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Cornish Christmas Carols - Or 'Curls'

Before 1825 Christmas carols were dying out in Britain, and it is Davies Gilbert of St Erth who is credited with pioneering a revival, notably by the publication in 1822 of a collection titled ‘Some ancient Christmas carols and complete with their tunes’.  This was followed in 1833 by ‘Christmas carols, ancient and modern’ by William Sandys, Commissioner of affidavits in the Stannary Court of Cornwall.

In Cornwall Methodism also helped to stimulate song.  In those areas where Methodism was strongest, music and singing were strongest, and notably so at Christmas. The singers would practice in chapels and school-rooms, some of them walking miles to be there. They rehearsed folk songs and newer carols, such as Nahum Tate's ‘While Shepherds’ and Charles Wesley's ‘Hark the Herald Angels’.

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Local musicians composed tunes themselves which was the start of a new tradition, with composers such as Thomas Merritt, Thomas Broad, R H Heath, W B Ninnis and many others providing a wealth of music with the soaring harmonies (and 'repeats') so beloved of the mining communities. The favourite carols were those which gave the best opportunities to exercise skills in 'parts' singing with trebles, altos, tenors and basses performing with gusto.  The conventional restraint of polite choral music was not always the most obvious feature!  

While carol services remain commonplace, there has been a decline in the singing of Cornish carols, although these can still be heard in the festive season. There are still a few well-appreciated annual 'carolares' in local chapels, for instance at Troon, Camborne and Redruth and in St Ives the carol service tradition has remained strong. The St Ives Cornish carol choir continue to meet and have a large following, particularly at their Christmas Eve singing of a number of well-known Cornish carols.

Local choirs sing the Thomas Merritt favourites, but the work of most of the other composers is long forgotten. Only in select Cornish communities overseas does the singing of Cornish carols form an important part of Christmas celebrations.     

At home, composers like the late Kenneth Pelmear attempted to revitalise interest in the 1970s and 80s with some success. However, many of Cornwall's choral enthusiasts tend to ignore the works which arose from the soul of the local community and young people no longer learn the intricacies of singing Cornish curls.

Cornwall Records Office

Old County Hall,
Truro,
Cornwall,
TR1 3AY

01872 323127