Old Music Monday: Christmas Edition

thesixteenchristmasThis week the Old Music that I’ve been listening to has centered around Yuletide, specifically a hyperion recording of the Sixteen from 1987 called Christmas Music from Medieval and Renaissance Europe.  As usual, Hyperion doesn’t work with Spotify (grrrr) so I also have been streaming Christmas with the Tallis Scholars.  I also have a Pandora station of choral nowell music which keeps me company a lot, too.

So, a little history on Christmas is in order to understand Christmas music, especially Medieval Christmas music, which was sung while there was still a pagan influence in Europe.  (I know, it could be argued that there is still a pagan influence in Europe as all the people who get up to watch the sunrise at Stonhenge in the summer and winter can attest.  Still, it’s been mostly subdued by Christianity, I would say).  Most Christians understand and accept that Christmas developed out of the pagan festivals that occurred around the time of the Winter Solstice.  The idea of a Messiah born in the depths of winter in the Northern Hemisphere is full of the symbolism and imagery of a time of quiet and peace during the winter, light entering the world during its darkest time.  We picture Mary huddled with the baby swaddled in her arms, the stars leading the wise men to the manger; the peace and stillness of fresh snow, but still a light entering the world; just a little flicker during the long nights, but one that would grow into the Messiah and then be reborn at Easter (again, not coincidentally in the Spring, during all the festivals of rebirth).

I should say that moving forward, much of this is liberally lifted from the Hyperion liner notes from my Sixteen CD.  I refuse to link to their website because if they can’t join the 21st century and get on Spotify, they won’t get link-love from me (not like I’m bitter or anything).  But I want to be clear about that.  However, it’s not the liner notes’ author’s fault that the record label won’t come aboard, so I shall link to Nicholas Robertson, who wrote the fabulous and informative notes.  I have made some additions, changes, and added in links and youtube videos, but the bulk of what is below is his.

The music of Christmas owes its origins to the early secular accompaniments to the pagan festivals. The word ‘carol’, reflects the medieval origins in its various definitions: first, from the French carole, a round-dance with music, later a joyous religious song; also a ring of standing stones (like the aforementioned Stonehenge), and also an enclosure or study in a cloister.

Ezra Pound wrote that as poetry is dead if it departs too far from song, so music is dead if it departs too much from the dance; the essence of the carol is of music associated with movement, dance or procession, and music and words which are both popular and ecclesiastical. In medieval times the distinction between sacred and secular was deliberately blurred: there was a continuing need to counter still-pervasive pagan rituals (which might include a round-dance in the churchyard) by keeping the people entertained in their own way and, as has been well expressed, taking ‘some of the devil’s good tunes and giving them back to God’. Thus many carol tunes we know will first have been sung to ‘profane’ words; thus too the clergy of Sens Cathedral in France, for example, were explicitly allowed in the fourteenth century to dance, provided they didn’t lift their feet too far off the ground.

Yet another source of medieval Christmas music was the Mystery Play, typical in combining communal participation with powerful literary and musical material—as continues to this day in festivals in Northern England. The Coventry Carol derives from this tradition with harmony testifying to a more developed musical technique among the participants.

The Boar’s head carol’s medieval origins are indisputable, for the accession of James I to the English throne in 1603 saw the demise of the boar from courtly tables, as it was shunned in his native Scotland, being replaced just in time by the turkey from the New World. The carol wasn’t sung past Henry VIII’s reign until revived by Victorian antiquaries (though one notes that it was carried on in popular usage insidiously enough to have been banned by Cromwell).


We talk nowadays of the global village, but this is not the first time in modern history that boundaries have been easily crossed. The ‘English’ court was until the end of the fourteenth century effectively French, hence the easy accession of carole forms; and for some time longer Latin was the common language.  Thus it is not surprising to find that a traditional tune like Quem pastores, with its elegant dance-like and gracious air, was known early in Britain just as was In dulci jubilo, first printed here c1540. Probably the most famous bilingual carol, In dulci enjoys the legend that its writer Henry Suso, a mystic who died in 1366, wrote it at the dictation of an angel, after a dream that he was invited to join in an angelic dance.

Independently the carol repertoire had been developing elsewhere in Europe, and amongst the rich source of the villancicos (literally ‘peasant songs’) of Spain we find such as Riu, riu chiu, the title apparently an untranslatable cry such as you find in the songs of the Auvergne, a genuine shepherd song transformed into an irresistible dance.

In France, Mouton, native of the Somme area and later chief composer to Francois I (whom he very likely accompanied to the Field of the Cloth of Gold to meet Henry VIII in 1520—such junketings as then went on were not complete without the best possible music – and incidentally this was where Anne Boleyn first makes an appearance in history since she was potentially there as part of the French court) wrote a setting of Nesciens Mater with a plainchant melody underpinning a quadruple canon, but also eplete with calm reflection and gorgeous slow-moving harmony.

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