The apple tree Wassail
In this essay, I shall consider whether the music will always be more important than the words in the context of a ritual. I believe that the answer to this complex question is very much dependent on the ritual itself, and is also dependent on the viewpoint from which you are approaching the subject. For instance, composers of music for rituals may have different priorities to the people who attempt to control those rituals, particularly when they are in a religious context, and again the participants in the ritual may be looking for something else entirely.
This could be as straightforward as simply feeling able to participate with confidence, which tends to come from familiarity with the ritual and its associated words and music. I aim to support this theory with evidence from the texts I have read and through a carefully considered discussion. Before discussing the question, I believe it is important to first consider what a ritual actually is. The dictionary definition of ritual is; “a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order”
” a prescribed order of performing such a ceremony, especially one characteristic of a particular religion or Church” “a series of actions or type of behaviour regularly and invariably followed by someone” Rituals, according to Bill Strang, tend to be “occasions on which people come together to mark significant events through particular sets of actions. ” (Strang, 2008, p50) Rituals tend to fall into two main categories – life cycle and calendrical. These both contain a religious element and also both tend to include both words and music.
Indeed, Strang states that; “The overwhelming majority of occasions for music are also ritual occasions of one of these two types. ” Rituals, in general, mark transitions, specific points in time and specific events, and are usually occasions involving several or many participants who are familiar with the ritual. They are very much linked with tradition. One ritual associated with Twelfth Night, or the fifth of January, which was the old Christmas Eve, is wassailing.
Groups of people (wassailers) would sing blessings, outside houses or in the case of apple growing regions, around trees in an orchard, The object of wassailing was to ask for a good harvest and to request food and drink from the houses they visited. The wassails always took the form of songs, performed by groups of villagers. The lyrics of these songs appertained as a rule to good health, a good harvest, and also requested rewards and refreshments. Nonsensical verses were also included – at tines these were inserted by the wassailers to ask for more food and drink.
This gives reason to consider whether the words were as important as the music – indeed the tunes were familiar to all and enabled participation by everyone, whereas the words would differ depending on who was singing them, and were apparently open to interpretation and improvisation. Therefore, it would seem that perhaps as long as the words conveyed the correct sentiment, what the actual words were appears not to have been a great concern. I cannot find any evidence which suggests that wassailing ever took place without music or without words – they both seem to have been an integral part of the ritual.
They have, however, been used independent of each other at different times in the ritual, as well as simultaneously. There is a spoken section at the end of the Apple Tree Wassail I have studied – this seems to have been used as a spoken conclusion to the ritual, an end to the song which Strang suggests is a reminder of the formal aspect of ritual music. (p. 55) The wassailing ceremony which focuses on apple trees and orchards, “orchard wassailing”, encouraged fertility of trees and warded off evil spirits.
Music was central to this ceremony, usually in the form of songs or processionals. Chants, rhymes and spoken word were used, but never in isolation, and the whole ceremony concluded with singing, shouting and the banging of pots and pans and the firing of guns, all of which can be described as music of sorts. Carols have become popular as a part of our modern Christmas celebrations, even though their original roots include Christian and pagan elements. They have, however, always involved an element of ritual.
These days there are many carols used on a regular basis in the celebration of Christmas. Carols are an aspect of the Christmas celebrations which are familiar to most, if not all people, to a greater or lesser degree. The question here is, is the familiarity and the popularity of the carols due to the importance of the words or the recognition of the tune? Initially, a “carol” was a definition of a specific type of lyric, inasmuch as they all followed a particular structure.