Easter 2024

17 August 2018
St. Joseph - characterization in 'The Cherry Tree Carol'

I've always been quite taken with Stephen Cleobury's arrangement of "The Cherry Tree Carol".

It's a traditional English carol about a pregnant Mary and her husband Joseph walking through an orchard. Mary wants a cherry and the cherry tree itself, recognizing who Mary is, bows down to her so that she can easily pluck cherries.

I find the idea compelling. Nature itself recognizing the Queen of Heaven.

And because Mary is still pregnant throughout this carol, it works at Advent or Christmas carol services.

But as I compared two slightly different versions of Cleobury's arrangement recently, I noticed a profound difference in the role Joseph plays in the carol.

In Cleobury's first version of this arrangement from 1985, he sets a seven stanza version of the carol. (This version is available in a publication called A Trio of Carols from Oxford.) Joseph doesn't really do or say much here.

"Old" version from 1985

Joseph was an old man
And an old man was he,
When he wedded Mary,
In the land of Galilee.

And as they were walking
Through an orchard so good,
Where were cherries and berries
As red as any blood.

O then bespoke Mary,
With words both meek and mild,
‘Pluck me one cherry, Joseph,
For that I am with child.’

‘Go to the tree then, Mary,
And it shall bow to thee;
And you shall gather cherries
By one, by two, by three.’

Then bowed down the highest tree
Unto our Lady's hand;
‘See,’ Mary cried, ‘See Joseph,
I have cherries at command.’

‘O eat your cherries, Mary
O eat your cherries now;
O eat your cherries, Mary, 
That grow upon the bough.’

Then Mary plucked a cherry,
As red as any blood;
Then Mary went she homewards
All with her heavy load.

In this carol, Joseph seems to know that the tree is ready to bow down to Mary. He encourages her to go to the tree. In the penultimate stanza, Joseph rejoices with Mary, if the lines "O eat your cherries, Mary" can be considered rejoicing. Maybe it's just some encouragement? This is odd. Perhaps Mary is skeptical about the tree's intentions. Anyway, Joseph comes off as a supportive husband in this one.

In the version that is more familiar to us now, however, the carol is rather dramatically reworded. There is an additional stanza, and Joseph doesn't come off well at all. This "new" version is published in Advent for Choirs from Oxford and is published separately. It was in the King's College Choir's hands as early as 1996.

"New" version

Joseph was an old man
and an old man was he,
When he wedded Mary,
in the land of Galilee.

Joseph and Mary walked
through an orchard good,
Where was cherries and berries,
so red as any blood.

O then bespoke Mary,
so meek and oh, so mild:
‘Pluck me one cherry, Joseph,
for I am with child.’

O then bespoke Joseph,
with words most unkind:
‘Let him pluck thee a cherry
that brought thee with child.’

O then bespoke the baby,
within his mother’s womb:
‘Bow down then the tallest tree,
for my mother to have some.’

Then bowed down the highest tree
unto his mother’s hand;
Then she cried, ‘See, Joseph
I have cherries at command.’

O then bespoke Joseph:
‘I have done Mary wrong;
But cheer up, my dearest,
and be ye not cast down.’

Then Mary plucked a cherry,
as red as any blood;
Then Mary went she homewards
all with her heavy load.

Things take a severe turn in that fourth stanza. In this "new" version, he is not exactly a supportive husband.

In the "old" version, Joseph was happy to tell Mary how to get the cherries. In fact, he was privy to the knowledge that the cherry tree was willing to bow down. Here, however, he seems to have some unresolved issues with Mary's pregnancy.

Furthermore, the in utero Christ gets a voice in this carol, which is perhaps unique in the carol repertoire(?).

But the inherent conflict in this carol gives the narrative more texture. From within the womb, Christ instructs the "tallest tree" to bow down.

The connection we are meant to draw, I think, is that "him…that brought thee with child" is depicted here with nature itself operating at Mary's command.

In the "old" version you could describe Joseph as lazy, at worst. In the "new" version Joseph is mean, but his momentary cruelty allows for Mary's command of nature to stand more clearly as a symbol.

What I find utterly awkward in this "new" version, is the egg-on-his-face Joseph of the penultimate stanza.

O then bespoke Joseph:
‘I have done Mary wrong;
But cheer up, my dearest,
and be ye not cast down.’

There is a brief apology in there, which is nice. It's addressed to us, the audience, but I wish we could just sit Joseph down and be like, "look, dude, apologize to your wife directly."

It would be the catharsis this carol needs.

The feeling of things being unresolved persists for me, not only with Joseph's weak, saccharine apology but also with the way Cleobury masterfully arranges the last line of this carol: "all with her heavy load."

Not only is she bearing the infant Christ, but she's burdened with this mean "old man" as her husband.

The heaviness of the organ part, especially as performed in King's College, Cambridge, is marvelously evocative of these burdens. (You really need to be listening on proper speakers/headphones, or with a subwoofer, to get the full effect.)

"New" version

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