The Huron Carol

Every Christmas I try to learn a few new hymns and carols to add to my holiday repertoire. Fortunately, an abundant wealth of Christmas music can be found from all over the world, and while my interests usually find me working up Celtic carols and hymns using DADGAD tuning, I thought I’d try something a little different this year. By luck, I had just recently stumbled across an old tape I made of a Celtic Christmas music special broadcast on our local NPR station several years ago. On first listen I knew I had struck gold, as I came across some nice old Christmas tunes that I rarely hear played today.

One that really struck me was The Huron Carol, a Christmas hymn written by Jean de Brebeuf (1593-1649) in Quebec in 1643. This carol is based on a 16th century traditional French melody Une Jeune Pucelle (A Young Maid). Brebeuf, a Jesuit missionary at Sainte-Marie, wrote the lyrics in the Huron language so he could tell the story of the birth of Jesus to the Huron people. Originally titled Jesous Ahatonhia, the carol was later translated to French (Jesus est ne) by another Jesuit priest. In 1926 the lyrics were translated to English by poet Jesse Edgar Middleton (1872-1960), where it became known as ‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime.

The Huron Carol was recorded by Bruce Cockburn on his 1993 Christmas CD, and is still commonly sung in churches across Canada. ‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime is included in many hymnals, including the Methodist hymnal, which is where I first remember seeing it.

The hymn is in the key of G minor, and I immediately tuned my guitar to open G minor to see how well the tune would fit in that tuning. I was quite pleased to find that the melody fit perfectly, and my arrangement fell into place quickly. Though I had never used open G minor before, I knew that English guitarist John Renbourn had used it, and might be a good tuning for a 16th century melody.

Open G minor (DGDGBbD) is similar to the open G tuning you may already be familiar with (DGDGBD), except that the B is lowered a half step to Bb. To get into open G minor, lower your first and sixth strings down a full step from E to D, lower your fifth string down a step from A to G, and lower your second string down a half step from B to Bb.

The Huron Carol 1
The Huron Carol 2
The Huron Carol 3
The Huron Carol 4
The Huron Carol 5
The Huron Carol 6
The Huron Carol 7

Like playing in DADGAD, this piece is best played by letting notes ring together when possible. The arrangement is pretty straight forward, but there are a few spots they might trip you up. In bars five and six, the melody is repeated but the bass notes have changed, and so has the fingering for the melody. On beat two of bar five, play the Bb on the open second string and play the C on the third string. This may feel a little awkward at first, as typically you play lower pitches when moving to a lower string. In this case the melody note is a step higher. However, this makes it easier to play the new bass notes. I finger bar five using the index finger on the Eb in the bass, the third finger on the A, second finger for the C on the fifth fret of the fifth string, and the third finger for the C on the fifth fret of the third string. If you like, you can play bars five and six using the same bass notes from bars one and two. The new bass provides a nice variation, though.

In bar 13, slide up to C and G with your second and third fingers. You can leave the open third string (G) ringing instead of picking it again. Slide from F to Eb with your first finger in bar 14. I move my right hand index finger back to the third fret for the F note in bar 15. In bar 16, play the C on the fifth fret of the fifth string so you can play the G on the fourth string with your little finger.

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning this new tuning as much as I have.