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We think of carols in association with Christmas, but in times long gone, carols were also sung at Easter. A carol, by it simplest definition, is a song of religious nature not necessarily connected to worship, with a lively or dance-like tune. It was originally a circle dance accompanied by singers, and from the 1150′s to 1350′s, they were popular as dance songs.
In the Middle Ages, a song was also required to have a certain structure to the lyrics to be considered a carol. They must have uniform stanzas and a ‘burden,’ or what we would call a refrain, which was sung at the beginning of the song and between the verses.
A medieval Easter carol, then, would focus on the Resurrection of Christ, and some of the earliest examples left were written by monks. Two very earliest come to us from St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan in the 4th Century, and from Venantius Fortunatas two centuries later.
Hail, day of days, in peals of praise,
Throughout all ages owned,
When Christ our God,
Hell’s empire trod,
And high o’er heaven was throned.
This glorious morn, the world newborn,
In rising beauty shows;
How, with her Lord to life restored,
Her gifts and graces rose.
As star by star He mounts afar,
And hell imprisoned lies,
Let stars and light and depth and height
In Alleluias rise.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux lived from 1090 to 1153, one of six sons born to a lord and lady of Burgundy. He was given the best education due to his destiny being foretold while he was yet unborn. He devoted himself for a time, early in his education, to poetry. He particularly valued the study of literature as an avenue to study the Scriptures. In 1115, the young Bernard was sent at the head of a group of monks to found a new house for his order. In addition to many other accomplishments and writings, this carol is credited to him.
Jesus, the very thought of Thee
With sweetness fills my breast;
But sweeter far Thy face to see,
And in Thy presence rest.
With Mary to Thy tomb I’ll haste,
Before the dawning skies,
And all around with longing cast
My soul’s inquiring eyes.
Beside Thy grave will make my moan,
And sob my heart away;
Then at Thy feet sit trembling down,
And there adoring stay.
Nor from my tears and sighs refrain,
Nor those dear feet release,
My Jesus, till from Thee I gain
Some blessed word of peace.
At roughly the same time, Peter the Venerable, was the head of the monastery at Cluny. He was born in 1092 and died on Christmas Day in 1156. He made his profession at age seventeen and at 20 became professor and prior of the monastery of Vézelay. At age thirty, he was elected general of the order, which included 2,000 houses. He wrote extensively on theological matters, but also left us an Easter carol.
Lo, the gates of death are broken,
And the strong man armed is spoiled;
Of his armor which he trusted,
By the Stronger Arm despoiled.
Vanquished is the prince of hell,
Smitten by the Cross he fell.
Then the purest light resplendent
Shone those seats of darkness through,
When, to save whom He created,
God willed to create anew.
That the sinner might not perish,
For him the Creator dies;
By whose death our dark lot changing,
Life again for us doth rise.
Adam of St. Victor lived in the 11th and 12th centuries. He was a prolific composer of hymns, believed to have been influential in expanding the repertoire of the Notre Dame school (a group of composers working at or near Notre Dame Cathedral). He was known for his strong rhythms and the imagery that filled his poetry. He left over one hundred hymns, including this Easter carol.
Now the world’s fresh dawn of birth
Teems with new rejoicing rife;
Christ is rising and on earth
All things with Him rise to life.
Feeling this memorial day,
Him the elements obey,
Serve and lay aside their strife.
Gleamy fire flits to and fro,
Throbs the everlasting air;
Water without pause doth flow,
And the earth stands firm and fair;
Light creations upward leap,
Heavier to the center keep,
All things renovation share.
And finally, two untitled carols by unknown composers. The first is from either the fourteenth or sixteenth centuries:
Smile praises, O sky, soft breathe them, O air,
Below and on high and everywhere.
The black troop of storms has yielded to calm;
Tufted blossoms are peeping, and early palm.
Awake thee, O Spring, ye flowers, come forth,
With thousand hues tinting the soft green earth;
Ye violets tender and sweet roses bright,
Gay Lent lilies blended with pure lilies white.
Sweep, tides of rich music, the world along,
And pour in full measure, sweet lyres, your song,
Sing, sing, for He liveth, He lives as He said;
The Lord has arisen, unharmed from the dead.
Clap, clap your hands, mountains, ye valleys, resound.
Leap, leap for joy, fountains, ye hills, catch the sound.
All triumph; He liveth, He lives as He said;
The Lord has arisen unharmed from the dead.
An untitled Easter Carol:
Cheer up, friends and neighbors, now it’s Easter tide
Stop from endless labors worries put aside
Men should rise from sadness evil folly strife
When god’s mighty gladness brings the earth to life.
Out from snowdrifts chilly,
Roused from drowsy hours,
Bluebell wakes, and lily;
God calls up the flowers!
Into life he raises
All the sleeping buds;
Meadows weave his praises,
And the spangled woods.
All his truth and beauty,
All his righteousness,
Are our joy and duty,
Bearing his impress:
Look! The earth waits breathless
After Winter’s strift:
Easter shows man deathless,
Spring leads death to life.
Ours the more and less is;
But, changeless all the days,
God revives and blesses,
Like the sunlight rays.
‘All mankind is risen,’
The Easter bells do ring,
While from out their prison
Creep the flowers of Spring!
Happy Easter! May it be a day of many joyous songs!
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