Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Christmas with Vaughan Williams (13):
‘The Sussex Carol’ (‘On Christmas Night’)

Monk’s Gate … the West Sussex hamlet near Horsham where Vaughan Williams first heard Harriet Verrall sing ‘The Sussex Carol’ (Photograph: Pete Chapman/Wikipedia)

Patrick Comerford

I am continuing my Christmas reflections, listening to the works of the great English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). This morning [5 January 2016], I am listening to ‘The Sussex Carol’ (‘On Christmas Night’) which is included in The First Nowell (1958), a Nativity play for soloists, chorus, and small orchestra by Vaughan Williams.

This was probably the last piece ever written by the composer before his death, and it was left unfinished by him. It was completed by the late Roy Douglas (1907-2015) after Vaughan Williams’s death, based on fragments left by the composer. After Vaughan Williams died, Douglas insisted that the composer’s publisher, the Oxford University Press, indicate with the initials ‘RD’ those sections that Douglas had worked on, because he did not want Vaughan Williams “to be blamed for my shortcomings.”

The First Nowell was first performed on 19 December 1958, four months after the death of Vaughan Williams, and includes a version of ‘The Sussex Carol’ (‘On Christmas Night’), along with a number of other well-known Vaughan Williams works, including ‘The Salutation Carol,’ ‘The Cherry Tree Carol,’ and ‘The First Nowell,’ which is the final, closing movement.

‘The Sussex Carol,’ which is sometimes referred to by its first line, “On Christmas night all Christians sing,” is sometimes confused with ‘The Wexford Carol.’ Last Christmas, we sang ‘The Sussex Carol’ as the Post-Communion hymn at the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on the Sunday morning after Christmas [28 December 2014].

It is said the words of this carol were first published by Bishop Luke Wadding of Ferns in A Small Garland of Pious and Godly Songs (1684). However, it is not clear whether he wrote the song or that he was recording an earlier composition.



‘The Sussex Carol’ often features in the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in the Chapel of the King’s College, Cambridge, and a version of it also appears in the Irish Church Hymnal (5th edition, 2004) as Hymn No 176.

Edward Darling and Donald Davison, in their Companion to Church Hymnal, say the words are from a traditional English source, that they were adapted by Luke Wadding, and that they were reintroduced to English use through later editions of Luke Wadding’s carols, published in London in the early 18th century, subsequently undergoing considerable modification.

Both the text and the tune to which it is now sung were discovered and written down quite independently by Cecil Sharp in Buckland, Gloucestershire, and Vaughan Williams, who heard it being sung by a Harriet Verrall of Monk’s Gate, near Horsham, Sussex – hence its name, ‘The Sussex Carol.’

The tune to which it is generally sung today is the one published by Vaughan Williams in 1919. Several years earlier, he included the carol in his Fantasia on Christmas Carols, first performed at the Three Carols Festival in Hereford Cathedral in 1912.

The words of ‘The Sussex Carol’ in the version collected by Vaughan Williams are:

On Christmas night all Christians sing
To hear the news the angels bring.
News of great joy, news of great mirth,
News of our merciful King’s birth.

Then why should men on earth be so sad,
Since our Redeemer made us glad,
When from our sin he set us free,
All for to gain our liberty?

When sin departs before His grace,
Then life and health come in its place.
Angels and men with joy may sing
All for to see the new-born King.

All out of darkness we have light,
Which made the angels sing this night:
“Glory to God and peace to men,
Now and for evermore, Amen!”

Yesterday’s reflection.

Tomorrow: Four Christmas songs for Epiphany.

1 comment:

C. Wingate said...

This has been one of my favorite carols for many, many years, especially as it is one that retains the old dance character more than most.