Reviews of Carols Ancient and Modern


Ronald Corp - Church Times

Now we have a comprehensive collection of more than 100 carols presented in sensible and straightforward singing versions. Here, you will find all the old favourites, but also new arrangements of carols with the emphasis on practicalities and singability.

Most carols could be sung unaccompanied, or accompanied by a keyboard, but there are comparatively few for which a keyboard is obligatory. Careful thought has been given to layout, and usually the music is on one page while the words are on the facing page, making the volume easy to use. One or two carols spread over a number of pages, but the cloth binding and modest size make the book easy to handle.

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Barry Williams - Laudate, magazine of the Guild of Church Musicians 

This compilation of one hundred and sixteen items breaks new ground in its intention to provide, in one volume, all that choirs and congregations might need.  It covers Advent, Christmas, Epiphany and Christingle.  The editor and principal arranger of this unique and unusual publication is Malcolm Archer, whose huge experience and musical commonsense is manifest throughout the book.  There is no doubt that this new book will prove useful in churches and schools without choirs, as well as in those where there is a greater degree of musical sophistication.

The full music edition is very small – just 8¼” x 5½” (210mm X 140mm) and, like Carols for Choirs, is flat (‘Perfect’) bound.  The book does not stay open easily on the music desk.  No organ edition is available but the book is also published in electronic format.  The page layout is basically the same as the new Hymns Ancient & Modern.  By and large difficult page turns are avoided.

A number of items are transposed to low keys to facilitate congregational participation.  ‘Ding dong! Merrily on high’ appears in G major.  ‘Once in Royal David’s city’, ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ and ‘Hark the herald angels sing’ are in F major, whereas G major is retained for O come, all ye faithful’.  Many of the most popular and traditional numbers are in the arrangements by the late Sir David Willcocks in Carols for Choirs.

By and large, Mr Archer does not alter traditional language.  There are few aggressive alterations to the texts and little of the offensive and inartistic amendments frequently seen in Mayhew publications.  Preterite endings have been retained, as has the second person singular for addressing The Almighty, indicating a sensible editorial approach.  An unfortunate exception is Bishop John Young’s well-known translation of ‘Silent night!.  Someone could not resist the temptation to fiddle with a ‘received’ text and the result is infelicitous and needlessly angular, as well as, in one instance changing the meaning.  (Shortly after reviewing this book I played the organ for a traditional Nine Lessons & Carols at a church where a set of this book had been donated.  The congregation sang the traditional version, not the words as printed.  See the Postscript!)

The inclusion of a huge amount of widely used items in generally good arrangements, puts this volume into the forefront of Christmas music books.

Cornelius’ ‘Three Kings’ is well-known in Ivor Atkins’ 1930 arrangement, but ‘Joy to the world’ and ‘O holy night’, (the latter in an exceptionally fine arrangement by John Barnard), are very useful.  ‘Mary had a baby’ is presented in a brilliant and accessible version by Malcolm Archer that can be sung in unison or harmony.

‘Whence is that goodly fragrance flowing’ is set to a delightful harmonisation by Mr Archer that is a worthy alternative to the version in Songs of Praise.  Frank Houghton’s fine hymn ‘Thou who wast beyond all splendour’ is also set to the tune ‘Fragrance’, but in a harmonisation by Peter Moger that lacks the grace and felicity of Mr Archer’s version.

Oliver Harney, Head of Composition at Winchester College, has six arrangements in this book.  His attractive setting of ‘Girls and boys, leave your toys’ (The Zither Carol) deserves to be a permanent part of the repertoire, bringing this delightful number within the ambit of congregational use.  (The late Sir Malcolm Sargent’s clever arrangement a capella in Carols For Choirs is wonderful, but quite difficult.)  Mr Tarney’s other arrangements are nowhere near as good as Malcolm Archer’s, lacking that easy handling of harmony which is the hallmark of a good arranger.  Mr Archer’s glorious setting of the West Indian number ‘The Virgin Mary had a baby boy’ is superb, yet not difficult.  John Barnard has done the same with ‘We wish you a merry Christmas’; useable with or without a choir.  This is John Barnard at his very best.

The least effective music in the book is the tune ‘Falling Fifths’ by Noël Tredinnick, used for Bishop Timothy Dudley-Smith’s Christingle hymn, ‘God whose love is everywhere’.  The unusual metre (7775 775) demands a new tune, but this one does not enhance the words.  Contrast that with Mr Archer’s spectacular little tune for Christina Rossetti’s ‘Love came down at Christmas’, which is a magnificent miniature.

Choirmasters will welcome the amount of traditional material included.  Here are a few examples:-

Sing Lullaby       arranged by Edgar Pettman
The Angel Gabriel                              

As Joseph was a’walking       arranged by R. R. Terry
I saw a fair maiden                            
Tomorrow shall be my dancing day      

Adam lay y’bounden       Boris Ord

People look East       arranged by Barry Rose

See amid the winter’s snow       arranged by John Goss

Now the holly bears a berry       arranged by Malcolm Archer

The tree of life       music by Elizabeth Preston

Infant Holy       arranged by David Willcocks


It is disappointing that Bernadette Farrell’s ‘Longing for light’ was not offered in a far better arrangement.  Like Dr Kendrick, Miss Farrell does not do justice to her own words and melodies.  John Hughes’ arrangement of ‘The Londonderry Air’ is by far the best of that tune but eschewed here, yet the inclusion of William Fullerton’s exceptionally fine  words ‘I cannot tell why he, whom angels worship’ is an advantage in any hymn book.  Bishop Timothy Dudley-has three items in this book, but one, ‘In our darkness light has shone’, based on John I Chapter I verses 1 – 14, is exceptional and must rank as one of the finest Epiphany hymns ever.  It is carried well by John Barnard’s rather modest but deeply effective tune ‘Upton Cheyney’.  Here the composer underlines the words, which are in a very difficult metre.  ‘Upton Cheyney’ is a tune that underlines and supports the words, whilst having melodic and harmonic interest.  It will not yield its riches easily, for most choirs will have to work at it.  Some might find the useful Advent section a little light on straightforward congregational material, though choirs are well provided for.

All in all, this is an excellent book and one which will serve parishes with choirs, as well as those without.  I commend it.