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December 2012 Item of the Month

Christmas carols new and old

John Stainer (1840-1901) was a prolific performer, teacher and composer throughout his career. Beginning as a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral, he then spent many years as Organist at Magdalen College and later returned to St Paul’s: choral singing was thus a central part of his creative and professional life. In addition to his own compositions Stainer also found time to publish numerous musicological works, and liturgical and secular compilations, among which is his famous collaboration with Rev. Henry Bramley, Christmas Carols New and Old (1871).

Christmas carols experienced something of a renaissance in the 18th and 19th centuries, with many medieval carols being rescued from centuries of silence; and Bramley and Stainer’s three editions of carols, published from c.1867 to 1878, brought seventy new and old carols into circulation in a practical and attractive format that could easily be taken up by any choir-master or family gathering in the land. Many of Stainer’s arrangements of traditional tunes remain those carollers are most familiar with today, including ‘The first Nowell’, ‘God rest you, merry Gentlemen’, ‘I saw three ships’, and ‘Good King Wenceslas’. Stainer would publish another Twelve Old Carols, English and Foreign in 1890, which were the subject of a series of public lectures he gave at the London Institution at Finsbury Circus in November of that year.

Image of Stainer’s own copy. (Ref: STA 1/3/71)
Stainer’s own copy. (Ref: STA 1/3/71)

As its title indicates, the Bramley Stainer collaboration was not just an exercise in revivifying lost treasures, but also an attempt to continue the tradition, and contributors included many of the great names of the musical world of that period: Dix, Goss, Elvey, Steggall, Dykes, Smart, Barnby, Arthur S. Sullivan (a contemporary with Stainer as boys at St Paul’s Cathedral), Stainer himself, and Sir Frederick Ouseley, who had provided Stainer with his first organist post at St Michael’s College, Tenbury, also giving him there invaluable musicological training. Stainer’s carols in these volumes include ‘Jesu, hail!’, ‘Christmas Day’, ‘The Child Jesus in the Garden’. Of the new carols Stainer’s biographer Jeremy Dibble notes only Goss, Barnby, Dix and Stainer’s (‘The Child Jesus’) have enduring value.

At a time when ‘Christmas’ was increasingly commercialised, Stainer and Bramley’s very successful volumes drew the ire of rival publishers: Chappell & Co. accused Stainer of plagiarising Edward Rimbault’s editions of 1861 and 1863, but the charge was found to be without merit. Certainly the 19th century saw a flood of such collections, beginning with Davies Gilbert and William Sandys in the 1820s and 1830s respectively, and sustained through the 1850s and 1860s by Neale and Helmore, Rimbault, Husk and others. Accounts in the Stainer Archive record that Stainer’s heirs continued to collect royalties on his carols late into the 1930s.

The success of the Bramley Stainer editions was aided by their attractive gilt-edged design and numerous illustrations - copies might fit as comfortably in the home as in the chancel. Among the contemporary illustrators were the Pre-Raphaelite Arthur Hughes, and Thomas Dalziel, who famously illustrated Dickens’ works. A digital edition of this volume of the series is available online.

Every month we showcase here an item from our Heritage Collections.