In a manger laid, and wrapp'd I was
So very poor, this was my chance
Betwixt an ox and a silly poor ass
To call my true love to my dance.

Chorus

After an impressive glissando, the chorus resumes unison for a repetition of the first verse, but with a difference: Three part harmony in the chorus, with the first sopranos doing an echoey descant that won't let listeners forget where the high A is. It builds to a showy conclusion by slowing down in a repetition of "This have I done for my true love," splitting for the only time into four parts, finished off by another beautiful harp gliss:

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play,
To call my true love to my dance.

Chorus This have I done for my true love!

Though this is where the piece ends, there were actually eleven stanzas to this poem originally. In the part that surfaced here, Jesus is the speaker, describing the beginning of his life and all through it saying his purpose is to call his true love (humanity) to his dance (life in Heaven with God). It reminds us, though, that Jesus was supposed to be "knit to man's nature" through birth by Mary, and therefore He understands the dance here on Earth as well, having lived as one of us.

The whole collection gives us an intriguing peek into usually undiscovered aspects of this time of year, with absolutely beautiful music that never gets old because it keeps changing.

My sources:

The Index of the Hymns and Carols of Christmas:
http://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/HTML/full_index_of_hymns_and_carols.htm

CyberHymnal:
http://www.cyberhymnal.org

These were used mostly for the translations and for ascertaining the correct lyrics, as I do not have the original sheet music to go by. Most of this node was reconstructed from the (powerful!) memory of performing this in my high school 1995 Holiday Concert, so please point out, then excuse, any errors.

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