While attempting to keep a simple, preparatory Advent, the truth is that all church choirs and their choirmasters are up to their eyeballs in Christmas music at this time of year. Weeks and weeks of rehearsals lead up to the grand celebration of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. And then it’s all over.
Well, technically the season of Christmas lasts 12 complete days, as the song tells us, and we happily sing Christmas music for the one or two Sundays that fall annually within the 12-day season. But the weeks and weeks of hard rehearsals seem to culminate in the “big music” on Christmas Eve.
Episcopal choirs enjoy joking each year about the Oxford carol books, otherwise known as the Carols for Choirs series published by Oxford University Press in the early 1960s. Carols for Choirs I was edited by King’s College Cambridge choirmaster Sir David Willcocks and his choral/orchestral friend Reginald Jacques. Other notable musicians edited the subsequent books.
There seems to be an Oxford carol book of most every color: green, orange, blue, brown. While our Episcopal hymnal supplement Wonder, Love, and Praise is, indeed, dark green, “The real Green Book” is this Carols for Choirs I published by Oxford. Most any Episcopal chorister will confirm this fact.
Along with its various sibling editions, “The Green Book” is a marvelous scholarly collection that documents the English carol and carol-anthems as musical forms for historical purposes. This first edition of the series conveniently contains all the music and liturgy necessary for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols made so famous by its annual Christmas Eve BBC broadcasts from King’s College Cambridge.
These carol collections are easily used by parish choirs for both Advent and Christmas carol services. When arriving as a new choirmaster in an Episcopal parish many years ago, I was quickly told by the choristers that “we will carry only two colored carol books and a candle in any one Advent, Christmas or Epiphany service!” It seems that my predecessor frequently asked them to carry the green, orange and blue carol books in procession along with a lit candle.
Some years ago, we had to order a few replacement copies for our Holy Communion parish choirs. The new editions are much larger, are easier to read, and have beautifully laminated paper covers. My poor, old, personal copy is small, has a paper cover, and is coming apart at the seams. But it falls open to the correct pages, which always makes me nostalgic.
My college choir, an auditioned group some 125 strong at the time, would go Christmas caroling before our choir party each year and frequently sang our way through “The Green Book,” a cappella and in four, six, eight or more singing parts. Not every church or college choir can pull that off, and it was great fun.
As an Episcopal choirmaster, I attempt to keep new music in play but I also try to change things up a bit each year. However, this year “The Green Book,” with its vast resources, is being used thoroughly. At our “midnight mass” on Christmas Eve, which actually begins at 11 p.m. with a 10:30 p.m. carol prelude, listen for Ding dong merrily on high, The Holly and the Ivy, See Amid the Winter’s Snow, and grand descants for Once in Royal David’s City, God Rest You Merry Gentlemen, Unto Us a Boy is Born, O Come All Ye Faithful, Hark the Herald Angels Sing and The First Nowell, all compliments of “The Green Book.”