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15 December 2016

10. Xmas speedbumps

There is a truism in text criticism that when variant readings do not seem to be a scribal error the editor should prefer the harder reading as more likely closer to the original.  The reasoning is thatall else being equalit seems less likely that a scribe would intentionally produce something more awkward.

Of course, it must be exceedingly rare that anyone can assert all else being equal.  Sometimes the harder reading is so awkward that one must wonder what was behind it.  I can remember the experience even as a child of puzzling over the variant I discuss below.  It seemed so unlikelyso unmusicalthat I wondered who could possibly have produced it.  In later years I felt gratified to see my childhood bewilderment justified.

The Rev. Thomas Helmore was a Victorian antiquarian and musician who was in the forefront of the musical revival of the Oxford movement.  He was a precursor to Ralph Vaughan Williams in the breadth of historical sources that he wanted to bring into active use in Anglican worship.  (For an interesting account of his on-site inspection of the chant manuscript universally known as St. Gall in 1875, see that in his brother’s memoirs, p. 99ff..)  It is a pity that for this post I dwell on one of his mistakes, as there is much good to be said about the man and his efforts.

Almost by chance, in 1853 Helmore came into possession of an extremely rare 1582 Scandinavian songbook entitled Piae Cantiones.  (That datewhenever it wasought to be a red-letter day in music history, as the consequences of Helmore's acquaintance with Piae Cantiones would shape Anglo-American hymnody in far-reaching ways.)  The book was given to Helmore by John Mason Neale, another antiquarian cleric, whose part in the Oxford Movement is much more widely knownparticularly because of his verse translations of ancient hymns.  Piae Cantiones was exactly Helmores cup of tea, and he collaborated with Neale to produce two publications the following year using the tunes he found there: Carols for Christmas-tide and Carols for Easter-tide (both available here).  Although these publications describe Neales lyrics as principally in imitation of the original, he sometimes departs very far from thissometimes astonishingly brilliantly, as with his translation of PrudentiusCorde natus ex Parentis (Of the Father's love begotten) matched by Helmore with an entirely independent medieval tune, never to be prised apart.

Another example is Neales text Good Christian men, rejoice, which he devised to go with the 14th-century German macaronic carol In dulci jubilo.  Although he didnt know it, there was already an English translation that stuck pretty closely to the originaleven preserving the macaronic mix with Latin tags from the liturgy.  That translation was devised by Robert Lucas de Pearsall for his 1834 part-song arrangement of In dulci jubilo, a mainstay of the Oxbridge Carols for Choirs repertoire, and an almost annual feature in the King's College carol service:
(For more, see Pearsall’s note about his composition, as it appeared in Carols for Choirs (OUP, 1961).)

Neales text is entirely his own.  He was faced with a challenge, however, because Helmores transcription of the melody produced an irregularity after the third line of text.  Here is what Helmore had before him:
SOURCE:  cropped from screenshot of Piae Cantiones (1582) available as IMSLP #89383
The Swedish text in Piae Cantiones introduced an extra syllable, and thus an extra note.  What in the German original had been only leit became ligger. Helmore then interpreted the notes I have circled in red to be not minims (i.e., half the length of the diamond-shaped semibreves) but rather longs (i.e., longer than the square breves).  His version of the melody thus introduces two speedbumps in the middle of the second line, and Neale had to accommodate these in his text:
SOURCE:  cropped page scan of Helmores Carols for Christmas-tide (1854), p. 20
Helmores harmonization is pedestrian in the extreme, but his misreading of the melody became the standard reading for the English-texted carol when it was included in the popular Christmas Carols New and Old, ed. Henry Bramley and John Stainer (Novello, 1871):

SOURCE:  cropped page scan from first edition of Bramley & Stainer.
Stainers harmonization has appeared in many English and American hymnals, although some wised up to the mistake and eliminated the seventh bar.  (Im not sure who spotted it first.  As In dulci jubilo became more familiar to Anglo-American audiences through its use in concerted music by Bach and others, the speedbumps in Good Christian men, rejoice were bound to be noticed eventually.  Helmores error had already been eradicated by the Episcopal Hymnal of 1916, although glancing at Hymnary.org, I see that it persists in books published as late as 19951997, and even a Korean hymnal of 2001.)  The neat thing is that simply excising the error does no damage at all to either the lyrics or the tune, as the repeated exclamations in each verse are gratuitous, and the melody has some phrases that begin with a pick-up and some that begin on the beat.  The New Oxford Book of Carols (1994) asserts that Neales lyrics were devised before Helmore transcribed the tune (p. 198), attributing the extra exclamation to Helmore, but no evidence is offered to support this.  I wonder if, rather, Neale had his doubts about this hiccup in Helmores transcription, and produced something which could be cut without harm.  Maybe Helmore himself had doubts about it; scholar that he was, he would doubtless prefer the hard reading.  And that’s what he gave us.