THE FIRST CAROL
So firstly I want to speak a bit about the first Christmas carol – or rather the first hymn about Christmas.
Arguably that was the song of the Angels round the stable at Jesus birth, but we don’t know the tune.
The first one I can authentically trace is from Ambrose of Milan, in about 350 or so AD wrote the hymn Veni Redemptor Gentium – Come, Redeemer of the nations, that we had seen from a virgin birth, The wonder of all ages, that came to us born of God.
It’s a six or or seven verse hymn, and was written as a defence against the heresy of Arianism, which taught that Jesus was inferior to God the Father, not co-equal. Here it is sung in plainsong.
I’m sure it wasn’t the first, but it’s the first that I can trace that has strophic form for singing in church.
That is to say, it has one tune and many different verses – ie like a hymn. This had happened before but I don’t know if or when it had ever happened in the church. So along with this being the first Christmas hymn, it might even be the first hymn.
It was a hymn which had a lot of tail to it. I’m not sure whether the tune which has passed down to us is original, but it soon gained more attention. Every polyphonic composer set it. We know that Perotin set it although we don’t have his music Tallis set it, which is good enough to elevate it’s status for me. Here’s some rather sweet Praetorius.
More importantly, Luther set it, and the chorale was taken up by Bach – Nun Komm, der Heiden Heiland was one of the most famous and important chorales of the Reformation.
But in Britian we kept it, albeit with a different tune. It’s still in the hymn books. Come Thou Redeemer of the Earth.
It still has legs though…
Might well be the longest lasting hit of all time.