26 December 2014

Carols and Hymns for Christmas (2):
‘Good King Wenceslas’

Deep and crisp and even ... Lichfield Cathedral in the snow a few years ago ... Thomas Helmore was a priest-vicar here in the 1840s (Photograph © John Godley)

Patrick Comerford

As part of my spiritual reflection for this Christmas season, I am looking at an appropriate Christmas carol or hymn each morning.‘Good King Wenceslas’ is a popular Christmas carol that tells a story of a king braving harsh winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant “on the Feast of Stephen” (26 December), the day after Christmas Day.

During the journey, his page is about to give up the struggle against the cold weather, but is enabled to continue by following the king's footprints, step for step, through the deep snow.

The legend is based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus I,or Vaclav I, Duke of Bohemia (907–935), part of the present-day Czech Republic. However, Wenceslas was Duke of Bohemia but never a king. Immediately after his death, he was considered a martyr and a saint, and within a few decades four biographies of him were in circulation. These biographies influenced mediaeval concepts of the rex justus or righteous king, so that he was revered as “the father of all the wretched.”

Several centuries later, following his example, Pope Pius II walked 10 miles barefoot in the ice and snow as an act of pious thanksgiving.

In 1853, the English hymn-writer the Revd John Mason Neale and his music editor, the Revd Thomas Helmore, collaborated in wring the carol ‘Good King Wenceslas,’ which first appeared in Carols for Christmas-Tide (1853).

Helmore set the lyrics to a tune based on a 13th-century spring carol Tempus adest floridum (“The time is near for flowering”), first published in 1582 in Piae Cantiones, a Finnish song collection of 74 songs compiled by Jaakko Suomalainen, the headmaster of Turku Cathedral School.

Around 1853, GJR Gordon, the British ambassador in Stockholm, gave a rare copy of Piae Cantiones to Neale, who was then the Warden of Sackville College, East Grinstead, Sussex, and who was well-known for his interest in early music. Neale in turn passed the book on to Helmore, then the Vice-Principal of Saint Mark’s College, Chelsea, who was known as an expert in the interpretation of the mensural notation in which the tunes were written.

Neale translated the texts into English, or in a few cases wrote completely new texts. Together, Neale and Helmore published 12 of the tunes that year as Carols for Christmastide (1853), and a dozen more the following year as Carols for Eastertide (1854).

The Christmas set included ‘Christ was born on Christmas Day’ from Resonet in laudibus, ‘Good Christian men, rejoice’ from In dulci jubilo and Good King Wenceslas as completely new words for the spring carol Tempus adest floridum.

Helmore immediately went on to publish a more substantial collection, The Hymnal Noted, where the texts were mostly Neale’s translations from the Latin.

However, the text of today’s carol, which is usually attributed to Neale, bears no semblance to the words of Tempus adest floridum, which was a Spring carol and had no associations with either winter or Christmas. Some critics say Neale may have written the words some years earlier, since he repeated the legend of Saint Wenceslas in his Deeds of Faith (1849). Some Czech sources say Neale’s lyrics are a translation of a poem by the Czech poet Václav Alois Svoboda.

In the Oxford Book of Carols (1928), the editors, Percy Dearmer, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Martin Shaw , were critical of this carol, describing it as one of Neale’s “less happy pieces.” It has been dismissed as “ponderous moral doggerel” and as “poor and commonplace to the last degree,” and these three editors hoped that “Good King Wenceslas” would “gradually pass into disuse.”

This carol is not included in either the New English Hymnal or the Irish Church Hymnal, partly, perhaps, because the editors agreed with Dearmer, Smith, Vaughan Williams and other critics; and partly, I imagine, because this carol makes no mention of Christ, despite the fact that in provides an exemplary model of discipleship.

Nonetheless, this remains a well-loved and popular carol at this time of the year, and it is included in many other collections, including: Carols for Christmas-tide: The Condensed Vocal Parts (London: Novello, 1854), HR Bramley and John Stainer, Christmas Carols New and Old (London: Novello, Ewer & Co, 1871); Collected Hymns, Sequences and Carols of John Mason Neale (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1914), Dearmer, Williams and Shaw (eds), The Oxford Book of Carols (1928); Eric Routley, University Carol Book (1961); Ehret and Evans, The International Book of Christmas Carols (1963); Elizabeth Poston, The Penguin Book of Christmas Carols (1965), Willcocks & Rutter, 100 Carols For Choirs (1987), Keyte and Parrott, The New Oxford Book of Carols (1992); Bradley, The Penguin Book of Carols (1999); and Clancy and Studwell, Best-Loved Christmas Carols (2000).

Trudging through the snow in Dam Street, Lichfield, some years ago (Photograph: BBC)

Perhap, the question to ask may be whether John Mason Neale ever wrote ‘Good King Wenceslas.’ The true author may have been Neale’s collaborator, Thomas Helmore. Together, Helmore and Neale wrote other popular carols, including in ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’ (1853). But the inspiration for the lyrics for ‘Good King Wenceslas’ may have come to Thomas Helmore first after he trudged through 93 miles of snow, bravely and alone, from London to Stratford one Christmas.

Helmore was born on 7 May 1811, the son of the Revd Thomas Helmore, an Anglican priest who left the Church of England the previous year to become minister of an independent chapel in Kidderminster in 1810. The Helmore family moved to Stratford-upon-Avon in 1821.

After training in London, the younger Thomas took up a position in the 1830s as choirmaster and organist at Holy Trinity Church, the parish church where William Shakespeare was baptised and where he is buried.

Helmore formed a choir that rivalled those in many cathedrals. But he upset some of his father’s friends when he enticed some members of Rother Street Congregational Church (now the United Reform Church), where his father had been minister, to join the choir at Holy Trinity. He was also the founder and first conductor of the Stratford-upon-Avon Choral Society. But despite his successes, he eventually decided to seek ordination in the Church of England, when he went up to Oxford in 1837, the school his father had founded closed.

After graduating BA at Oxford University in 1840, Helmore became the curate at Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield, and a priest-vicar in Lichfield Cathedral. He spent two years in Lichfield until 1842, when he became vice-principal of Saint Mark’s College, Chelsea, the first Choral Training College in England, training teachers and choir leaders for the Church of England.

His main responsibility at Saint Mark’s was traiingn students to sing a daily unaccompanied choral service in the college chapel. With his attention, the choir’s repertoire came to include anthems by Gibbons and Byrd and motets by Palestrina, Vittoria and Marenzio.

The principal of Saint Mark’s College was Derwent Coleridge, a son of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and in 1844 Helmore married Kate Pridham, Derwent Coleridge’s sister-in-law.

In Anglican musical circles at this time, there was a growing interest in plainsong. The 16th-century Booke of Common Praier Noted of John Merbecke was republished in 1844. In the same year, Helmore’s friend the artist William Dyce (1806-1864) published his Book of Common Prayer with Plain Song. Soon Helmore had determined to become involved in this research and to contribute to it.

In 1845, he proceeded MA at Oxford, and in the following year, he became Precentor of Saint Mark’s College. In 1846, as a result of his growing reputation as a choirmaster, he succeeded William Hawes as Master of the Choristers of the Chapel Royal, Saint James’s, where he was admitted one of the priests-in-ordinary in 1847.

One of his early pupils in the Chapel Royal, Saint James’s, was the young Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900), the son of an Irish-born bandmaster and later to achieve fame in the partnership of Gilbert and Sullivan.

In 1849, Helmore completed The Psalter Noted, the first of a series of similar works.

The Revd Thomas Helmore ... for two years he was a curate in Lichfield. Is he the true author of ‘Good King Wenceslas’?

Helmore was involved with Neale in the Ecclesiological Society, founded as the Cambridge Camden Society and dedicated to the revival of the ancient liturgical practices of the Church of England. He wrote the music for three of Neale’s translations in Hymns of the Eastern Church (1862): ‘Peace, it is I,’ ‘The Day is Past and Over,’ and ‘’Tis the Day of Resurrection.’

In 1872, he was appointed Rector of Beverstone, Gloucestershire. But he resigned from the parish immediately after his appointment, and remained at Saint Mark’s until his retirement.

Helmore’s interest in plainsong led him to make several visits in 1875 and later to the Abbey of Saint Gall in Switzerland, where he worked on an ancient manuscript supposed to be an accurate copy of a book on Gregorian chant written by Saint Gregory the Great.

His Primer of Plainsong (1877) later came to be regarded as the standard work on the subject. He retired from Saint Mark’s that year. He died at his home in Saint George’s Square, Pimlico, on 6 July 1890, and was buried in Brompton Cemetery.

Good King Wenceslas look’d out by John Mason Neale and Thomas Helmore

Good King Wenceslas look’d out,
On the Feast of Stephen;
When the snow lay round about,
Deep, and crisp, and even:
Brightly shone the moon that night,
Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight,
Gath’ring winter fuel.

“Hither page and stand by me,
If thou know’st it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence.
Underneath the mountain;
Right against the forest fence,
By Saint Agnes' fountain.”

“Bring me flesh, and bring me wine,
Bring me pine-logs hither:
Thou and I will see him dine,
When we bear them thither.”
Page and monarch forth they went,
Forth they went together;
Through the rude wind’s wild lament,
And the bitter weather.

“Sire, the night is darker now,
And the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know now how,
I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, good my page;
Tread thou in them boldly;
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.”

In his master’s steps he trod,
Where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure,
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor,
Shall yourselves find blessing.

Alternative last four lines by the author:

Wherefore, Christian people, know,
Who my lay are hearing,
He who cheers another’s woe
Shall himself find cheering.

The notes in Bramley and Stainer (1871) indicate that the chorus sings the first and fifth verses. In the second verse, the first four lines are a tenor solo and the last four lines are a treble solo. In the third verse, the first four lines are a tenor solo and the last four lines are sung by the chorus. In the fourth verse, the first four lines are a treble solo and the last four lines are a tenor solo.

Tomorrow: A Hymn for Christmas and Saint John’s Day’, by John Alcock.

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