It's a bit odd that America loves Christmas so much but there's next to nothing in the way of serious recompositions of old carols for voice and piano in the American art song rep, save for John Jacob Niles' lovely setting of "I Wonder as I Wander", which isn't Christmassy in the least but still gets played around this time of year. My research has found that the two best sources of classical music rejuvenating old carols are France and England, with both countries making a big effort in the first part of the 20th century to collect folk songs, bringing many fine melodies and poetry to light. Folk music revivalism was central to England's Pastoralist movement, with guys like Holst, Grainger and even later Neo-Classical composers like Britten rewriting ancestral tunes to fit their unique languages. England also takes Christmas pretty seriously, and at the intersection of these cultural forces we find some excellent Pastoralist Christmas music, such as Holst's In the Bleak Midwinter, Victor Hely-Hutchinson's Carol Symphony and Arnold Bax's A Christmas Carol, a song that I adore and really really wanted to write about but couldn't find a good recording of to use. In searching for suitable replacements I remembered about Ivor Gurney, an important figure in the British art song canon whose career was stifled by chronic mental health issues and an early death from tuberculosis after composing almost nothing for nearly a decade. He wrote hundreds of songs using a wide variety of sources and his musical language is as nuanced and sensitive as anything from his contemporaries, making me wonder why most of his instrumental music (which is just as good as his songs from what I was able to find) is so hard to get a hold of.. For our purposes one of his songs in particular is proper to mention, his Carol of the Skiddaw Yowes.
You might be wondering what a yowe is, much less how a yowe could be skiddaw. "Yowe" is an archaic spelling of ewe, and Skiddaw is a mountain in the Lake District in North West England, a popular vacation spot and home to a number of poets in the 19th century such as Wordsworth and Coleridge. While the "Lake Poets" were mostly active in the early 19th century the author of this song's poem, Edmund Casson (not Ernest as it says at the top) published in the 1900's and '10's and is so obscure that the only detailed information I was able to find on him came from a listing for one of his books on AbeBooks, which you might recognize as not being an encyclopedia. In its original published form it was called "Carol of the Skiddaw Shepherds" and Gurney's title change is interesting not only for putting an archaic word in the title but also shifting the perspective slightly from the shepherds (the obvious subject of the poem) to the sheep, perhaps to strengthen the connection of Christmas with the agnus dei. Gurney's language is pure Pastoralism, rife with added-note chords, sophisticated counterpoint and passages seemingly written in the hirajoshi mode commonly heard in Japanese shamisen music. Unlike many shepherd-based carols I've seen Gurney keeps the tempo up, not wasting any of our time and setting the harmonic flow at a fast enough speed to massage the inner ear without stewing in dissonances. It's a lovely addition to the Christmas song rep, gently flowing and imbued with a kind of motherly concern in dark days. I hope that if anyone sees sheep wandering around alone this holiday season they'll try to keep them safe and warm.