Sounds of a Victorian Christmas: Original Carols Played on Original Instruments
An idealized image of a Victorian Christmas. All that needed is a zither or autoharp for the singing of carols.
If I had to admit to a Christmas-time pet peeve, it would be this: I’m a Scrooge when it comes to cover versions of classic Christmas tunes: I don’t like them. Bah, humbug, says I.
Hip-hop “O Holy Night?” I don’t think so. “Jingle Bells” by the Austrian Death Machine? Fuhgeddaboudit! Give me those “old-time” Christmas songs delivered by the original artists: let me hear “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” by Gene Autry and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” by Jimmy Boyd.
Zithers, like this 1894 model, were very common in Victorian-era homes.
It seems that every recording artist is forced to release an album of Christmas tunes, and each song treatment has to be “their own.” Every carol has a jazzy version, a hip-hop version, a hard rock version, a country version and a bluegrass version. Unfortunately, these remakes are hard to avoid; they’re on every radio station and in every department store beginning shortly after Halloween.
Of course, you may not like my choices in Christmas music, either. One’s preferences in music are informed by their age and culture. My choices were shaped by the 1950s. I suspect that Victorian-era carolers would think even less of the Ying Yang Twin’s version of “Deck the Halls (Deck da Club)” than I do. To Victorian ears, “Good King Wenceslas” would sound much better on harp than it would on synthesizer.
Proponents of the historically informed performance movement believe that period music sounds best when it’s performed on period instruments. To say that it sounds “best” is a stretch for me, but there’s no doubt that Christmas music in the Victorian era, like our Christmas music today, was shaped by the instruments that performed it and the ears that heard it.
In the Victorian era, popular music was parlor music; it was made to be played in the home on modest-sized acoustic instruments. Christmas music is no exception. Most of the 20th century’s best-known Christmas music was first played in Victorian-era homes. And, just as today’s technology is adopted into our modern holiday celebrations (i,e,: “let’s stream the movie ‘A Christmas Story’ and DVR the football game”), Victorian-age machine technology created a variety of musical instruments for musicians and non-musicians alike.
The autoharp was created by adding muting bars and chord keys to a zither.
Victorian families were accustomed to providing their own entertainment on Christmas and music publishers and instrument-makers obliged them with a steady supply of sheet music and clever instruments. The familiar melodies of traditional folk songs and sacred music were retro-fitted with new, Christmas-oriented lyrics. Greensleeves became “What Child is This” and the Thanksgiving song “One Horse Open Sleigh” became “Jingle Bells.” Christmas sheet music, like 1865’s “A Christmas Waltz” by Daniel Godfrey sold well, as did entire collections such as the 1847 edition of “A Good Christmas Box” and “Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern” in 1871. Many Victorian carols, like “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Silent Night,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “Away in a Manger,” “We Three Kings” and “Jingle Bells” remain popular today.
Although some Victorian homes were equipped with a piano or reed organ, most were not. Less-affluent households relied on the period’s common folk instruments for accompaniment: mandolins, fiddles, zithers, guitars and banjos. Seen less often at Christmas gatherings were “combination” instruments like harp guitars, the hurdy-gurdy and various incarnations of the zither. Combination instruments were designed to enable instrumentalists to transfer their skills to other instruments, as well as enable non-players to easily accompany singing.
The zither , a small harp-like instrument designed to be played on one’s lap or a table, was popular because it required no special training to play it; one simply plucked the strings to find the melody. “Song cards” could be purchased that, when placed under the strings, showed the user which string to pluck for each melody note. Zithers were produced in such great quantities that they are commonly available today; I see them in almost every antique store that I visit, and they are usually priced at $50 or less.
This autoharp ad promotes its ease of play.
Autoharps and zithers were mad available in the U.S. through the Sears, Roebuck catalog.
In 1882, German luthier Karl Gutter mounted muting bars onto a zither so that the instrument could be strummed like a guitar. Users could play chords by simply pressing a button for the named chord. Gutter’s “volkszither” was later modified by American luthier Charles Zimmerman, who called his invention an “autoharp.” Because they were easy to play, autoharps were an instant hit. Sears, Roebuck included them in their catalog, where they were advertised as “The Wonder of the Age.” Autoharps quickly became a standard instrument in American folk music, and were popularized by the legendary Maybelle Carter.
Zither models for more accomplished players included a fretted violin-zither that could be either bowed like a violin or played with a slide, “Hawaiian-guitar” fashion; and a guitar-zither that was also played slide-style.
A fretted, bowed zither.
A guitar harp.
Another fairly easy-to-play but seldom seen instrument was the hurdy-gurdy. A hurdy-gurdy is a mechanical violin: a handle on the side of the instrument is turned, which spins a wheel that makes contact with the strings. Individual notes are achieved by pressing on keys (similar to piano keys) that in turn press the violin strings at the proper point. Hurdy-gurdies can get quite complicated, mechanically. Though the instrument dates to the medieval era, they are still popular in France and Eastern Europe but are rarely seen in the U.S. outside of Renaissance fairs.
Accomplished players of fretted stringed instruments might be seen with a harp-guitar. Harp guitars, first conceived by Englishman Edward Light in 1798, are essentially guitars with an added course of open strings above or below the main body of the instrument. As the guitarist plays, the open strings ring harmonically with the notes being played, creating a fuller sound. Harp guitars made by the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Company in 1903 are highly collectible. Such a Gibson guitar, in poor condition and in need of restoration, recently sold on eBay for more than $2,000. Restored Gibson Harp guitars sell in the $12,000-$15,000 range.
A guitar zither.
The medieval hurdy-gurdy, popular in the Victorian era, is still popular in Eastern Europe.
One of today’s foremost harp-guitar players, John Doan, has assembled a collection of Victorian-era Christmas music played on these original instruments, and has toured his program around the country for the past twenty years. Mr. Doan’s program fits well into the “historically informed performance” category; the program has been aired on PBS and was nominated for an Emmy award. His love for the instruments of the Victorian period is obvious. In a television interview he says:
“I found so many instruments, so many artifacts from this time past that have a certain charm to them, and they all tell a story about who we were. You see, this (the Victorian era) is the age of invention, so there were all sorts of things that were created (to make music).”
Period instruments playing period music: if you haven’t experienced the sounds of a Victorian Christmas, give it a try this year. Just say “no” to “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” and “Santa Baby.” Instead, pour yourself a cup of hot-mulled cider and enjoy John Doan’s “Wrapped in White: Visions of Christmas Past.”
Wayne Jordan spent more than 40 years in the music business as a performer, teacher, repairman and music store owner. In 25 years of musical instrument retailing he has bought, sold, rented or repaired thousands of pianos, band & orchestra, combo, and folk instruments. Wayne is currently a Virginia-licensed auctioneer and certified personal property appraiser. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions.
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