Behold New Joy: Ancient Carols of Christmas

A lively, singable suite of ancient carols for choir/brass/organ/percussion (13 minutes.) The carols, all dating to the 1582 Finnish carol book Piae Cantiones, can be sung in Latin or English: 1. Personent hodie (“On this day earth shall ring”), 2. In dulci jubilo (“Good Christian Men, Rejoice”), 3. Ecce novum gaudium (“Behold new joy”), 4. “Corde natus ex parentis (“Of a Father’s Love Begotten”), 5. Reprise: Personent hodie.  Behold New Joy is an excellent companion piece to John Rutter’s Gloria, and shares identical instrumentation.  (The choral score doubles as the choral/organ version, and there is also a version for choir and full orchestra.)

This Score is published by Oxford University Press. Click “Order Score” or click here to view or listen.

Available as: SATB choir, brass, organ, percussion | SATB choir, full orchestra | SATB choir, organ


Behold New Joy: Ancient Carols of Christmas was commissioned by the Los Angeles Master Chorale.  Grant Gershon conducted the premiere of the choir/organ/brass version on December 3, 2011 as well as the premiere of the choir/organ version on December 8, 2012.


Composer’s Notes:

To the scholar of the music of Christmas, nothing is more exciting than happening upon an obscure, nearly-forgotten carol that still breathes with life.  For centuries, such carols have been dusted off, reshaped, and shared anew, bringing fresh bursts of Christmas joy to the festivities of the season.  In the early 1850’s, a renewal of great significance was set in motion when G.J.R. Gordon, the British ambassador to Sweden, returned to London with a cultural treasure in hand.  It was a rare, original copy of Piae Cantiones, a medieval Latin carol book first published in 1582.  While unknown in Britain, it had been used for hundreds of years in Finnish cathedral schools and throughout Scandinavia.  Gordon gave the book to the hymnologist John Mason Neale, who, with the assistance of Thomas Helmore, an expert in mensural notation, freely translated a dozen of the most compelling carols or borrowed their lively tunes to fashion new carols in English.  The resulting work, Carols for Christmastide, was published in 1853, giving these medieval Latin carols new life in a new land.

All of the carols included in Behold New Joy: Ancient Carols of Christmas can be found in some form in Piae Cantiones, but the fact that they are widely known is largely due to the pioneering work of Neale and Helmore.  In dulci jubilo is recognized by most as “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” Neale’s buoyant, free translation.  As found in Piae Cantiones, this carol is macaronic, using both old German and Latin text (the version used in this suite).  Personent hodie, first transformed by Neale into the Easter carol “Let the Song Be Begun” was later popularized in an arrangement by Gustav Holst with Jane Joseph’s translation, entitled “On this Day Earth Shall Ring.”  Divinum mysterium was a communion hymn in Piae Cantiones, but Neale took its graceful melody and replaced the text with his own inspired translation of Prudentius’ 4th century poem “Corde natus ex parentis,” creating a new carol, “Of a Father’s Love Begotten.”  And, unbeknownst to many, Neale also created the so-called “traditional” carol “Good King Wenceslas” by setting his own lyrics to the tune of the spring carol Tempus adest floridum.  His new carol’s ancient melody and sturdy rhymes have fooled many into thinking it must have been sung for hundreds of years.

The suite’s title carol, Ecce novum gaudium (“Behold New Joy”), is one of the few carols introduced by Neale and Helmore that failed to catch on in English.  This is a bit surprising, considering that at the turn of the 18th century  after generations of use, the carol was still popular enough to be a highlight of Finnish school Christmas pageants, with all the schoolboys singing and dancing to it.  Perhaps Neale’s translation “Here is Joy for Every Age” lacked the zest of the original Latin; when one returns to Piae Cantiones, the carol’s lively language practically leaps off the page.  Such vivid life is a testament to both the inspiring power of the nativity story and the power of art to speak across the generations, ensuring that the “new joy” of “ancient carols” will continue to be known for many, many Christmases to come.

~Shawn Kirchner

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