Over 50 year ago, the British folk rock band, Steeleye Span turned a half-forgotten 16th century Christmas Carol, Gaudete, into a pioneering recording.

In the Winter 2022 edition of Light and Lyrical, the magazine of the Light Music Society, Jim Cooke delved into the digital archives to discover this remarkable history. Here is an summary of what he discovered:

Gaudete was first published in Piae Cantiones, a collection of Finnish/Swedish sacred songs in 1582. The first English publication appeared in 1910 edited by the Rev. G. R. Woodward. He states that it was sung by Lutherans for grace after meals to the text

Danket dem Herren. Bach also harmonised it as a chorale (BWV 286) whilst Buxtehude composed a fine organ chorale prelude on it (BuxWV 181).

It took taking nearly 20 years after Steeleye Span (pictured above as they are today) for choral sheet music of Gaudete to appear. Since then it has been taken up any a number of British arrangers.

The King’s Singers released an arrangement by Brian Kay on their 1989 album, A Little Christmas Music, more recently recorded by the Gesualdo Six. 

Confusingly, among the other online offerings there are two more different verse tunes. Bob Chilcott, who performed on the King’s Singers recording, produced a very different but punchy interpretation. Karl Jenkins’ hyperactive harmonic antics are enough to induce vertigo, and there is a disconcerting ‘stuck needle’ effect (back to the old school record player!) on ‘virginae’ near the end. Yet, for all that, it sounds like it is based on the version given in the New Oxford Book of Carols. 

When the latter was published in 1992, Gaudete took its place in the contemporary carolling canon. Indeed, the editors tell us that it was by then among the most popular pieces from the 1582 anthology Piae Cantiones. Whilst acknowledging Steeleye’s ‘admirable recording’ of this ‘superb song’, the proffered verse is almost completely different.

Jon Cooke’s full article ‘Among My Souvenirs: Gaudete’  has been described by Dr Helen Thomas of Liverpool University as ‘half journalistic – half academic, ‘forensic’. Download the article