The first Noel

Posted on 11th December 2019 by simonbeattie

Continuing our Christmas carol countdown, it’s ‘The first Noel’!

The first appearance of ‘The first Noel’ (without music) was in the second edition of Davies Gilbert‘s Some ancient Christmas Carols, with the Tunes to which they were formerly sung in the West of England (London, John Nichols and Son, 1823):

In this second, expanded edition, ‘there are now 20 carols, but only one additional tune … the Editor, in spite of his “best endeavours” having failed to recover more’ (Margaret Dean-Smith, A Guide to English Folk Song Collections, p. 25).  ‘The first Noel’ was ‘not in the first edition of this book (1822), which had only eight carols’ (Fuld, The Book of World-famous Music, p. 227). 

The carol doesn’t appear with its tune for another ten years, in William SandysChristmas Carols, ancient and modern (London, Richard Beckley, 1833). Among other carols included in Sandys’s collection are ‘God rest you merry, gentlemen’, ‘Hark! the herald angels sing’, ‘I saw three ships come sailing in’, ‘A Virgin most pure’, and ‘Tomorrow shall be my dancing day’ (the only source for the carol).

‘Sandys’s carols are as invaluable in their way as those of Gilbert, provided that the music is interpreted in the light of the earlier collection …  There are striking parallels between [the two books].  Both rescue many West Country carols that would otherwise have been lost; both give an overview of the customs associated with carolling in their prefaces; both give a full range of carol types, including domestic carols and waits’ music’ (Keyte).

‘”The classifications ‘from Gilbert’ or ‘from Sandys’ are the commonest feature of every modern carol-book …  But Gilbert (1822) published only eight carols with tunes.  Sandys (1833) published only eighteen tunes” (R. R. Terry, in the preface to his Gilbert and Sandys’ Christmas Carols … 1931.)  Sir Richard Terry was right that the number of carols published by Gilbert and Sandys is small, but it would be quite wrong to underestimate the overall significance of their work.  Though the number of carols they preserved is not great, many are of exceptional quality …  Without the interest in the English folk carol that their books aroused, the whole nineteenth-century carol revival might have taken place much later, by which time many carols that they and their successors recovered would probably have been irretrievably lost … 

Some Ancient Christmas Carols … is a model publication, elegantly printed …  Both music and texts are impeccably edited, … the settings … manifestly taken from the manuscript books of unidentified church-gallery musicians.  Though short, the 1822 book preserves unique gallery versions of some of the most important carols in the old Cornish repertory’ (ibid.).

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