Carols For Easter (Pascha)

Themes: Christian Year, Easter, Scholar

Most people associate carols with Christmas only. In recent years the Easter carol is being recovered and introduced into the services of the Easter season. The article below introduces these carols and urges their recovery.

If you’re like most choir directors, you occasionally have problems filling your choir’s repertoire for Easter. Perhaps you’ve noticed the sameness and even shallowness of some Easter hymns and anthems and have longed for music similar to Christmas carols—music which is simple and appealing and which can readily involve large numbers of people. If so, this may be the year you should try Easter carols—songs like “My Dancing Day” or “Easter Eggs.” Singing Easter carols can expand your choir’s repertoire and horizons into a fresh and significant area.

What is a Carol?

When most people use the word carol today, they are referring to a strophic song associated with Christmas. However, this definition is both too broad (encompassing everything from “The Coventry Carol” to “Silent Night” to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”) and too narrow (in subject).

Carols, it seems, are as hard to define as they are fun to sing. We usually think of them as “religious” songs, but some medieval carols are amorous, humorous, satirical, political, or convivial. We also think of them as “popular” songs, but not in the same sense that folk songs are popular. While folk songs are “popular by origin,” carols are “popular by destination” (see Richard L. Greene, The Early English Carols [Oxford, 1935], xciii). That is, carols were often written by educated men and women whose goal was to provide songs that were attractive as well as instructive. These were neither true folk songs nor hymns intended for the liturgy; rather, they were songs that corresponded roughly to some of today’s “contemporary Christian” hits. In contrast to medieval hymns, which were doctrinal and contemplative, these popular carols showed a tender compassion for the poverty, pain, and emotions of real people.

In the Middle Ages, the one indispensable element of a carol was its literary structure: the carols had uniform stanzas and a “burden,” that is, a refrain sung at the beginning of each song as well as after each stanza. A familiar example of a song with a burden is “All Things Bright and Beautiful.”

In the oldest carols the stanza was sung by soloists, the refrain probably by a larger group. In the polyphonic carols of the fifteenth century we often find two refrains: one for soloists, the other for a chorus. Today this stanza-refrain structure makes it possible for the audience or congregation to join the choir in music making; the choir sings the stanzas, the larger group the refrain.

However, this stanza-refrain structure, although still present in many carols in later centuries, was no longer considered essential to the genre. Gradually the term carol took on a broader meaning.

The Uses of Carols

Understanding ways in which carols were used in previous centuries can help us discover their appropriate use today.

The carol came to England from France, where it was a song to accompany a round dance (which accounts for the lively, generally triple-meter character of medieval carols). By the later fourteenth century, carols were sometimes associated simply with festive occasions, such as banquets.

During this same period Franciscan friars fostered the development of popular songs which taught spiritual truths and encouraged virtue. Often these religious leaders simply wrote new sets of words for the popular songs (frequently carols) of the day. Thus, the early “religious” carols had an educational purpose and generally were not associated with public worship. Many carols were apparently sung as “household music” in palaces and wealthy homes—either for devotional use or for nonreligious ceremonies such as New Year’s feasts. Scholars have found some evidence that by the fifteenth century some of these carols may have been used in the liturgy, usually as processionals that replaced the Latin processional hymns. (Some still would serve well as processionals today.)

During the Christmas season today, of course, carols are usually used informally—either in homes or in caroling parties to neighbors and shut-ins. (We’ll ignore the streams of carol-like noise that issue from the ceilings and walls of shopping malls!) But in a growing number of churches and schools a ceremony of lessons and carols, a service that intersperses carols and anthems with appropriate Bible readings, has become a popular special event.

Carols, then, are suitable for virtually any time that an edifying “contemporary Christian” song is appropriate. In the appendix to The English Carol, Erik Routley includes an order for a service of lessons and carols for Lent (which could be adapted or expanded) as well as suggestions for as Easter service.

Lessons and Carols for Easter

The following service ideas are adapted from The English Carol by Erik Routley (pp. 252–53). These ideas may be expanded to form a complete service.

Prelude

Processional Hymn: “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven”

Call to Worship: “The Crucified is risen from the dead. Alleluia! Tell it out among the nations that the Lord reigns. ?‘For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God’” (Rom. 6:9–10).

Hymn: “O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How High”

Prayers: (leading to the Lord’s Prayer said in unison)

First Lesson: Exodus 14:13–21

Carol or Hymn

Second Lesson: John 20:11–19

Carol

Third Lesson: Daniel 7:13–15

Carol

Fourth Lesson: Hebrews 1:1–13 or 4:14–16; 5:1–10

Carol

Prayer

Blessing

Recessional hymn

Postlude

Usable Carols

Hymnals are one source for Easter carols. Two examples included in many recent hymnals are “This Joyful Eastertide” and “O Sons and Daughters of the King .” In addition to hymnals, the choir director in search of carols will find two books invaluable. The first, The Oxford Book of Carols (hereafter abbreviated as OxBC), contains nearly 200 carols for all occasions. The second, R. L. Greene’s The Early English Carols, contains the texts (without tunes) of 474 carols.

It may seem curious that very few old carols are specifically and only for Easter. However, many are appropriate for Lent and Passiontide as well as for Easter. Even many Christmas carols include stanzas that deal with the Crucifixion and even with the entire history of redemption. Perhaps the medieval friars who wrote those texts had a valuable insight that later generations have forgotten: the importance of a holistic view of the life and ministry of Jesus. Perhaps singing all eleven stanzas of “My Dancing Day” (OxBC #71, for example, or the nine stanzas of “All in the Morning” (OxBC #17 will help us remember that Christmas and Easter would be meaningless without each other.

Several of the OxBC carols most appropriate for Easter have been arranged for choir by Alice Parker and Robert Shaw and published as octavos by G. Schirmer. These accessible and well-arranged carols include the following: “Hilariter” (German; OxBC #96, order no. 9952; “Easter Eggs” (Russian; OxBC #94, order no. 9956; “Love Is Come Again” (French; OxBC #149, order no. 9959; and “The World Itself Keeps Easter Day” (OxBC #150, order no. 9942. Another recommended octavo is “Polish Easter Carol,” arranged by Mary E. Caldwell (H. W. Gray [Belwin-Mills], GCMR 2778). Also, if you have a very capable choir, you may want to look at Gustav Holst’s magnificent setting of “This Have I Done for My True Love” (the same text as “My Dancing Day,” available in the U.S. from Galaxy Music, 1.5080). A much shorter but also challenging carol is Max Bruch’s setting of “Christus ist auferstanden” (“Jesus Our Lord Has Risen”) (Arista Music, AE 529) which would serve as an exciting fanfare or opening number.

The best recent collection devoted entirely to carols for this season is The Easter Carol Book, edited by Mervyn Harder (London: Stinz & Schott, 1982; edition Schott 12072). The twenty-eight carols (in the modern sense) in this collection are all well-suited for group and informal singing and are adaptable for choral performance.

Songs of Jesus, by Salli Terri, is a set of nine lovely Flemish carols for an unaccompanied chorus of women’s voices; handbells are optional (Lawson-Gould, LG 51799). All of the carols in this collection are appropriate for Easter; “Our Father” and “The Bells,” both three-part canons, are also suitable for other occasions. The Easter carols include “The Last Supper,” “The Death of Jesus,” “The Song of Maria Magdalena,” and “The Seven Days of the Week.”

Once you and your singers have sampled Easter carols, you’ll probably want to branch out and use some of the wealth of carols for other occasions too. OxBC includes a valuable list of “Carols Arranged for Use Throughout the Year.” You may well find yourself consulting it often.

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