Carols of the Nativity    -  Program Notes by Phillip Lester

1.  What Child is This *
Except for a few variations, this is the beautiful Elizabethan pop melody "Greensleeves".  It was arranged as a Christmas song by the 19th century composer John Stainer and became a street musician's carol for the New Year. Stainer, an organist at the University of Oxford and at St. Paul's Cathedral in London arranged the music to go along with 3 stanzas from a poem about the nativity by poet William Chatterton Dix.  Dix, who penned the words in 1865, was both a writer of hymns and an insurance company executive from Bristol, England.

2. The First Nöel  *
This ancient carol melody is a simple folk song, probably the oldest popular carol in the English language handed down through the centuries by its constant use.  Noel is a French word often associated with Christmas, possibly derived from the Latin word "Natalis" meaning "birth". When the word found its way to England, it was spelled nowell  and came to mean "now all is well". which was the message of the angel to the shepherds ( Luke 2:10-11). Although the author is unknown, it first appeared in print in a collection of ancient carols compiled by William Sandy in 1833.

3.  O Come All Ye Faithful  *
While the origin of the words remains uncertain, the melody is credited to John Reading (1692), an English composer and organist at Winchester College. In 1751, John Francis Wade, an English priest and music copyist working in France, combined the Latin words with Reading's music resulting in the hymn known in Latin as Adeste Fidelis. It was first publicly performed in London at the Portuguese embassy and thus it became known as the Portuguese hymn. This solo guitar arrangement attempts to capture the joy and triumph of the Messiah's birth while inviting us to gaze upon Him with wonder and adoration. 

4. O Little Town of Bethlehem *
The lyrics were penned in 1868 by an Episcopal  minister, Phillip Brooks (1835-1893) at the age of 30.  The inspiration for the song came from a visit to Bethlehem he had made three years earlier.  His visit came during a year-long sabbatical given in which he was able to make a trip to the Holy Land. On Dec 24, 1865 he traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem by horseback and saw a field of shepherds and attended a five hour Christmas Eve service in the Church of the Nativity.  The occasion for the writing of this memory in song was a childrens Christmas program in the Sunday School at Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia.  Brooks asked his friend and church organist, Lewis Redner (1831-1908) for  some music to accompany the words.  Redner claims the tune came to him as a "gift from heaven", the very night before it was to be performed.

5.  O Come O Come Emmanuel
This melody has its origin in a Gregorian Chant.  The version we are most familiar with came from Thomas Helmore, who in 1854, adapted this haunting melody from a Latin hymn.  The words go back 800 years ago in a style  called plainsong from the days before written music. It was sung in unison without harmony or strict meter by monks often in the seven days leading up to the Christmas service. On each evening the song would be sung a different Biblical name of the Messiah would be substituted in the opening verses.  Emmanuel or Immanuel  is one of His names meaning "God with us" as according to the  Old Testament prophecy  (Isaiah  7:14 and  9:6) in which the the prophet Isaiah makes reference to Messiah's deity and humanity.

6.  It Came upon a Midnight Clear *
When American composer Richard Willis (1810-1876) composed this melody he referred to it as "Study no. 23". Coincidentally, in the same year (1849), Edmund Sears (1810-1876), a minister in Wayland, Massachusetts, wrote  words for a Christmas song reflecting upon that winter season and the sobering reality that the country was on the verge of civil war. With that background, the glorious song of "peace on earth, goodwill toward men" takes on added significance.  Interestingly, Willis, a graduate of Yale, and Sears, a graduate of Harvard, possibly never even met.  The words and music were joined together in 1850. 

7.  Joy to the World **
The great hymn writer, Isaac Watts (1674-1748) introduced the concept of paraphrasing the Bible into texts for hymns. In 1719, this carol based on Psalm 98:4, was included in a collection of Psalms of David that he had transformed into hymns and originally titled Messiah's Coming and Kingdom.   From a very young age, Isaac Watts sought to improve on the lifeless congregational singing in the church where his father was a deacon in Southampton, England. When his father challenged him to provide better hymns for them to sing, he did.  Athough he began to preach at the age of twenty-one, his health failed and he devoted more time to writng hymns, poems, and books of philosophy and theology. The melody for Joy to the World came from American composer, Lowell Mason (1830) who apparently felt the need to credit Frederick Handel as the co-composer, possibly for musical phrases that Mason borrowed or simply out of respect for Handel's influence.

8. Once in David's Royal City *
Cecil Frances Alexander, 1823-1895 was born in Dublin, Ireland and married William Alexander who was an Anglican archbishop in Ireland. She wrote over 400 hymns of which All Things Bright and Beautiful is perhaps the best known. She reportedly wrote this carol for her godchildren when they complained that their Bible lessons were dreary. It was first published in 1848 in Hymns for Little Children. The composer of the melody, Henry Gauntlett, began his musical career at the age of 9 becoming an church organist in Olney, England. He was devoted to composing church organ music and designing organs. Felix Mendelssohn held him in high esteem. Mrs. Alexander's poem was somehow paired with Gauntlett's melody which was originally titled Irby.  It was one among thousands of his compositions. 

9. We Three Kings  ***
The words and music were both composed by John Henry Hopkins (1820-1891). Hopkins was known as a poet, composer, church rector, and a designer of stained glass windows.  This carol was one of several he wrote for an annual children's Christmas pageant. Though written in 1857, it was thought to be taken from an anonymous medieval composition because of its unusual style and combination of modes.

10. Ding Dong Merrily On High *
Originally this tune came from a secular dance song called Branle l'Official (The Dance of the Official). It was attributed to the Frenchman Thoinot Arbeau (1520-1595). It was turned into a carol by Charles Wood (1866-1926) with a carol text written by G.R.Woodward (1848-1934). Like  the lyrics for Carol of the Bells it  reflects the ancient legends that associate bell ringing with the celebration of Christmas.

11. Good King Wenceslas  *
John Mason Neale (1818-1866) was born in London, the son of an Evangelical clergyman. He taught at Cambridge University using his gift for Greek and Latin to translated many of the hymns of the Medieval Church like O Come, O Come Emmanuel. Among the many hymns he wrote, Good King Wenceslas  sets to poetry one of the many Bohemian legends about  Duke Wenceslas who ruled Bohemia between 928-935 A.D.and was renown for his kindness to the poor especially at Christmas. The carol tells in dialogue form the story of him delivering food, drink, and firewood to a peasants house in the cold of winter The carol admonishes all of us that in helping the poor we help ourselves.

12.  Angels We Have Heard on High *
The words began as a poem by James Montgomery which he printed in his newspaper on Christmas eve in 1816 in Sheffield, England. The melody was composed by the blind composer and organist Henry Smart. The original title, Regent Square, was named after the location of St. Phillips Church where Smart was organist.  The words and music were first published together in a collection of carols in 1855. A high strung guitar (with four octave strings) is used on this recording giving the carol a hammered dulcimer/harpsichord sound.

13.  O Holy Night
Adolphe Adam (1803-1856) was a French composer of several stage and ballet productions. He took his melody to his close friend, the French poet Cappeau de Roquemaure who supplied the lyrics. They titled their collaboration "Cantique de Noel". The English words we use today were written by an American clergyman and musical scholar,  John Sullivan Dwight. Adam's composition was initially met with criticism from French church officials who denounced it for its "lack of musical taste and total absence of the spirit of religion." Of course it has gone on to become one of the most popular and deeply moving vocal solos in the repertoire of popular and sacred holiday music.

14. Carol of the Bells
Based on an old Ukranian motif, the lyrics are rooted in the legend that upon Jesus' birth, all the bells on earth simultaneously began to ring in unison. This is considered a Russian folk carol and is also often sung in Bulgaria and Rumania as well as the Ukraine. Music by Leontovich. 

15 Lo How a Rose is Blooming
The imagery of a rose miraculously blooming in the wintertime is reminiscent of the amazing events and obstacles surrounding the birth of the Messiah. "And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse and a Branch shall grow out of its roots (Isaiah 11:1). The melody appeared  in Cologne in 1600 and was later harmonized by Michael Praetorious (1571-1621) who published his beautiful harmonized version in 1609.

16. He is born the Divine Christ Child 
This tune dates back to 13th century Poland where it was often sung by boys as they made their way toward church for midnight mass.  In their processional to the church they would sing this song as they reenacted the arrival of the Maji.

17. In Dulci Jubilo
Translated Sweet Jubilation. According to legend, Henry Suso, a Dominican mystic heard this sweet waltzing melody in a dream and was able to wake up and write it down.  On September 14, 1745 it was sung in thirteen languages simultaneously at the Moravian Mission in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

18. Bring Torch Jeanette Isabella
A French carol known since the 14th century as a lively court dances. It first appeared as a Christmas carol in a compilation of Christmas music titled Cantiqies de Premiere Advenement de Jesus Christ, published in 1553 by a wealthy French count who collected Christmas music as a hobby.

19. Hark the Herald Angels Sing
The lyrics are attributed to Charles Wesley (1707-1788) written in 1739, the year following Wesley's conversion to Chrisianity.  The music came 100 years later from Felix Mendelssohn who composed the melody in 1840 as part of a celebration commemorating Gutenberg the printer, and said that the the piece " will never do to sacred words." Years later an English musician, William Cumming, applied Mendelssohn's music to Wesley's hymn. The melody and lyrics were joined together by Cummings in 1855.

20. What Child is This? (2nd version)  ***
This version was one of the few tracks that I have carried over from my original 1988 Holiday release titled Seasons.  Through the years I have come to enjoy performing it in the key of E minor but wanted to include this recording which was done in the key of D minor.

21.  Away in a Manger **
Although sometimes known as Luther's Cradle Hymn, there is no basis for the legend that Martin Luther both composed and sang it to his children. The song originated in America in the mid 1800's.  It remains an anonymous carol considered a traditional, universal Christmas lullaby telling the story of the nativity with gentle and sweet imagery. While the words have been set to several different melodies, one of its  most popular settings  is 'Flow Gently Sweet Afton which has been incorporated into the introduction of this instrumental arrangement. 

22. Night of Wonder (Carol of Peace)  ***
A composition by Phillip Lester originally titled  Come and Behold Him as a part of a 1988 collection titled Seasons.  The melody conveys a peaceful state of mind as a result of the inner peace brought about by being reconciled to God. It invites the listener to slow down for a time of reflection and meditation. 

23.  God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen ***
Meaning God keep you, Gentlemen, in merry spirits. The true origin of this carol has never been established, however, it is likely a popular London street song and even  mentioned in  Charles Dickens' A  Christmas Carol. The arrangement begins stately and then moves into an upbeat resounding conclusion

24.  Coventry Carol 
Also known as  Lully Lullay. The Medieval guilds in many English cities put on public pageants around the Christmas time which  included "miracle" or "mystery plays" reenacting the story of the birth of Jesus. In 1534, the pageant of the  The Sherman and Tailors Guild of Coventry, England included this song in a scene where the mothers of Jewish children sing this lullaby upon the anticipation of Herod's slaughter of their children. 

25. I Wonder as I Wander
A song collected in the South in the early 1900's by John Jacob Niles, a singer and collector of folk songs. This Appalachian folk carol with its haunting theme evokes a  mood of contemplation on the wonder of a Creator who would actually be humble and loving  enough to step down to earth  in order to pay  the price of our sin by taking the penalty of our sin upon Himself. (cf. Romans 5:6-8; Phillippians 2:4-11)

26. In the Bleak Midwinter *
The lyrics combined with the melody are among the most heart felt of all songs about the nativity:
In the bleak mid-winter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone: snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, in the bleak mid-winter long ago.

Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain, heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign; in the bleak mid-winter a stable-place sufficed the Lord God almighty, Jesus Christ.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there, cherubim and seraphim thronged the air; 
but His mother only, in her maiden bliss, worshipped the Beloved with a kiss.
What can I give Him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; if I were a wise man, I would do my part; yet what I can I give Him - give my heart.
Words: Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-94) / Music: Gustav Holst (1874-1934)

27.   Silent Night
On the day before Christmas in 1818, Joseph Mohr, a young associate minister, brought a poem he composed to Franz Gruber, the church organist, to be set to music.  Since the organ was broken, the two finished and performed the song that night using a guitar for accompaniment. The story goes that the organ repair man finally showed up in the Spring. While testing out the repaired organ, Gruber performed Silent Night.  The organ repair man, after hearing the song, was so impressed that he took a copy of the hymn to his town.  From there it was passed onto to a traveling musical group and soon its popularity spread throughout the world. In 1863 it was translated into English and began its popularity in America.

28. The Little Drummer Boy  *
Composed in 1958 by the team of Harry Simeon, Katerine Davis, and Henry Onorati.  The song tells the story of a shepherd boy who comes along with the procession of the Wise Men and other admirers to the manger in Bethlehem to see the holy infant. All he has to offer is his drum and gift of making music.  Whether Miriam (Mary), the young Jewish mother of Jesus was happy about this gift it doesn't mention.  I tend to doubt she was so thrilled at the prospect of listening to the sound of a drone drum after her delivery but it makes for a nice story(PL).  The drone percussion effect is performed on guitar using the pizzicato technique on the right hand.

For more historical information on Carols and Holiday music I would recommend the following website:

Recording Notes:

*  These tracks were performed on a Takamine classical guitar: Craig Russell engineer 
** This track was performed on a  James Goodall Acoustic guitar: Craig Russell engineer 
***   These tracks were performed on a Hernandis classical guitar: Tim Coomes engineer, 
**** This was performed on a Yamaha FG 200 acoustic guitar. 
 All other tracks were recorded on a Takamine acoustic and Hirade classical Guitars 

These songs are used with permission:

The Little Drummer Boy  by Harry Simeon, Katerine  K.Davis, and Henry Onorati.
EMI Mills Music Inc  / International Korwin Corp 

In the Bleak Midwinter  by Gustav Holst / publishers Oxford University Press Inc 

Carol of the Bells  by Leontovich/Wilhousky / publishers Carl Fischer Inc

I Wonder as I Wander  by John Jacob Niles  / pubishers G. Schirmer Inc

All other selections are in the Public Domain except   Night of Wonder ( Carol of Peace ) which is composed by Phillip Lester / published by Simple strings Music  / BMI. 

For guitarists a performance demonstration of many of these carols is available on video. For more information on transcriptions, instructional videos , and a list of guitar tunings used on these selections contact Phillip at 

All the selections were arranged for solo guitar and performed by Phillip Lester. 
Carols of the Nativity  copyright 2003. All rights reserved. 

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