Last year, we reissued the delightful Some Ancient Christmas Carols, compiled by Davies Gilbert, P.R.S., and first published in 1822. Our Christmas offering this year is a later compilation, the 1864 Songs of the Nativity, edited by Henry Husk. And before you ask, it’s not too early for Christmas, or not in marketing terms anyway – see your local supermarket, or any commercial television channel, for wall-to-wall attempts at festive offerings. (Can saccharine thus ingested affect the brain?)
Husk, born in in 1814, worked as a clerk in the same firm of solicitors from 1833 until the year before his death in 1887. His other life, however, as an amateur musician and writer on music, was much more interesting. In 1834, he joined the newly founded Sacred Harmonic Society, which was almost coterminous with his working life: I quote from the online archive catalogue of the Royal College of Music.
‘The Sacred Harmonic Society was founded in London as an amateur choral society in 1832 for the weekly practice of music of an exclusively sacred character. The first home of the Society was the Gate Chapel in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. In 1836 it was granted the use of the larger Exeter Hall, focus of London’s dissenting community and designed for religious and charitable meetings. The works of Handel were part of its core repertoire and the society also performed the major new works of Spohr and Mendelssohn, including the London première of Elijah in 1847. At the Handel Festival of 1859 the Sacred Harmonic choir numbered 2765. The Sacred Harmonic Society provided the nucleus for the nationally represented choir of the Trial Festival of 1857 (numbering 2000, with an orchestra of about 400), prior to the Centenary Festival of 1859, which inaugurated the triennial Handel Festival. In 1882, the Society disbanded after losing the use of its Exeter Hall base.’
The Spectator noted a split in the ranks in 1848, with allegations of incapacity and a breakaway ‘London Sacred Harmonic Society’, which also used Exeter Hall, giving Judas Maccabeus ‘for the benefit of the distressed English artisans expelled from France’ (note the year). Husk appears to have stayed faithful: he became the librarian of the Society in 1852, and heroically spent ten years sorting out its music and books, of which he published a catalogue in 1862.
This was not his only project: he wrote for Grove, and in 1857, prompted by what he felt to be unaccountable neglect by music historians of an important aspect of musical life, he produced An Account of the Musical Celebrations on St Cecilia’s Day in the Sixteenth, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. His carefully researched summary traces the musical celebrations on 22 November, in Britain and Europe, from 1571 to 1846. An appendix gives the texts of numerous odes written for St Cecilia’s Day, including pieces by Dryden and Brady, set to music by Handel and Purcell respectively. Some of these works are familiar (if at all!) more for their music than their words, and there are a large number of variations of Dryden’s Alexander’s Feast, with ‘the lovely Thais by his side’. This is a delightful book, telling us in passing a great deal about the musical life of the eighteenth century.
But it would be nice to think that Songs of the Nativity was closest to his heart. Published in 1864, it contains some eighty carols, with music for twelve of them at the end, an introduction, and notes on particular songs. Some are familiar, but some (as he notes on the title page) ‘appear for the first time in a collection’. The introduction adds Sir Walter Scott to the list of those who invented Christmas before Dickens, with a long extract from Marmion which, ‘notwithstanding its familiarity, we cannot forbear again quoting’.
Husk divides the collection into ‘Religious Carols’ and ‘Festival Carols and Songs’: among the latter are seven variations on the Boar’s Head Carol, some interesting contests between holly and ivy, ‘Sir Christhismas’, wassail songs, and an extraordinary drunken ode to beer from the Cotton manuscript collection, which he describes as a ‘curious specimen’ which ‘bears the title of ‘A Christenmesse Carroll’…
A section on carols showing Christmas customs includes a recipe for Christmas pie, which involves getting large amounts of fowls together and smiting them in pieces, before boning them and putting them (with much else) into a pastry ‘made craftily in the likeness of a bird’s body’, baked and served with the head of one of the birds at one end and lots of tail feathers at the other. Husk notes that similar pies ‘continue to be made in some parts of Yorkshire’ – these must be the sort for which Mrs Rundell gives a recipe (pp. 504-5), where you stuff boned birds inside each other from largest to smallest and bake in pastry, as served to Queen Victoria in 1858.
The whole twelve days of Christmas are included, as well as Candlemas and ‘St Distaff’s Day’, of which ‘it is scarcely necessary to observe’ that no such saint will be found in the calendar. This was the day after Twelfth Day, on which virtuous women stopped having fun and got back to their spinning; less virtuous men would try to set fire to their flax, at which the virtuous women would throw buckets of water over the men. This was of course in the days before television, when people had to make their own homely entertainments. It’s also reminiscent of ‘St Lubbock’s Day’, the name given to the first bank holidays in the UK after Sir John Lubbock had proposed and fought for them, leading to the 1871 Bank Holidays Act.
But seriously, there is nothing not to like about this lovely little book, as much a social history as a song-book, and a worthy monument to the enthusiasm and industry of its compiler. God rest you merry, Gentlemen (and Ladies)!