Sussex Mummer's Christmas Carol: Percy Grainger by kind permission of Miss Lucy E. Broadwood

From the late 1800's to the early 1900's, the hotbed of musical creativity was a little area of England south of London known as Sussex County.  We've discussed before the trend of composers in the late Romantic, early Modern era to seek out the rich vocal tradition in the English countryside. It was the perfect fit to the growing popularity for the development of melody born of the Romantic Era, and there was plenty of English oral tradition being passed down from generation to generation through the use of song. This of course is nothing new, mankind has been sharing oral history through music since before the ancient Greeks. The exciting part at this place and time was how composers were beginning to treat these melodies in lush choral and band arrangements.

Percy Grainger (1882-1961) was one such composer.  He favored piano above all else, as he aspired through most of his life to become a concertizing pianist.  He succeeded for the most part at his goal, and a remarkable byproduct was that he began to arrange his piano works for band, orchestra and chorus. Grainger was an early technophile and utilized the phonograph to actually record these folk melodies, compiling a database of sorts and then attempting to capture the subtle nuance in each tune as he transformed these into arrangements for piano as well as full ensembles.

Which became easier after her perfected cloning technology.
However despite Grainger's fervor in collecting such gems, the earliest collection of such folk songs was attributed to a gentleman named, Rev. John Broadwood. He was the first to publish words and music together to these folksongs of his community.  He had a niece who also took to this familial musicality pretty well, Miss Lucy E. Broadwood (1858-1929). There's no shortage of companions that helped in the Broadwood's goal to catalog and preserve the folk music around them. I can't help but think this was a difficult task at times though since most of the people singing were essentially illiterate when it came to music.  Grainger fondly wrote his arrangements to carefully capture the rhythmic inaccuracies and tonal shifting that the amateur singers would produce and wrote them into many of his arrangements.

One such work preserved by Miss Broadwood would be the Sussex Mummer's Christmas Carol.  Now a mummer by today's definition is someone who puts on a public play involving costumes or disguises, the death of a hero (or heroes), and the resurrection of said hero(es) by means of some miraculous potion provided by a doctor or other such healer.  The play itself is usually performed outdoors or in some public place, but often door-to-door in a caroling fashion. They are usually comedic, but often exhibit some great struggle between good and evil.  Broadwood notated the Christmas Carol after watching the exhibition of, "St. George, the Turk, and the seven champions of Christendom".  The mummers (sometimes called tipteerers) sung the carol as a finale from what I can determine.  The play they put on featured the patron saints of England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, and Wales as each character/saint demonstrated what they were famous for (St. Patrick getting the snakes out of Ireland, St. James fighting an imaginary battle against African Muslims, etc.).  It made sense for the conclusion to feature the carol, as Christmas was a common theme in all of the mummer activities.

As was murder.

So Lucy hears this and writes it down.  Grainger hears it from Lucy and arranges it for piano.  Richard Franko Goldman hears Grainger's piano version and tells him he has to arrange it for band.  Grainger dies. Goldman, undeterred, takes up the mantle and arranges it himself.  Goldman was the son of Edwin Franko Goldman who, among other things, founded the Goldman band in New York City and also the American Bandmaster's Association.  So, the younger (and equally skilled) Goldman premieres this piece at Iowa State College in 1963 and the rest is history.

The carol itself is interesting since the majority of it focuses on the redeeming death of Jesus Christ and the resurrection as opposed to his birth, as do most Christmas carols.  The lyrics are available here if you're interested.

Another interesting bit about the mummers is the fact that they are not just in Sussex. You may be familiar with the Mummers Parade in Philadelphia, PA held each New Year's Day. It's known to be the oldest folk festival in the United States and it does indeed draw its roots from the tipteerer/mummer tradition from Sussex.  It pulls its traditions from many countries, not just England and the parade is comprised of elaborate floats that are often human powered pieces of scenery as well as incredibly elaborate costumes and acts that take months of preparation to create and perfect.  Musical groups are also included and are as eccentrically garbed as any of the other parade entries.

Step 1- Strap a Mardi Gras float to your back.  Step 2- Party.
The whole concept evolved from a tradition of visiting one's neighbors the day after Christmas dressed in wildly outlandish costumes. Other traditions carried over involved firing guns into the air and performing poetry, rhymes and songs for beer.  As this tradition of door to door entertainment evolved, it eventually became a parade in 1901 when presumably residents grew weary of passing out alcohol to armed and drunken wassailers in medieval costumes wandering around for a week after Christmas.

We must take your rum and return to Valhalla. 
The parade carries on the same spirit and tradition founded in those early medieval plays in the 1700's. However, despite the occasionally bacchanalian nature some of the mummer related activities take on, the Christmas Carol is a bit of a reprieve. It begins with a fairly standard, choir-like introduction of the melody that starts with a woodwind texture, slowly and gracefully giving way to trumpet. The thing that strikes me as most interesting is the phrasing and dynamic choices established by Grainger in the original piano score.  The first YouTube video you'll see shows the score as the piano version is played, so you can see the care Grainger took in labeling the manner in which it should be performed. The second video is the North Texas Wind Symphony performing Goldman's setting (it's the best I could find online, there are better performances of this however).  The first statement introduces the melody with a plodding 8th note undercurrent. The second statement gets a bit bolder with a bit of modulation and a very interesting counter melody introduced by the horns. It replaces a lot of the 8th note undercurrent from the first statement, which is still partially intact in the lower woodwinds and brass.  Finally, it returns to the triumphant original key and finishes the theme with a few additions of new chords in a few spots.

It would be interesting to do some research on how much of the final band version of this piece was Goldman's decision-making versus Grainger's.  I hear a lot of Grainger in it, but knowing that Goldman completed it makes it interesting, especially when you consider that he was now the fourth known person to have his hands in the mix- starting of course with the tipteerers who performed it, then Lucy E. Broadwood, and Percy Grainger.

I like Christmas music that exists somewhere between jolly and depressing.  Not to say Christmas isn't always a wonderful time of year, but there's something about the holiday that really displays a wide range of emotion for me. Perhaps it's the dichotomy of the birth of Jesus, juxtaposed with the fact that some 30 years later he would be faced with a gruesome death.  Maybe it's the often bemoaned hardships many endure during this time of year being apart from loved ones resultant of circumstances beyond anyone's control.  Or rather, those who are no longer with us in a physical sense, those who have passed over.  I like that Christmas is such a happy time of year because it has the potential for such sorrow. I know that sounds odd, perhaps even certifiably insane, but I really believe we measure happiness in contrasts. Without knowing what's sad, we find ourselves unable to know if we are in fact happy.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Homework: You get this week off.  Go find your happy Christmas.

See you next Friday.


North Texas Wind Symphony