The composers behind your favourite carols…
We traipse through the Christmas carol book to find out more about the composers who wrote our favourite Christmas carols
Mendelssohn and his Harked Herald Angels aside, the carol book is noticeably short on well-known composers. Of the really famous carol tunes, there’s Holst’s setting of In the Bleak Midwinter and… that’s about it.
Yet these are some of the most famous tunes ever written. Millions of people worldwide are more than familiar with the melodies to Once in Royal David's City and Ding Dong! Merrily on High, which surely means their composers must be household names? Sadly not.
From John Henry Hopkins Junior to Thoinot Arbeau, it’s time to set the record straight. Here we take a look at the composers of 11 of our best known Christmas carol tunes. Some are wonderful, some a little weird, but all deserve to be better known.
The best Christmas carol composers
Henry John Gauntlett, 1805-76
Famous for: Once in Royal David’s City
Henry John Gauntlett wasn’t an easy man to like. He once wrote a letter to the precentor of Durham Cathedral criticising one of his works, enclosing an ‘improved’ version. He was forthright from the start: his father, the vicar at a church in Olney, had decided Henry’s sisters would learn to play the organ for services.
Henry, though, had other ideas and learned the instrument himself, becoming organist in 1815. In the 1830s he became interested in organ design, and patented the electric action – a mechanism which was central to an (unsuccessful) attempt to play all the organs at the 1851 Great Exhibition simultaneously. He was respected both as an organist – he performed at the premiere of Mendelssohn’s Elijah in Birmingham Town Hall – and as a composer. In addition to ‘Irby’, the tune to Once in Royal, Gauntlett wrote over 10,000 hymns, including ‘St Albinus’ (Jesus lives! thy terrors now) and ‘St Fulbert’ (Ye choirs of new Jerusalem).
John Goss, 1800-80
Famous for: See, Amid the Winter’s Snow
You don’t have to be an expert in church music to be familiar with John Goss’s work – the hymn Praise my soul, the King of Heaven has accompanied many a wedding since it was written in 1869, and parish choirs still sing his simple but effective anthems. Goss’s lessons with Mozart’s pupil Thomas Attwood no doubt gave the composer’s music its classical elegance and perhaps Goss would have been more famous had he accepted a commission in 1833 from the Royal Philharmonic Society – the same body that had asked Beethoven to compose his Ninth Symphony 11 years previously – but Goss saw his talents in ecclesiastical music.
As organist at St Paul’s Cathedral and, later, composer to the Chapel Royal, he wrote a steady flow of motets, psalm chants and canticles, and was knighted in 1872 for the music he wrote for a service giving thanks for the recovery of a then sickly Prince of Wales.
Robert Pearsall, 1795-1856
Famous for: translating and arranging In Dulci Jubilo
It was probably parental pressure that saw Pearsall called to the bar in 1821, because just four years later, the young man fled abroad to pursue interests in music, history, heraldry and genealogy. Among his more curious achievements is his contribution to research in medieval torture – a description of the rather nasty ‘kiss of the virgin’, a thick-walled sarcophagus lined with large spikes, appeared in the periodical Archaeologia.
A composer of a good deal of orchestral music, his best-known work is the ravishing eight-part motet Lay a garland, among the finest of English partsongs, and his choral arrangement of In Dulci Jubilo has made the 14th-century melody a mainstay of Nine Lessons and Carols services ever since. But a more famous work perhaps lurks in the wings – strong evidence unearthed by musicologist Edgar Hunt points to Pearsall as the composer of the Cat Duet, a comic work for two sopranos long attributed to Rossini. An expert in torture, indeed.
William J Kirkpatrick, 1838-1921
Famous for: Away in a Manger
William J Kirkpatrick must have been a handy person to have around at Nativity Play time – should any sets need building or, say, a manger quickly knocking up, this Pennsylvania-born carpenter would have been the man for the job. What’s more, he could write a fine tune, not least his ‘Cradle Song’ setting of Away in a Manger.
The rapidly growing genre of Gospel music was Kirkpatrick’s forte and, while his furniture-making skills sustained his lifestyle in his early years, he eventually concentrated on song writing. Teaming up with fellow composer John R Sweney in 1878, the pair went on to publish 50 collections of songs, with sales into the millions.
The creative spark that brought about gospel favourites such as Lord, I’m coming home was rarely at rest. In fact, it was on the night of 20 September 1921 that Kirkpatrick hopped out of bed and made his way downstairs to jot down a tune that was racing through his head. When his wife came down the next morning, she found him slumped over his desk, dead.
Thoinot Arbeau, 1519-95
Famous for: Ding Dong! Merrily on High!
‘Thoinot Arbeau’ is the anagrammatic pen name of 16th-century French cleric Jehan Tabourot – with an ‘i’ instead of the ‘j’. Born in Dijon, Arbeau was based in north-eastern France and, Ding Dong aside, is best-known for Orchésographie, his 1588 study of early French Renaissance dance, complete with woodcuts of musicians and dance tabulations.
Mentioned in this study is the ‘branle’ – a folk dance where the dancers move from side to side, performed by couples in a circle or a line – which Stravinsky includes in his 1957 ballet Agon. The tune for Ding Dong! Merrily on High!, meanwhile, is based on a folk tune from Orchésographie entitled ‘Branle de l’Official’. This was set to words by the English composer and priest George Ratcliffe Woodward and published in The Cambridge Carol Book: Being Fifty-Two Songs for Christmas, Easter and Other Seasons in 1924.
Peter Cornelius, 1824-74
Famous for: The Three Kings
Peter Cornelius is one of the onlookers of history. In this German composer’s case, he was in the right place – Weimar, Vienna, Munich – at the right time, and he knew all the right people, from Wagner to Hans von Bülow. And yet, for all his involvement with the New German music movement, his work has all but disappeared – only ‘The Three Kings’ (Die Könige) from his Weihnachtslieder is still regularly heard.
Cornelius met Wagner in 1853, and when he moved to Weimar that year he was welcomed into Liszt’s circle of friends. He began working as a translator and writer for the group alongside writing music. His opera Der Barbier von Bagdad was produced by Liszt in Wiemar in 1858, but its premiere was so disastrous that Cornelius had to leave the city and Liszt resigned as court conductor. Cornelius’s own works – including a Stabat Mater and a Requiem – may not be often performed, but his music influenced both Wagner and Richard Strauss.
Harold Darke, 1888-1976
Famous for: In the Bleak Midwinter
There’s more to Harold Darke than just his setting of In the Bleak Midwinter – for around a century now, choristers across the land have been subjected to his setting of the Communion Service in F and a smattering of his other choral and organ works also get the occasional outing. But it was as an organist that Darke really excelled, earning himself a worldwide reputation.
The church of St Michael’s Cornhill in the City of London was his patch, and it was there that he began a series of Monday lunchtime organ recitals in 1916. Those recitals carried on until he retired some 50 years later and still continue to this day, making the series the longest-running of its kind in the world. Post-retirement, he still continued to play, and marked his 85th birthday in 1973 with a recital at London’s Royal Festival Hall. His In the Bleak Midwinter setting is not to be confused, incidentally, with the equally popular one by Holst.
Richard Storrs Willis, 1819-1900
Famous for: It Came Upon the Midnight Clear
Richard Storrs Willis might not have made it into the pantheon of American composers, but in his role as a critic and editor, he made a large impact on his country’s music. His activities at Yale University included being a member of Skull and Bones – a secret society whose other members have included US presidents William Howard Taft, George HW Bush and George W Bush – before he went to study composition in Frankfurt and Leipzig, where he met Mendelssohn.
He returned to New York in 1847 and established himself as a music critic at the New York Tribune and The Albion, then turned his hand to editing Musical World, whose strapline was ‘A Weekly Journal for “Heavenly Music’s Earthly Friends”’. He went on to write the book Our Church Music: a Book for Pastors and People which rails against populist and sentimental elements in church music. His melody ‘Carol’ was first published in his volume of music, Church Chorals and Choir Studies, and it has since become the standard tune for It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.
John Henry Hopkins, 1820-91
Famous for: We Three Kings
John Henry Hopkins Junior was born into a family of 13. His father had emigrated to the US from Ireland in 1801 and had become an influential Bishop in the Episcopal Church, based in Vermont. Following in his father’s footsteps, JHH Junior became an Episcopal churchman. His moment in the spotlight came when he delivered the eulogy in 1885 for the funeral of ‘General’ Ulysses S Grant, the Civil War hero and 18th US president, but his other talents included journalism (he edited The Church Journal), music teaching and hymn writing.
In 1863 he published a collection entitled Carols, Hymns and Songs that included his We Three Kings, a carol that had first appeared in a Christmas pageant that he organised for the Theological Seminary in New York in 1857. This is by far his best-known carol – he wrote both the words and the music – although he also composed the somewhat lesser-known ‘Gather around the Christmas Tree’.
Martin Shaw, 1875-1958
Famous for: Hills of the North Rejoice
If Martin Shaw had had his way, we might not be performing Bach, Beethoven and Brahms in the UK today – his service in World War I curtailed by ill health, Shaw channelled his energies into ultra-patriotic activities that included campaigning for a ban on German music which he thought contained too much ‘hysterical emotionalism’.
Controversial, yes, but there was at least a positive flip-side in the form of Shaw’s tireless efforts in digging out, arranging, publishing and promoting Britain’s own musical heritage. Working with fellow enthusiasts including Vaughan Williams, he edited or co-edited The English Carol Book, Songs of Praise and The Oxford Book of Carols, the first of which contained the advent carol Hills of the North Rejoice set to his own strident melody, ‘Little Cornard’.
However, it was when Shaw was doing research for the English Hymnal that he made arguably his greatest mark – his discoveries included the Gaelic hymn-tune ‘Bunessan’, now familiar as the tune to Morning has broken.
Eric Boswell, 1921-2009
Famous for: Little Donkey
Many of us are familiar with this carol as an integral part of school nativity plays – when a child wearing donkey ears shuffles along with Mary and Joseph ‘safely on their way’ towards a stable. Its British writer, Eric Boswell, is anything but familiar, though, and also one of the carol book’s least likely composers – trained in electrical engineering and physics, he worked as a radar scientist at Marconi during World War II and became a physics lecturer.
Born in Sunderland, Boswell learnt the piano and later the organ before developing a part-time interest in song composition and piano music – some of his prize-winning work was performed at London’s Wigmore Hall. In 1959, he struck up a deal with music publisher Chappell where singer Gracie Fields was looking for a new song. The result was Little Donkey, which Fields took to No. 20 in the UK pop charts, while the score itself shot to No. 1 in the UK sheet music chart. Boswell continued writing songs, a couple of which almost made it to the Eurovision Song Contest, and he also became known for his Geordie comedy songs. He died just days before Little Donkey’s 50th anniversary.