A very peculiar carol

Since it is still – just – Christmas, I’d like to say something about a traditional Yuletide carol.

Many hymns and carols as sung in the mainstream Christian churches tend to be fairly predictable rhythmically and melodically. This is unsurprising since they’re intended for community singing. Every now and again, though, one comes across something a bit peculiar.

I’m sure that I must have heard the Sussex Carol dozens of times over the years, but it was only this Christmas Eve, accompanying my mother (who sings in the choir) to the Christmas service at her local church, that I realised how delightfully odd this song is.

In case you need reminding of the tune, here is a lovely arrangement by Philip Ledger performed by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.


The first part of the tune is fairly unremarkable, but then it becomes beguilingly unpredictable. As so often with the more eccentric hymn tunes, this one has its roots in folk music. My copy of the Oxford Book of Carols includes as part of a short note: “Melody and text from Mrs Verrall, Monks Gate, Sussex”. Ralph Vaughan Williams noted down the song as performed by Harriet Verrall and liked it so much that he included an arrangement of it in his Eight Traditional English Carols published in 1919. Alas, Harriet Verrall died in 1918 and so didn’t see her song in print.

Vaughan Williams notates the tune in 6/4, which begins, as I mentioned above, fairly unremarkably with two four-bar phrases (identical phrases, in fact). These are followed by two three-bar phrases, which make for a kind of musical change-of-gear. The second of the two three-bar phrases, however, is extended, making the second strain of the tune asymmetrical. Vaughan Williams annotates this by making the first bar 9/4, so adding three beats to the phrase. The first bar of each of these three bar phrases introduces a more declamatory feel contrasting with the sprightly one-two-three rhythm of the first part of the tune. The first – setting the words “News of great…” is echoed in the first bar of the second phrase (“News of our…”), but the repeat is elongated (two minims and a crotchet becoming three minims). The effect is delightful.

The overall structure therefore is made up of eight bars followed by six bars giving 14 bars. But since the final phrase of the tune includes a bar of 9/4, giving three extra beats, we have to say that the melody is 14-and-a-third bars long.

I’m sure there are more tunes that are 14-and-a-third bars long, but off-hand I can’t think of any…

Incidentally, as we’re on the twelfth night of Christmas, and keeping with the topic of songs with unusual bar structures, we might just think for a moment about the peculiar structure of that old favourite The Twelve Days of Christmas. Here is a song that gives the lie to the notion that sing-a-long songs need to be rhythmically simple. It slips effortlessly between four-to-the-bar and three-to-the-bar throughout. And it makes for lusty singing.

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Posted in Classical music

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