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21 December 2023

54. So easily assimilated

For this years Christmas music post, I decided to look more deeply into a Polish carol that is familiar in English-speaking countries with the words Infant holy, Infant lowly.  That text, penned by Edith Margaret Gellibrand Reed, dates only as far back as 1920.  A mystery Ive been unable to solve is why Reeds setting appeared first in an American publication (Primary Education, December 1920), and not in her own UK periodical (Music and Youth) until twelve months later.  Both appear below.  The first publication is marred by a number of infelicities (I assume misprints) which are rectified in the later publication.  I have marked those changes are in red, as well as some changes to the lyrics.  But notice the last three notes of Reed’s version of this melodyIll come back to them later.

SOURCE:  composite image, (l). scan of p. 641 of Primary Education (December 1920); (r) cropped scan of p. 945 of Music and Youth (December 1921).  [For larger image, click here.]

Reeds text aimed at a G-rated childrens carol, and it has the usual suspects of the nativity pageant:  divinely well-behaved Baby in manger, lowing cattle, amazed shepherds, radiant angels, and stunning news.  The Polish text (or at least the only Polish text I have found associated with the melody) is “”W żłobie leży” [“He lies in a manger”].  I have not had the means to do a comprehensive search, but the earliest source I have located was a hymnal printed in 1838.  It includes three distinct but related melodies for the text:

SOURCE:  scans from the Biblioteka Narodawa of Śpiewnik kościelny czyli Pieśni nabożne z melodyjami... ed. Michał Mioduszewski (1838), pp. 30, 31, and 32; the final stanza concludes on p. 33.  The footnote on p. 30 indicates that the first tune is the most commonly used.

I know no Polish, but with the help of a number of friends I learned that the original text is very different from the innocent (even innocuous) English.  The first few verses are cast in the first-person plural:  we will sing for the baby, we will follow the shepherds, we will make him happy.  But then it turns to the second person singular, asking pointed questions:  Why are you in a manger?  Why does the world not accept you?  Then, finally, we have a response from the baby:  He foretells a blood bath such as will make the weeping in Ramah seem trivial by comparison; yet it is the bath in my blood that brings salvation. 

This is to say that W żłobie leży is much more substantial and challenging than Infant holy, Infant lowly.  But it has been assimilated into a different culturea comfortable, early twentieth-century middle class culture which didnt want any reminders of weeping in Ramah [Jeremiah 31; Matthew 2].  I had a little trouble associating the melody with anything except a lullaby, at least until I started looking at some Polish organ settings of the tune which ended in grand ff statements.  (If youre interested, see the two settings in IMSLP #791869.)  And these reminded me of another organ setting of this tune, in a collection of noëls by Alexandre Guilmant.  He begins quite portentously:

SOURCE:  Guilmant op. 60, book 2, no.1 (bb. 1-9), from IMSLP #03921, a reprint of original 1886 Schott edition.

(Here’s a good performance.)  Eventually Guilmant gets around to stating the theme:

 SOURCE:  Guilmant op. 60, book 2, no.1 (bb. 20-37), from IMSLP #03921, as above.

The heading describes this piece as based on an old Polish carol; at the presentation of the theme, there is an asterisk referring the user to this footnote:
 SOURCE:  Footnote on the page of the above example, from IMSLP #03921

Guilmant reveals his source for this ancien noël Polonais” (thus evidently not in a common repertory in France at the time) but what Fr. Victor Thirion’s source was we do not know.  Guilmant gives us a French title for this tune:  Accourez bergers fidèles, l'heure bénie a sonnée (roughly Hurry, faithful shepherds, the blessed hour has soundedin any case, nothing like either the Polish or the later English texts).  Most important, however, is the re-barring of the music:  unlike the Polish source above (and, indeed, the early publications of Infant holy, Infant lowly), Guilmant starts the melody on an up-beat.  My guess is that Fr. Thirions communication to Guilmant was an aural transcriptionthat he heard it as an upbeat, and notated it that way.

This metrical dislocation appears in a considerable number of hymnals and carol books that use ReedInfant holy, Infant lowly textbut it is striking that in the earliest printings of her version the carol starts invariably on the downbeat.  Indeed, the earliest version I have located of the English Infant holy, Infant lowly” text with the tune shifted a beat over à la Guilmant is not until 1950 (well after Reeds death), where it appears in the Armed Forces Hymnal:

SOURCE:  cropped scan of Armed Forces Hymnal, p. 211, from Archive.org

The harmonization is here attributed to David Hugh Jones (a professor at Westminster Choir College); the copyright at the bottom of the page indicates the source as the Kingsway Carol Book, but that source preserves Reed's arrangement almost intact.  (If you want to compare, scans are available here.) 

So how did this metrical change happen?  My guess is that Fr. Thirions communication to Guilmant was an aural transcription, although it just as well might have been an intentional change by either Thirion or Guilmant (or somebody earlier in the transmission chain).  In any case, I am quite certain that the change happened in France, not in Poland:  that it was an act of assimilation to make the tune more readily comprehensible to French ears, just as David Hugh Jones acted in the same way to make it more readily comprehensible to American ones.  The opening melodic gesturethe move from the fifth scale-degree up to the tonicis (I pronounce, as if ex cathedra) more commonly found crossing the barline (i.e., upbeat to downbeat) in the Western European and American hymn and carol repertories.  More than thisalthough one can certainly find the rhythm 

in Anglo-American hymnsalmost all the examples that occur to me are iambic rather than trochaic, thus preceded by a quarter-note upbeat:

Im thinking of examples like AZMON (a tune particularly associated with O for a thousand tongues to sing) and SOLID ROCK (William Bradburys tune for My hope is built on nothing less).  The sole trochaic exception that comes to mind is Ralph Vaughan Williamss splendid KING’S WESTON, which rescues the text At the name of Jesus from a myriad of tunes that all give the same prosaic and predictable pattern (essentially the rhythm of Sullivan’s tune for Onward, Christian Soldiers):

... but I digress.

The point Im trying to get to is that the metrical shift imposed upon the W żłobie leży tune is something akin to what the officers at Ellis Island did to surnames as they processed the immigrants entering the country:  they regularized them into something more familiar, maybe with the intent of making them easier for others to spell and pronounce, or maybe because they transliterated what they perceived as the names were pronounced.  Or they were lazy.  Or they didnt care.  And it worked, and this tune has become a regular fixture among the Anglo-American carol repertory.  Like the Old Woman in Bernsteins Candide, it is easily assimilated.  (A long way from Rovno Gubernya, indeed.)

I have referred before in this blog to the generally excellent New Oxford Book of Carols by Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott.  Here is their comment about this item:
SOURCE:  cropped scan of The New Oxford Book of Carols p. 605.

This note leaves quite a lot to be desired:
  1. The misplaced bar-lines are in fact extremely common in the US, although granted the tune is now appearing with the (Polish) down-beat beginning with increasing frequency in US hymnals.
  2. Reeds version didnt appear first in Music and Youthalthough, again, I cannot explain how it made it (flaws and all) into Primary Education the previous year.  (For that tidbit, I thank the Hymns and Carols of Christmas website.)
  3. Keyte and Parrott say that Reeds text was written for the mis-stressed version, but her version is like the Polish sources (beginning on the beat), and its not clear that she would have known anything else.  (While some sources refer to the mazurka rhythm of the original, Reeds commentary in Music and Youth actually describes the W żłobie leży tune as a polonaise specifically, rather than a mazurka.)
  4. They also refer to an obvious misprint that led to the wrong notes at the ending (as given in Reeds version).  I dont know that this could have come from anyone other than Reed, and it seems not at all to be a misprint:  
SOURCE:  detail of p. 945 of Music and Youth (December 1921)

This is the 1921 printing; not only is this ending not corrected from the 1920 reading, but it is confirmed not only in the piano accompaniment and the Tonic Sol-Fa notation (which reads fa  mi  do), and the two-bar piano echo.  If this is a misprint, it must be from a source prior to Reed and upong which she based her text.  Such has not been located.  Maybe instead this is Reeds own improvement?

That piano echo (preceded by the deceptive cadence under the last sung note) seems to have been Reeds creation, and it is probably another element of assimilation, stretching the fourteen bars of the Polish version into a more typical classical sixteen.  It has had a long-lasting legacy, as all but one of the page scans of Infant holy, Infant lowly on Hymnary.org had the deceptive cadence and extra two (sung) bars.  Corrupted texts are immortal, or at least have nine lives.

One of the big surprises to me in all of this digging was that the tune was known in at least one English hymnal decades before Reed.  In 1877 it appeared in The Hymnal Companion to the Book of Common Prayer with Accompanying Tunes with the text Angels from the realms of glory.   Here it was assimilated in a very different way:  it has been Victorianized, flattened out into all half-notes.

SOURCE:  cropped page scan of p. 54 of The Hymnal Companion to the Book of Common Prayer... from Archive.org
Ian Bradleys Penguin Book of Carols alerted me to this version.  Bradley remarks that the Polish tune’s date is uncertain but it may well go back to the Middle Ages.  I doubt it, at least as far as the tune is concerned.  To my ears it is just too tonal to be medieval.  Very few medieval specimens can don tonal garb and successfully pass.  (The c. 1400 tune In dulci jubilo is to me the exception that proves that rule.)  Rather, it suggests the Biedermier era of Stille Nacht (1820s).  Indeed, one of the melodies has a passage that strongly resembles the German folk carol O Tannenbaum (popularized with that text in 1824) [highlighted in red in the following illustration],  followed by something like the concluding phrase of the late-18th-century tune for the pseudo-ancient drinking song, Gaudeamus igitur [highlighted in yellow].

SOURCE:  marked up detail of above illustration from  of Śpiewnik kościelny czyli Pieśni nabożne z melodyjami... ed. Michał Mioduszewski (1838), pp. 30,

The IMSLP and other repositories had all sorts of Polish settings of one or another of the W żłobie leży melodies.  Without taking the space for them here, I link a few below (in addition to the organ settings linked above) because I found them all very interesting:

  • Zygmunt Noskowskis male-choir arrangement, in Sześć kolend, op. 56/ii (1898) IMSLP #696256
  • another male-choir arrangement, no. 90 of Kazimierz Garbusiński's 100 Kolend, IMSLP #705961
  • Louis Sawickis rather polonaise-looking piano setting, no. 3 of 6 Chants religieux de Noël (n.d.)  IMSLP #166628
  • somebodys fair-copy manuscript of Władysław Żeleńskis unpublished Koledy, where it is no. 3 #756521
  • a 1908 school hymnbook with two-part settings (and which includes the more familiar (to me) melody as the alternate, Śpiewniczek zawierający pieśni kościelne... (see scan p. 107f.)

These sources demonstrate that several related melodies continued in use in Poland for a long time.  One has overtaken the rest, and I have no idea how much any of the others persist to this day.  As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m all in favor of textual pluralism, and I’d like to hear the other melodies sung more frequently.

The other thing that surprisedor rather staggeredme, as I browsed through many Polish carol books researching this post, was the sheer number of good tunes out there of which I have been completely ignorant.  All very humbling.  And if I found them strange at times, I was thankful that they hadnt been assimilated.