“A Christmas Carol” Program Notes

Dickens and A Christmas Carol

The most popular English novelist of the nineteenth century, Charles Dickens (1812-1870) created stories that still draw readers and characters whose very names conjure up vivid images. To this day, when most of us think of Victorian England, we see that world as Dickens presented it. Those descriptions derive their power from his journalistic observation of individuals and situations he had personally encountered and his strong reactions to them. In Dickens, Victorian England found its ideal chronicler.

He wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, a pivotal time in his own life and also in Britain. After a comfortable early childhood, Dickens had to leave school at age twelve and go to work in a boot-blacking factory, when his father was sent to debtors’ prison (his mother and younger siblings accompanied his father there). Dickens eventually completed his schooling, tried his hand in the legal profession, worked as a journalist in London, and achieved literary success in 1836 with the serialized publication of The Pickwick Papers, soon followed by four more successful serialized novels, including Oliver Twist. Their trans-Atlantic success allowed Dickens to tour the United States in 1842, giving lectures, meeting American authors, and confirming his social and political ideas. By 1843, he had become an international celebrity, and even Queen Victoria said she stayed up late reading his novels.

The teenaged Victoria had acceded to the throne in 1837, and in 1840 she married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, who helped her address Britain’s social problems. Among the most painful of these were the extremes of wealth and poverty that accompanied rapid urbanization and became far more visible in crowded cities like London. Moving from the countryside to the city disrupted familiar ways of life, separating families and severing traditional community ties. In the absence of these supports, many created or welcomed new institutions and customs. For instance, philanthropic organizations sprang up, alongside the harsh charity available at public workhouses, to alleviate the suffering of the new urban poor and provide at least some education for street children. People even began celebrating holidays differently, partly influenced by new customs from Prince Albert’s native Germany and adopted by the royal family, like Christmas trees and making the day as much about family as about the birth of Jesus. Still, a powerful nostalgia accompanied these changes as well.

A Christmas Carol, complete with its usually forgotten subtitle, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, reflects these Victorian realities, which likely accounts for its immediate popularity. Dickens conceived the story after visiting London’s Field Lane Ragged School for street children and witnessing the living conditions of factory workers in Manchester. These experiences, and others, made him resolve to “strike a sledge hammer blow” for the poor. But he also drew on two cultural trends that had been developing since early in the century: a renewed interest in traditional and regional carols, maybe due to homesickness for country life, and a trans-Atlantic vogue for spiritualism (communicating with the dead) and ghost stories (such as “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Dickens’ friend, Washington Irving).

Unlike his previous novels, A Christmas Carol was not serialized but published as a stand-alone book that came out on December 19, 1843. By Christmas Eve, all 6,000 copies of the first printing had sold out, despite costing the equivalent of over $30. Thirteen more editions came out the following year, and a stage version appeared less than two months after the book’s publication. In 1849, Dickens began doing public readings of the novella, which proved so popular that he continued the practice until the year he died. Artists around the world have produced scores of theatrical adaptations, including full-length musicals, throughout the twentieth century and into our own. At least five operatic versions and three ballets currently exist. The first film version appeared in 1901. Since then, dozens of theatrical and television film adaptations have appeared, for both adults and children, sometimes changing the time period or setting, portraying Scrooge as a woman, or focusing on other characters. In addition, countless television shows, both live-action and animated, have aired episodes inspired by the story.

A Christmas Carol has never gone out of print, and for good reason. It encourages us all to examine our lives and mend our ways, to engage more compassionately with those around us, and to do our best to bring about a better world. And in that hopeful spirit, we join Tiny Tim in saying, “God bless us, every one!”

~ Susan Wladaver-Morgan

From the Composer

It has always seemed a shame to me that A Christmas Carol didn’t have any Christmas carols in it. What a profoundly moving story, with music in its title—but no actual music! So, when Matthew Guard first approached me about collaborating on this project, I could hardly contain my enthusiasm. The time to correct this particularly glaring oversight had come at last!

The carols in this piece come mostly from the English tradition. In ordering them as they appear here, and placing them into Dickens’s oft-heard tale, I have endeavored to imbue both the carols and the story with a new sense of meaning. Thus, the tune of the enchantingly simple Welsh carol Poverty becomes a leitmotif for Scrooge and his transformation: distant and distorted when it first appears in the counting-house; fragmented, squeezed, and transformed over the course of the ghosts’ ministrations; and radiantly remade as Scrooge joyfully reawakens to find himself alive—truly alive— on Christmas Day.

Other tunes appear and reappear, representing different characters: In dulci jubilo for the childlike yet ancient Ghost of Christmas Past; The Boar’s Head Carol for the rich, gigantic, jovial Ghost of Christmas Present; and the Gregorian chant Dies irae for the fearful spectre of the Future. Other pieces depict particular concepts: It came upon the midnight clear, for example, stands as both a call to care for our fellow human beings and a rebuke to those who habitually ignore this call. Finally, in the dramatic climax of the whole story, The Spirits of all Three, where Scrooge is forced to confront his own miserable end, all these tunes merge one upon the other to illustrate the transformative power of experience and the unpredictable journey towards developing a truly merciful, mature, and loving heart.

While Scrooge’s story is central to A Christmas Carol, it would be remiss not to mention Tiny Tim. Dickens reportedly saw him as the main character in his tale, with the plight of London’s 19th-century poor the underlying theme of the story. I therefore paid special attention to Scrooge’s vision of the bereaved Cratchit family. The music here is the haunting Coventry Carol, the text of which refers to the Slaughter of the Innocents recounted in the Gospel of Matthew. In this arrangement, I bring together the 16th-century English melody with a stark, spare, high, and dissonant texture woven throughout with a keening melody for mezzo-soprano soloist. My goal was to summon the unthinkable—the experience of a parent losing a child—and this piece proved to be one of the most emotionally difficult works I have composed.

Christmas means many things for many people. Some of these associations are profoundly joyful; some of them are deeply painful; and some are a mixture of too many things to recount. However, one thing that is certain about Christmas is that it will come around again each year, like a refrain, and we will each be given the opportunity to create new associations. I offer my hope that my re-imagining of this strange ghost story of sorrow, redemption, and joy forms a positive new association and, moreover, that it helps each of us to become a little more alive—truly alive—to the world and to each other.

~ Benedict Sheehan, June 2022