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Christmas Carols

Posted in This months highlight on 09 Dec 2022

Carols in England date back to at least the 14th century and have been attributed to Franciscan Friars. It is likely there were even earlier midwinter songs that were sung during the cold months, particularly around the Winter Solstice. Throughout the centuries, many carols have been written and this month’s highlight looks at the composition of one local resident, based in Swallowfield Park, Reading.

3 manuscript books.

Arthur Eric Ouseley Norman [known as Eric] was born in 1889 to Arthur and Mary Norman. He was a gifted pianist from an early age and won a scholarship competition at the Royal College of Music in 1907. He became an Associate of the Royal College of Music (ARCM) in 1910 and then went on to read music at Worcester College, Oxford.

After he completed his B.A. in 1915, Eric went on to pursue a career in the Church of England. He was curate at St John’s Woking, Surrey, 1921-1925, where he may well have met his future wife, Ursula Percival, as they were married there in 1929.

Alongside a career in the Church, which included serving as a chaplain in Düsseldorf in 1933, Eric composed music and sometimes set or harmonised texts written by his wife Ursula. Many of his manuscripts are now housed here, including a copy of his most well-known work, the Children's War Hymn.

One bundle is made up of Christmas carols that he either transcribed or composed himself. It contains some draft versions for a carol called ‘Christmas Day! Christmas Day!’ (ref. D/EX516/2).

Two lines of hand-written music with words written underneath.

We’re not sure if he was composing this for a particular service or if it was ever sung, but it still provides a fascinating insight into his process of composition.

There are different versions of the text throughout the drafts, but one thing that is clear is that Eric, or possibly Ursula, clearly wanted this carol to rhyme. There’s a list of words compiled for the carol in an attempt to find the perfect rhyme! These include say, day, way, may, lay, hay, play and stray.

Verses written on a scrap piece of paper.

There are also various versions of the music. One manuscript appears to have the basic tune written out, but it has no time or key signature. However, the next version has various key signatures, suggesting he was trying different melodies.

5 lines of hand-written music, some parts crossed through.

Many bars and phrases are crossed through so we’re not sure of the final melody. However, we have compiled what we think are the final words, as seen below:

Christmas Day! Christmas Day!

When first the hand of Heaven

Our debt began to pay

So we will pray

With Thanksgiving

Christmas Day! Christmas Day!

He victory won

As Mary’s son

To live and die for us we sing

On Christmas Day

Christmas Day! Christmas Day!

And so thro’ all the years

We will look up and say

‘Good morning’, Day Star of Heaven