The lyrics of "Angels We Have Heard on High" were written by the Irish Roman Catholic priest James Chadwick (1813-1882), who in 1862 translated the lyrics to a traditional French song, "Les Anges dans nos campagnes" (first published in France 1843). The text is based largely on Luke 2:8-15, which describes the evening of the birth of Jesus, when shepherds in the fields encountered "a multitude of heavenly hosts praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
The words of the first two verses of "Away in a Manger," first appearing in print in a March 2, 1882 edition of the “The Christian Cynosure”, were at that time attributed to Martin Luther, though general consensus today supports an American origin for this text. The musical setting used for this quartet arrangement was composed by the American composer James Ramsey Murray (1841-1905) in 1887. (A second setting, entitled "Cradle Song", was written by William J. Kirkpatrick (1838-1921) in 1895.)
The melody for "Deck the Halls" comes to us from the 16th century Welsh song Nos Galan (“New Year's Eve”). The tune to this carol was originally used as a dance song and was accompanied by improvised singing. The "modern" English lyrics written by the Scottish musician Thomas Oliphant (1799–1873) first appear in John Thomas's "Welsh Melodies with Welsh and English Poetry", published in 1862. It is interesting to note that Oliphant's lyrics were not at all a literal translation; he had, in fact, turned a New Year's Eve song into a Christmas Carol.
William Sandys' (1792-1874) 1833 "Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern" marks the first publication of the traditional English carol "God Rest Ye Marry Gentlemen". It later appears in "A Book of Roxburghe Ballads", a collection of 1,341 broadside ballads from the seventeenth century, published in 1847 by John Payne Collier (1789–1883). The earliest printed copy of this carol, however dates back to 1760 ("Three New Christmas Carols"), and it is believed to have 15th or 16th century origins.
The text of the song "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" was included in John Wesley's (1707-1788) 1739 collection "Hymns and Sacred Poems". The tune used today for this Christmas carol is an adaptation of music originally composed by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847): in 1855 English musician William H. Cummings (1831-1915) adapted a melody ("Vaterland, in deinen Gauen") of Mendelssohn's 1840 cantata "Festgesang" to fit the text.
The text of a poem entitled "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear", based on Luke 2:14, was written by Edmund Hamilton Sears (1810-1876) in 1849. At the time Sears, widely known as the author of a number of theological publications, was pastor of the Unitarian Church in Wayland, Massachusetts. In the following year, 1850, American composer Richard Storrs Willis (1819-1900), a student of Felix Mendelssohn, wrote a melody called "Carol". The text of Sears' poem was soon after set to Willis’ melody, today the most widely used tune for this song in the United States. (In England "Noel", by Arthur Sullivan, seems to be the more popular setting.)
Programme notes by Michael Montgomery
Double bassist Michael Montgomery, a student of Robert Rohe and Lucas Drew, has a Doctor of Musical Arts degree, played in the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra for many years, and now lives in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, where he teaches at the University of Arkansas Fayetteville and the Suzuki Music School of Arkansas. His articles have been published in American Suzuki Journal, Bass World, and Pastoral Music.