Musical Concepts Christmas

Program: #23-51   Air Date: Dec 18, 2023

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This group has specialized in some wonderful reissues, and for the season are giving us two gifts: the Alfred Deller “A Minstrel’s Christmas” and Ex Cathedra’s “Baroque Christmas: Sanctus.”

I & III: A Minstrel’s Christmas (Deller Consort/Alfred Deller) Alto ALC 1448.

Alfred Deller was one of the most important figures in the revival of early music, authentic Baroque performance practice, and folk music of Great Britain and Europe. His inimitable countertenor voice and intrepid scholarship became a model for two generations of singers and performing musicians, and his extensive discography revived forgotten masterpieces of early, Renaissance, and Baroque music.

Deller’s four Christmas albums for Vanguard straddled the worlds of Classical and folk music, and have remained seasonal favorites for more than half a century. “A Minstrel’s Christmas” combines tracks for all four releases by Alfred Deller and the Deller Consort in a program that evokes the spirit of wandering minstrels during Yuletide.

This disc presents a historical Christmas document as authentic as its music is beautiful. Many tracks comprise the carols most beloved in England and the U.S.A today. The remainder give a picture of Christmas as celebrated in song in England from medieval times through the age of the Stuarts, including the earliest known carols. Most people think of a carol as a “hymn of praise, especially such as is sung at Christmas” (Encyclopaedia Britannica). The carol has evolved as a generally happy song appealing to all kinds of people. Originally, in medieval and earlier times, most carols derived from the secular sung rhythms or chants which facilitated the business of living together. Carols developed a specific structure: an alternation of chorus and solo lines, and as such, were often songs for dancing - during the group chorus, the dancers would move in a ring or chain. This early alternation pattern remains fundamental to all types of carols, even later religious adaptations. But of the English dance carols of the common people, only a few scraps remain. The bulk of the nearly 500 extant ancient English carols (from before the Renaissance), however, are not for dancing: they are old dancing songs turned into religious hymns. Secular dance songs were seldom thought worth recording and continued a sort of back-stairs existence.

When a new wave of religious fervour swept Europe and England in the 13th century, its propagators, the Franciscans, seized on the familiar dance songs to popularize their doctrines. These friars (like the Methodists in the 18th century) made parodies, substituting religious messages for the words of profane love, while retaining the original melodies. This transfer was easy, for the carol form very closely resembled the Latin conductus, an antiphonal processional hymn. 

By the 15th century, the English carol had become largely a processional hymn or litany, sung by the choir at the morning mass, at midday or evening prayers, or at ceremonies outside the church. In large churches, the carols were sung, just like their Latin counterparts, with the stanzas in two parts and the ‘chorus’ in three. The Latin hymns were copied in a ‘processional,’ and one of the carols on this recording, the Song of the (Benedictine) Nuns at Chester, is preserv ed (with its  music, about 1425) in such a service book. Although in Latin, the hymn has an English lullaby refrain, By by, lully lu. Though technically only extra-liturgical adornments, carols offer a surprisingly early example of English in church services.

A distinction must be made between ‘carol’ as commonly used as any festive song and the ‘true carol,’ a medieval musical and literary forine fixe (like the rondeau, virelai, or ballade). Original- ly, the true carol was a song with a set stanza form (usually four lines, including a refrain) and a ‘burden,’ one or two lines sung as an opening ‘chorus’ before the first stanza and repeated after each stanza. Lullay my liking, for example, illustrates the pattern. The presence of a burden, therefore, technically determines a carol; but many songs without a burden claim the title by long use. I Saw Three Ships provides a good contrast to the carol form; with its internal refrains interspersed between the narrative lines, illustrating the typical traditional folk ballad.

The banning of processions by the reformers in 1547 killed the religious carol for many decades, and ‘anthems’ were not allowed in the churches in England until the fifth revision of the Prayer Book in 1661. When carols ceased to be sung as processional hymns, the function of the burden as an opening passage to set the whole tone faded; nor was it preserved by the secular ring dances which survived only in the provinces away from the mainstream of cultural activity. Only fifty true carols, mostly secular, have been found since 1550. In nearly all later Christmas songs (and in those for other occasions), the burden is absent, and only the refrain is repeated.

True carols are typically English and typically medieval. While much of medieval English litera- ture interests only specialists, not so the best of the carols. Along with the popular religious dra- ma cycles, the carol is the dynamic part of that literature; furthermore, it lays the groundwork and establishes the patterns for the 16th century. The greatest flowering of English literature - the age of Shakespeare - does not derive from the shoddy stuff of the self-styled successors of Chaucer: the ‘drivelling monk’ Lydgate, ‘moral’ Gower, Hoccleve. Instead, the glories of the Elizabethans, their drama and lyrics, grow out of the  medieval mystery plays and the carols: the literature of the rising merchants, yeomen, townspeople, and new adventuring aristocrats.

So the English carols, and all the other songs on this recording - from the 14th century German In dulci jubilo to the mid-19th century American carol, We three kings - are a living form, one which played a major part in developing English poetry, and in providing the continuity that sparks the composition of new carols. When we sing or hear ‘Christmas carols’ we become part of a tradition, documented for at least seven centuries, that continually revitalizes this most joyous festival of family and universal brotherhood.

The universality of Christmas and the special place it holds in people’s hearts are apparent in a musical revelation when performed by a group like Alfred Deller and the Deller Consort. The aim of such interpretation is not merely to invest the songs with beauty, but to recreate history.

The history itself is a remarkable one, beginning perhaps in the 13th century when St. Francis and his followers built a crib on the day of the Nativity and danced about it, singing songs.

From this stemmed the popular ‘mystery plays’ in towns and villages on the Nativity story, and from these plays in turn came a wealth of French, German and English carols. In the early 16th century, some of this music began to be collected and printed. Sir ChristĂ©mas is one of the little ‘dialogue’ carols or playlets which belonged to these old mystery plays. At the other historical extreme are Joy to the World and others, stemming from the 18th and 19th century hymn and oratorio tradition. Most of the rest are folk songs, many far older than the time they were written down would indicate. Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming was arranged by Michael Praetorius in 1609, but was by the n at least a century old. In the 17th century, The Old Year Now carol words were printed for the most popular of Elizabethan songs, Greensleeves. 

Collected fairly recently, by Ralph Vaughan Williams, was one of the most haunting of all old English folk songs, Down in Yon Forest. Taken down from the lips of a Czech peasant girl, in 1921, was the enchanting old Christmas song, From Out of a Wood. The less familiar version here presented of Here We Come A-Wassailing comes from Yorkshire.

One item illustrates the blossoming of European music from the middle  ages to the Renaissance. Collaborating in it are two groups renowned for their artistry and insight in performing old music: the Deller Consort and Musica Antiqua Wien (Vienna). During the early middle ages, Anglo-Saxon England was going through a literary and musical flowering, and examples of this from the 14th century, the age of Chaucer, is an anonymous work; the lively Alleluya Psallat

A Minstrel’s Christmas

  1. Anonymous (England, early C14): Alleluya psallat 1:13
  2. Anonymous (17th century): Patapan* 1:00
  3. Anonymous (traditional): Here We Come a-Wassailing* 2:18
  4. Anonymous (London Wait): Past Three O'Clock 1, 2 1:56
  5. Anonymous (England): I Saw Three Ships* 2:04
  6. Anonymous (England): The Coventry Carol 1 2:24
  7. Anonymous (16th century) arr. J.M. Neale: Good King Wenceslas* 2:47
  8. Franz Xaver GrĂŒber (text: Joseph Möhr): Stille Nacht (Silent Night) 1 2:00
  9. Anonymous (Elizabethan popular): The Old Year Now (Greensleeves)* 2:02
  10. John Henry Hopkins Jr.: We Three Kings of Orient Are 1, 2 2:22
  11. Anonymous (traditional): Down in Yon Forest* 2:28
  12. Anonymous (traditional, England): The First Nowell 1 3:12
  13. Anonymous (Czech Carol): Rocking (Hajej, nynjej)* 1:32
  14. Anonymous (England): God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen* 2:38
  15. Anonymous: Dormi Jesu* 1:26
  16. Anonymous (ca. 15th century): Boar's Head Carol* 1:47
  17. Anonymous (medieval) arr. Gustav Holst: Lullay My Liking* 2:03
  18. Richard Storrs Willis (text: Edmund Hamilton Sears): It Came Upon the Midnight Clear 1, 2 2:25
  19. Anonymous (Germany) arr. Robert Herrick: Herrick's Carol* 1:39
  20. Henry John Gauntlett (text: Cecil Frances Alexander): Once in Royal David's City 1, 2 2:38
  21. Anonymous (medieval) arr. Cecil Sharp: The Holly and the Ivy* 2:45
  22. Anonymous (Germany) arr. Samuel Scheidt & Johann Sebastian Bach: O Little One Sweet 1 2:42
  23. Anonymous (medieval, ca. 1425): Processional Song of the Nuns of Chester* 1:43
  24. Anonymous (16th century): Winter-Rose 1, 2 1:43
  25. George Frideric Handel (text: Isaac Watts): Joy to the World* 1:36
  26. Anonymous (ca 14th century) arr. J.S. Bach: In Dulci Jubilo* 2:32
  27. Anonymous (traditional, old Welsh): Deck the Halls* 1:11
  28. Anonymous (William Ballet's Lute-book): Lute-Book Lullaby* 2:16
  29. Anonymous: Ye Shepherds Leave 1 1:51
  30. Anonymous (traditional, old Besançon carol tune): People Look East* 1:58
  31. Anonymous (traditional): Blessed be that Maid Mary 1 1:27
  32. Anonymous (ca 1520-30): Sir Christémas * 2:56
  33. Anonymous (15th century) arr. Michael Praetorius: Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming* 2:25
  34. Anonymous: The Twelve Days of Christmas * 2:44
  35. Johann Georg Ebeling: All My Heart This Night Rejoices 1 2:42
  36. Anonymous (traditional, Czech): The Birds* 1:08
  37. Anonymous (traditional, England) arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams: Wassail Song 1, 2 1:33
  38. Anonymous (traditional, West Country of England): We Wish You a Merry Christmas* 1:38

II. Baroque Christmas: Sanctus (Ex Cathedra/Jeffrey Skidmore). Alto ALC 1377

From BBC Music Magazine:

‘The Lord is my shepherd’, saith the Psalm; and Jesu, of course, his holy lamb. No wonder that shepherds, not kings, hold highest place in our Christmas affections. Is it not, after all, in memory of the socks they washed by night that children still hang out their stockings on Christmas Eve? In Anglican circles, those shepherds and their ‘socks’ have always been held in especially high regard: between its first publication in 1700 and the advent, almost a century later, of Charles Wesley’s ‘Hark! the herald angels sing’, Nahum Tate’s ‘Song of the Angels at the Nativity of Our Blessed Lord’ (‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks’ to you and me) was the only Christmas hymn authorised by the C of E (hence, presumably, the origins of the phrase ‘Baa-ch humbug’).Devised with dutiful pastoral care, While Shepherds Watched, Peter Holman’s seasonal survey of the unpretentious ‘gallery music’ that was once the pride of England’s parish churches (see feature), presents no fewer than four different settings of Tate’s hymn. Between them, they span some three-quarters of a century, ranging from the muscular ‘fuguing tune’, with ad hoc instrumental accompaniment devised by the peripatetic singing teacher Michael Beesly (of Blewbury in Oxfordshire) c1746, via an 1805 setting by one Thomas Clark (cordwainer, of Canterbury) – to a tune better known as ‘On Ilkley Moor baht’at’ – to the grandly Haydnesque, fully orchestrated version (trumpets and drums to the fore) which a certain John Foster (coroner, of High Green in Yorkshire) worked up around 1820 for one of the great choral festivals which were once so popular in the North of England. Interspersed with a couple of purely instrumental numbers – including a Corelli-like ‘Pastorale’ concerto, complete with imitation bagpipes – and a pair of organ-led congregational hymns, Holman’s collection, ably realised by the singers and period players of Psalmody and the Parley of Instruments, touchingly recaptures the honest, homespun fervour of the ‘English mastersingers’, those humble tradesmen (cobblers, tailors, stocking-makers, et al) whose heartfelt music-making so enlivened England’s country churches before the purging zealots of the Oxford Movement moved in.

Rich, warm, russet-coloured and (metaphorically) mud-bespattered, here is just the sort of Christmas music which Jane Austen, that daughter of the manse, might have heard in childhood, or Thomas Hardy’s ‘tenor man’ have sung (to the sound of ‘viols out of doors’) before ‘The Choirmaster’s Burial’ (so memorably set by Britten as one of his utterly un-‘seasonal’ Winter Words). Hardy comes to mind again listening to Harry Christophers and The Sixteen’s An Early English Christmas Collection: for here, in the sombre early 17th-century penitence of Thomas Ravenscroft’s ‘Remember O thou man’ we find the ‘ancient and time-worn hymn’ that the Mellstock Quire sings to Fancy Day in Under the Greenwood Tree. But while Fancy’s fancy might more likely turn to the dance-carols that lighten this medieval medley – the 15th-century ‘Salutation Carol’ especially, with its sprightly dance metres and striking alternation of sober solo scriptural narration with rowdy Nowelling chorus – pride of place goes to yet another Sheppard (John, c1515-60), whose ethereal ‘Gloria in excelsis’ takes wing in a finale of such airborne polyphony that his choirboys had to be paid extra to sing it. Certainly the women of The Sixteen here earn their keep. Those shepherds crop up again throughout Sanctus, the Birmingham-based Ex Cathedra choir and orchestra’s cleverly planned disc of Baroque Nativity music. 

Here, contrasting South and North European responses to events in the manger are herded together around a briskly pointed reading of Corelli’s evergreen ‘Christmas Concerto’, with its lilting 12/8 evocation of the Italian shepherds’ annual descent from the hills, blowing bagpipes and bawling carols. It was a nice idea to use the most famous of all shepherds’ carols, the Neapolitan ‘Quando nascete ninno’ (complete with authentic chalemie accompaniment), as prelude to the Pifa (or ‘Pastoral Symphony’) from Handel’s Messiah, in which it is distantly recalled. But the real finds here are the two French offerings – ‘NoĂ©, NoĂ©: Pastores’, Guillaume Bouzignac’s breathless dialogue for the Angel Gabriel and the awestruck herdsmen, and Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s delectable Latin cantata, Salve puerule, in which three simple shepherds, Talon, Brion and Isabelle (sopranos all), expound the metaphysical mysteries of the moment to the holy infant in his crib. 

Corelli again, or at least his ‘Christmas Concerto’ – he clearly wasn’t christened Arcangelo for nothing – serves to herald Concerto Italiano’s delightful recording on Opus 111 of Abramo, il tuo sembiante, Alessandro Scarlatti’s Vatican cantata for Christmas Eve 1705. 

It’s an extraordinary conception: the expectation of Midnight Mass channelled through five Old Testament figures – Abraham the Patriarch, and the prophets David, Ezekiel, Isaiah and Jeremiah – as they languish in limbo awaiting the Messiah’s coming. In a glittering succession of 12 (mostly da capo) arias, Scarlatti brilliantly captures the five prophets’ changing emotions until, in a brief concluding ensemble, even the jeremiad-spouting Jeremiah is finally persuaded to join the general rejoicing. And look out for the two arias in rustic 12/8 time for the ever-hopeful Daniel (effervescently sung by soprano Rossana Bertini) – yes, it’s those shepherds back again!.

  1. SANCTUS (J S Bach) 5:31
  2. NOIE, NOIE EST VENUE (Montancy)
    NOUS SOMMES EN VOYE (Anon. 1:38
  5. SALVE PUERULE (Charpentier) 6:16
  6. ECCO IL MESSIA (Anon.) 4:30
  7. MAGNIFICAT a 14 (G Gabrieli) 6:31
  8. CHRISTE, REDEMPTOR OMNIUM (Monteverdi) 2:50
  9. CONCERTO GROSSO, Op.6 No.8. Fatto per la notte di Natale (Corelli) 14:55
  10. QUANDO NASCETTE NINNO (Anon.) 2:25
  11. MESSIAH (Handel) Pifa (“Pastoral Symphony”) – There were shepherds –
    And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them – And the angel said unto
    them – And suddenly there was with the angel – Glory to God 4:18
  12. THUS ANGELS SUNG (Gibbons) 1:23
  14. HODIE CHRISTUS NATUS EST (Sweelinck) 3:40
  15. IN DULCI JUBILO (Scheidt) 3:47
  16. EHRE SEI GOTT (SchĂŒtz) 2:26
  17. IN DULCI JUBILO (Buxtehude) 7:01

Composer Info

Franz Xaver GrĂŒber, John Henry Hopkins Jr., Richard Storrs Willis, Henry John Gauntlett, George Frideric Handel, Johann Georg Ebeling, J. S. Bach, Montancy, Guillaume Bouzignac, Crestot, Corrette, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, G. Gabrieli, Monteverdi, Gibbons, Sweelinck, Scheidt, SchĂŒtz, Buxtehude

CD Info

Alto ALC 1448, Alto ALC 1377, Alto ALC 1377