Shepherd's Carol

The fifth of eight cross-curricular lesson plans on Ballads for Christmas for Middle School, Secondary School, High School, KS3 children, with songs and animations, poetry analysis and writing, music analysis, art projects, documentary/film-making and more.


Shepherd's Carol
Animation by Paula Downes, music by Andrew Downes, poetry by William Morris.


The Poem
Going o'er the hills, through the milk white snow,
Heard I ewes bleat while the wind did blow:
Nowell! Nowell! Nowell! Nowell sing we clear!
Holpen are all folk on earth. Born God's Son so dear.

Shepherd's many an one sat among the sheep,
No man spake more word than they had been asleep:
Nowell! etc.

"Shepherds should of right leap and dance and sing,
Thus to see you sit, is a right strange thing":
Nowell! etc.

Quoth these fellows then, "To Bethlem town we go,
To see a mighty Lord lie in a manger low":
Nowell! etc.

Then to Bethlem town we went two and two,
And in a sorry place heard the oxen low:
Nowell! etc.

Therein did we see a sweet and godly may
And a fair old man, upon the straw she lay:
Nowell! etc.

And a little child on her arm had she,
"Wot ye who this is!" said the hinds to me:
Nowell! etc.

This is Christ the Lord, Masters, be ye glad!
Christmas is come in, and no folk should be sad:
Nowell! etc.


Poetry Background
The words of Shepherd's Carol come from "Masters in This Hall" or "Nowell, Sing We Clear", a Christmas carol with words written around 1860 by William Morris to an old French dance tune discovered at Chartres Cathedral by his colleague, architect and musician, Edmund Sedding. It was composed by the French composer Marin Marais who composed the tune as a dance for his opera Alcyone of 1706, with the title Marche pour les Matelots

Watch this video to hear this carol:



William Morris, (24 March 1834 – 3 October 1896) was an English textile designer, poet, novelist, translator, and socialist activist. Associated with the British Arts and Crafts Movement, he was a major contributor to the revival of traditional, more environmentally-friendly British textile arts and methods of production. His literary contributions helped to establish the modern fantasy genre, while he played a significant role in propagating the early socialist movement in Britain. "Masters in This Hall has elements of Morris's socialist beliefs, with the poor bringing news of Christ's birth to the "Masters in this Hall" and a warning to the proud.

Watch this video to learn more about Morris's extraordinary life.


To learn more about the huge gap between rich and poor in Victorian Britain, watch the following videos:



Documentary Task
Find out more about the lives of rich and poor people in Victorian Britain and create a documentary.



Music Analysis
The original "Masters in This Hall" carol is in verse/chorus form. The same music keeps repeating for each verse. In Andrew Downes' Shepherd's Carol, the music is through-composed, meaning there are no repetitions. Instead, you will hear many different textures to depict different people, scenes and feelings. There are also many references to Medieval Church Music to convey the holiness of the scene, and ostinatos also feature. Watch these videos to learn about texture, medieval music, and ostinatos:


Now listen to Shepherd's Carol again and notice elements of medieval church music as well as different textures:

1. Monophonic texture at the beginning for solo voice - the 'poor man' is speaking
2. Monophonic/unison singing from
'Nowell!...', to show that the ewes are singing
3. Homophonic/chordal accompaniment to a melody in octaves for 'Shepherd's many an one...', to depict the shepherds
4. This '
Nowell!...' is in parallel 5ths to depict the Shepherds and ewes singing together, accompanied by arpeggios in the harp, so an essentially homophonic texture (parallel 5ths were used in Medieval Church Music).
5. Voices in unison for 'Shepherds should of right...' to depict the poor man singing, accompanied by rapid ostinato figure showing the excitement he is feeling at having seen such strange and amazing things.
6. 'Nowell!...' is again in two parts, almost mirroring each other (loose inversion), again building up the excitement of all those singing, accompanied with broken chords/ostinatos.
7.  Off-beat chords lead into two-part unaccompanied singing with a combination of parallel and contrary motion for 'Quoth these fellows...'. (Similar to Medieval Church music)
8. 'Nowell!...' is now in a kind of three-part round so is polyphonic. The highest two parts are the same, just not at the same time; the bottom part starts with an upward leap instead of going downwards, so begins inverted. (inversion is a feature of Medieval Church Music)
9. We now have a harp solo: melody and accompaniment so homophonic.
10. At 'Then to Bethlem...' we have unaccompanied voices in two parts to paint the words 'two and two'. Both are singing separate melodies so this is polyphonic. The lower part is an ostinato.
11. Nowell!...' is now in octaves with chordal accompaniment (either all notes together or broken) so this is homophonic.
12. 'There in...' is a solo voice to depict the poor man singing, accompanied by chords, so homophonic melody + accompaniment.
13. 'Nowell!...' is again in octaves with chordal accompaniment but much slower this time to depict the awe of the travellers at what they have seen.
14. 'And a little Child...' is set to unaccompanied voices in three- parts in parallel motion, so this is polyphony since they all have independent melodic lines. It sounds quite like Medieval organum, probably to depict the holiness of the Child. 
15. 'Nowell!...' is now in breathless octaves (notice the rests in between words), as though the travellers can't believe their eyes, accompanied by chords in the harp so this is homophonic.
16. 'This is Christ the Lord...' is the poor man singing again: solo voice with chords in the harp, so homophonic.
17. The song ends with 'Nowell!...' in octaves unaccompanied slowing down to convey a sense of awe and holiness (this sounds like medieval plainsong).




Move on to Christmas: 1924


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