Notes from BenMonthly musings from the Choirmaster


The Midnight Cry

Carols did not originate in church – they were popular music, folk songs really, that were danced to and sung in the vernacular by the illiterate peasantry. Their main association with the church was that some of them made it into the medieval mystery plays, those wonderful dramas that made theology so visual, down-to-earth, and entertaining. An example of a medieval carol that we still sing today is “Good Christian men, rejoice,” which originally had little bits of Latin in it and was called “In dulci jubilo.” I translated that as “In Sweetest Joy,” and used it for the title of the Christmas CD made on the Grace Church organ several years ago, which has some organ settings of that carol on it.

The Anglican Lessons and Carols service is a modern invention, and the “carols” in it are often Victorian or modern ones that were written for congregational use in church. But we try not to be exclusively British in our selection, and include a few American items of non-liturgical origin which were spiritual folk-songs rather than sophisticated music for trained choirs. “The Midnight Cry” is a new one for us this year. It comes from the earliest American “shape-note” hymnals of the nineteenth century, so called because each note of the scale was indicated by a shape - diamond, triangle, round, or square - which told the singer which pitch to sing – “me,” “faw,” “sol,” or “law.” The tunes of these hymns are often impossible to trace, because they were folk melodies which might be hundreds of years old, changing over time, before anybody thought to write them down. The words to this one are early nineteenth century American, as far as we can trace them, though they could be a bit older. The song is based on the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, who respectively did, and did not, buy oil for their lamps to attend the wedding feast, which becomes a symbol for Judgement Day:

When the midnight cry began,
Oh, what lamentation,
Thousands sleeping in their sins,
Neglecting their salvation.
Lo, the Bridegroom is at hand,
Who will kindly treat him?
Surely all the waiting band
Will now go forth to meet him.

The song both tells the story and comments on it – the admonitory tone is typical of these old “Sacred Harp” songs:

Foolish Virgins! Do you think
Our Bridegroom’s a deceiver?
Then may you pass your lives away,
And think to sleep for ever;
But we by faith do see his face,
On whom we have believed;
If there’s deception in the case,
‘Tis you that are deceived.

The liveliness of the tune implies that the admonishing is a great deal of fun, or else that the thousands sleeping in their sins are having an awfully good time. But the message is not condemnation as much as the opportunity for redemption:

Virgins wise, I pray draw near,
And listen to your Savior;
He is your friend, you need not fear,
Oh, why not seek his favor?
He speaks to you in whispers sweet,
In words of consolation:
By grace in him you stand complete,
He is your great salvation.

Dying sinners, will you come,
The Savior now invites you;
His bleeding wounds proclaim there’s room
Let nothing then affright you –
Room for you, and room for me,
And room for coming sinners:
Salvation pours a living stream
For you and all believers.

The immediacy and the concrete physical imagery in the carols is part of their appeal and their power. On Christmas Eve the choir will sing the middle part of the “Cherry Tree Carol,” a long English ballad probably of fifteenth-century origin. Regarding “As Joseph was a-walking,” the second section of this three-part carol, the editors of the New Oxford Book of Carols write: “The angel’s apparently prophetic account functions as a poetic substitute for a blunt birth narrative, concealing, as it were, the off-stage action rather as a drawn curtain might conceal it in a mystery or liturgical drama; this is one of several features of the ballad that suggest the hand of a playwright.”

As Joseph was a-walking, he heard an angel sing:
‘This night shall be bornèd our heavenly King.
He neither shall be bornèd in housen nor in hall,
Nor in the place of Paradise, but in an ox’s stall.
He neither shall be clothed in purple nor in pall,
But in the fair white linen, as usen babies all.
He neither shall be rocked in silver nor in gold,
But in a wooden cradle that rocks upon the mould. [“ground”]
He neither shall be christenèd in white wine nor red,
But with the fair spring water with which we were christenèd.

The carol may have been used in the Coventry Play, a medieval cycle of dramas. The portion quoted was probably intended to evoke a scene in the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James, when Joseph has left Mary, in labor, in a cave outside Bethlehem, to go and look for a midwife, and has an ecstatic mystical experience including the appearance to him of a prophetic angel. So many variants of the Cherry Tree Carol were handed down that it is impossible to untangle them all to get back to an original. But the intensity of the poem remains.

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