This year’s Christmas publication is God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen, one of the oldest carols of the English tradition, in two versions: for string quartet and for cello quartet. The source for this edition has been the choral part found in Christmas Carols New & Old, edited by John Stainer (1840–1901) and firstly published by Novello & Co around the year 1880.
The history of this carol dates back to at least the XVI century, with a first printed edition appearing as early as the 1760, and making its way into the 1829 parody by William Hone (1780–1842, the father of English press freedom) Facetiae. An 1847 collection by John Payne Collier (1789–1883), A Book of Roxburghe Ballads, containing more than 1300 ballads from the XVII century, shows it in the third volume, at number 452. It seems it had different text settings during its life, as around the 1750 it was known as “Tidings of Comfort and Joy”. We know of it being a well-known carol in the first half of the XIX century thanks to its appearance in Charles Dickens’ (1812–1870) novella A Christmas Carol, where:
[…] at the first sound of ‘God bless you, merry gentlemen! May nothing you dismay!’, Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost.
Notice how Dickens uses “bless” instead of “rest”, more on this below.
In 1760, in Three New Christmas Carols, we find the first appearance of the modern version of the text:
God rest ye, merry Gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
For Jesus Christ our Saviour
Was born upon this Day.
To save poor souls from Satan’s power,
Which long time had gone astray.
Which brings tidings of comfort and joy.
A new edition of this same broadsheet around 1780–1800 in Wolverhampton adds two more verses to the mix, and even more variants exist between 1775, 1833 and 1961.
The most accepted meaning for the opening phrase “God rest you merry” is “may God grant you peace and happiness”, following the record in the Oxford English Dictionary from 1534 onward. A modern reading, especially for non-native English speakers like me, could misinterpret the word “merry” as an adjective of “gentlemen”. This appears not to be correct from an historical standpoint, as in XVI-XVII century English language, a transitive use of the verb “rest” would instead mean “to keep, to remain”. The modern transformations of the language have therefore brought the incorrect addition of the punctuation mark between “you” and “merry”, which has caused the present confusion. The verb “rest” seems to have lost its use “with a predicate adjective following and qualifying the object”1, even though this change is less recent than it may seem, being already there in 1775.
Modern musical settings of this melody exist, with two most notable mentions: Gustav Holst (1874–1934) includes it in his 1910 choral fantasy Christmas Day, and Victor Hely-Hutchinson (1901–1947) composes the scherzo of his Carol Symphony on that tune.
On the edition
The proposed edition consists of two separate full scores, one for string quartet and one for cello quartet, both accompanied by a full set of performance material (parts). I have decided to keep the string quartet version in the original key of E minor, while I have transposed the cello quartet version down a whole step to account for the better resonance the key of D minor gives on cellos, and to keep the highest note of the first cello in range of the first thumb position. The separate parts for the cello quartet versions bear fingering and bowing suggestions by myself.
I hope you will enjoy playing this piece with your friends, family, and students as much as I have enjoyed researching and adapting it.
You can find it here on my Gumroad page, where it is available for purchase. You can also get it for free by following me here. By doing so, you will get three welcome newsletters, each a week apart from the other, each bearing a gift from me to you. By following me, you will occasionally receive news and updates on my publications and exclusive discounts, offers and gifts, alongside free previews of my new editions.
With this, I wish you a Merry Christmas and a time of joy, peace, and rest with all your dear ones.
Thank you for reading this article.
If you have any question or suggestion, please leave a comment below or contact me using the dedicated contact form.
If you are looking to greatly enhance your Sibelius experience, please take a moment to consider my viewset for Metagrid that I have published back in February.
I hope you found this article helpful, if you did, please like it and share it with your friends and peers. Don’t forget to follow me on this blog and to let me know what you think.
If you are interested in my music engraving services and publications don’t forget to visit my Facebook page and the pages where I publish my scores (Gumroad, SheetMusicPlus, ScoreExchange and on Apple Books).
You can also support me by buying Paul Hudson’s Swift programming books from this Affiliate Link.
Thank you so much for reading!
Until the next one, this is Michele, the Music Designer.
- source: Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia ↩