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 unlikely—so unmusical—that 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 date—whenever it was—ought 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 known—particularly because of his verse translations of ancient hymns. Piae Cantiones was exactly Helmore’s 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 Neale’s lyrics as “principally in imitation of the original,” he sometimes departs very far from this—sometimes astonishingly brilliantly, as with his translation of Prudentius’s “Corde 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 Neale’s text “Good Christian men, rejoice,” which he devised to go with the 14th-century German macaronic carol “In dulci jubilo.” Although he didn’t know it, there was already an English translation that stuck pretty closely to the original—even 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:
Neale’s text is entirely his own. He was faced with a challenge, however, because Helmore’s 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|
|SOURCE: cropped page scan of Helmore’s Carols for Christmas-tide (1854), p. 20|
|SOURCE: cropped page scan from first edition of Bramley & Stainer.|