Boar’s Head Carol


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This bold elementary Christmas duet is fantastic for recitals, no matter what the season!


In many places, Christmas dinner traditionally includes ham, thanks to some degree to this less-performed 15th century English Yule carol.

According to Edmund Chambers, the boar’s head tradition was “initiated in all probability on the Isle of Britain by the Anglo-Saxons, although our knowledge of it comes substantially from medieval times.

“[In Nordic mythology,] sacrifice carried the intent of imploring [Ingvi-Freyr, the god of fertility,] to show favor to the new year. The boar’s head with apple in mouth was carried into the banquet hall on a gold or silver dish to the sounds of trumpets and the songs of minstrels.”

Another legend recalls a story of an Oxford student who, upon being attacked by a wild boar during the season of Yuletide, shoved a book of Greek literature into the boar’s mouth, choking it to death. The student body celebrated by serving the head of the boar while singing the Boar’s Head Carol.

St. Stephen’s feast day is 26 December, and thus he likely came to play a part in Yuletide celebrations previously associated with Ingvi-Freyr.

Performed every year at The Queen’s College in Oxford, England, the ceremony has changed little from this 1868 description from William Henry Husk: “The head (the finest and largest that can be procured) is decorated with garlands, bays, and rosemary, and is borne into the Hall on the shoulders of two of the chief servants of the college, and followed by members of the college, and by the college choir. The carol is sung by a member (usually a fellow) of the college, and the chorus by the choir as the procession advances to the high table, on reaching which, the boar’s head is placed before the Provost, who sends slices of it to those who are with him at the high table; and the head is then sent round to the other tables in the hall and partaken of by the occupants.”

Historical information is included on the last page of the piece.

The duet itself is, as you would expect from James L. King III, impressive and bold, yet all hands stay within 5-finger positions except for RH primo which has one optional accidental. The time signature is cut time, but students may learn it as if it is 4/4 time (with quarter=208). Both facing pages and combined scores are available so teachers can choose the layout they prefer best.

Key: C Major

Mood: Bold, triumphant, celebratory

Pedagogy: cut time, dotted quarter-eighth note rhythms, ensemble playing


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