Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella—Murfin’s Carols for Corona and Winter Holiday Music Festival

                                Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella by the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers.

The French have a very deep tradition of Christmas carols.  In fact the word carol comes from French country dances that celebrated events throughout the year, but especially during Christmas.  Words were put to these lively dances creating songs very different from the announcement and nativity hymns sung for masses.  Coming from the peasantry the songs often celebrated the lowly witnesses or participants in the birth story—the carpenter and his humble teenage wife, the animals in the stable, the shepherds, children, and peasants.  Thus these carols were subtly subversive, claiming the Christ child as one of their own.  Exactly such a song is the very old carol Un flambeau, Jeannette, Isabelle—Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella.

The song originated in Provence in southern France which includes not only famous vineyard country, but mountains rising to the Alps.  It was first published in 1553.  The melody now sung is attributed to Baroque composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier a century later but he probably adapted an older folk tune à boire Qu’ils sont doux, bouteille jolie from the now lost Le médecin malgré lui.

It was first translated in English in the mid-18th Century.

                        An illustration for Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella.

The song tells the story of two peasant girls who come upon the nativity and rush back to their village to tell the people and then leading them to the scene with torches in the night.  At the stable all are awed and struck with silence so as not to disturb the baby’s sleep.

It is still a custom in Provence for children dressed as shepherds and milkmaids to carry torches and candles while singing the carol leading a procession on the way to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

Today we feature a simple, lovely version by the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers from the album, Songs of Angels, Christmas Hymns & Carols.  Shaw was one of the best known conductors of the mid-20th Century leading symphony orchestras in Cincinnati, Ohio and Atlanta, Georgia but he is best known as a great innovator and popularizer of choral music in many recordings by his Robert Shaw Chorale. The Chamber Singers were a smaller ensemble and their holiday recording was issued on the Telarc label in the late 1970s.  While he was in Cincinnati and Atlanta he also served as music director at local Unitarian Universalist churches and some of his armature church singers joined recordings by the Choral and Chamber Singers. 

Conductor Robert Shaw at the peak of his career.  Not only did he lead important symphony orchestras but popularized choral music.

Shaw was showered with honors in his lifetime including 14 Grammy Awards, the George Peabody Medal for service to American music, the U.S. National Medal for the Arts, the French Officier des Arts et des Lettres, and British Gramophone Award.  In 1981 he received the most prestigious American recognition in the Arts being selected for the Kennedy Center Honors.  He died in 1999, in New Haven, Connecticut following a stroke, aged 82.

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