Hooray – It is wafting again on radio stations and through stores – familiar strains that evoke memories of words fewer people seem to know. The old carols are as old friends who link my heart to six decades or so of Christmases. Just hearing them cheers me up! And new compositions are equally edifying. John Rutter has written and arranged some holiday music that lets me imagine how carols may have sounded in the olden days – echoing in stone castles or cathedrals – or an English countryside in which I’ve never celebrated the Lord’s birth.
Tonight on our local classical music station (WRR) I heard What Sweeter Music’s evocative lilt and lyrics – I wanted to know more. When I investigated, I learned the John Rutter composed the carol using the poetry written in the 17th century by Robert Herrick, some of whose work I barely skimmed in a survey of English literature. What I learned about him was limited to his sensual poems. He was the cleric and poet who urged, “ . . . gather ye rosebuds while ye may . . . “.
How much I missed! So busy was I keeping themes, dates, titles, and authors straight -- I never appreciated the urgency of this man’s worship. I never made the connection between the terrors of the English Civil War which affected Herrick’s calling – as a cleric or a poet. He was a man who lived through times as perilous as my own, never losing sight of God’s great gift in Christ.
What Sweeter Music
What sweeter music can we bringThan a carol, for to singThe birth of this our heavenly King?Awake the voice! Awake the string!
Dark and dull night, fly hence away,And give the honor to this day,That sees December turned to May.
Why does the chilling winter’s mornSmile, like a field beset with corn?Or smell like a meadow newly-shorn,Thus, on the sudden? Come and seeThe cause, why things thus fragrant be:‘Tis He is born, whose quickening birthGives life and luster, public mirth,To heaven, and the under-earth.
We see him come, and know him ours,Who, with his sunshine and his showers,Turns all the patient ground to flowers.The darling of the world is come,And fit it is, we find a roomTo welcome him. The nobler partOf all the house here, is the heart.
Which we will give him; and bequeathThis holly, and this ivy wreath,To do him honour, who’s our King,And Lord of all this revelling.What sweeter music can we bring,Than a carol for to singThe birth of this our heavenly King?
Robert Herrick (1591-1674)
Thanks to WRR that played John Rutter’s carol, and the Internet that gave me the information omitted from the survey course. I am finding that You Tube is a better text for a recovering English major than the The Norton Anthology of English Literature! God’s serendipitous mercy is that faith- enriching words and music from ancient and modern carols remain an acceptable tradition. Searching out information on their author’s and composers – reading their words – exercised my heart, mind and refreshed my soul, a soul sometimes falling into gloom in this glittery season.