The Cornish Carols
The Cornish Carols form a thriving local tradition of vigorous and joyful christian singing. They are very tuneful, and written to be sung in four-part vocal harmony. They combine forthright and joyful music with the profound poetry of the hymns and carols that celebrate the birth of Christ.
Why was the music written?
The words prompted the music. The profoundly moving, and skilfully constructed poetry of the christian hymn writers spurred on the musicians in their creative work. Writing at a time when methodist, evangelical Christianity was the majority faith in Cornwall, Thomas Merritt and composers like him penned musical settings that have proved enduring. Their vigorous, community-style pieces are composed in the ‘west gallery’ tradition of christian music, where stirring harmony results from melodic part-writing. Their music has conveyed the words of the carols across more than a century of time. Geographically, their compositions have inspired not only the Christians within their own local churches, but beyond the borders of Cornwall, the worldwide Cornish diaspora have also made these carols their own.
Who was Thomas Merritt?
Thomas Merritt was the most prominent of a group of Cornish composers, who wrote music in the ‘West Gallery’ style, of tuneful harmonies and overlapping (fuguing) melodies. His carol tunes are particularly well known.
Thomas Merritt was born in 1863. His father, also named Thomas Merritt, was a tin miner. He died when Thomas was 11 years old, and Thomas immediately followed in his footsteps, working as a tin miner at the Carn Brea mine, and at the nearby tin streams at Tolvaddon. He evidently developed a love of music, and from his older teen years onwards taught music privately to local children in their homes. Around 1889 Thomas became the Organist and Choirmaster of the United Methodist Free Church in Illogan Highway, holding this appointment for 12 years. Thomas died in 1908 aged 46.
He composed and conducted his own music, and is particularly famous in Cornwall for his carols. These have grown in popularity over the years, and are now sung widely across Cornwall, and in the worldwide Cornish diaspora.
What are the words about?
These are Christmas carols. Though full of spiritual content, they are earthy. The words are about a baby, born in a stable in Bethlehem (a town that is still on the map), in the Roman province of Judea, during the reign of Augustus Caesar, to a Jewish couple, Mary and Joseph. His birth, two millennia ago, and his subsequent life, death, and resurrection from the dead mark out the turning point of all history, and convey a message from God to all people. In the words of the angel whose sudden appearance once terrified a group of unsuspecting shepherds, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.’
Gloweth Chapel 2017 Workshop Resources
We are happy to provide our Workshop Resources as a pdf download. The words and music of the carols are not copyright, but if you want to print our resources, graphics or layout for anything other than personal use, please could you get in touch with us first. Click on the image of the booklet to download it as a pdf.
Some resources to help you learn
These resources are provided to help singers learn their parts for singing in harmony. Each track is recorded with a full piano arrangement from one speaker, and the vocal part from the other speaker. This will help you understand how your part fits together with all the others. If you have left/right control over your speakers, you can turn the piano accompaniment right down, so that only your part can be heard. The music offered here is synthesised by a computer, not recorded from live, which gives it a rather mechanical sound - far removed from the vibrant congregational singing we are aiming for - but clear enough to help you to learn your part.
The voices in four-part harmony
If you are unfamiliar with singing in harmony, the four parts are as follows:
Soprano - the higher part for girls and ladies. Often the melody (the familiar tune) of the music is sung by this part. Alto - a lower vocal part for girls and ladies. Tenor - a higher part for men. Bass - a lower part for men. Boys with unbroken voices can either sing the melody if they can reach the notes, or they can sing alto comfortably. Higher tenor parts may also be accessible for some boys.
Lo! He Comes an Infant Stranger
Thomas Merritt. D Major. Closed Score. Four Part Harmony. MuseScore synthesised vocals.