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We have chosen a programme of plainchant, songs, motets, and carols for Christmas from English sources of the 13th through 15th centuries. These works illuminate all of the aspects of the Christmas story and its many kindred legends: biblical precursors, Balaamís prophecy, Gabrielís greeting, Maryís virginity, the birth of Jesus, the rising of the star, the angels and the shepherds, the manger and its animals, the three Magi and their gifts. And these works express a range of responses to these marvels: mirth and joy, wonder and praise, and even theological exegesis. But the thread that ties this music together is a striving toward something out of the ordinary, a special sound or gesture, reserved for this most wonderful time.
All of the plainchant on this recording is taken from a 13th-century antiphoner from Worcester. These hymns, antiphons, and the responsory Tria sunt munera were sung in the daily devotions of the divine Office during the Christmas season, from Advent (four weeks before Christmas) through the Epiphany (January 6). The striking, fanfare-like opening of the hymn Vox clara, ecce, intonat is perfectly attuned to its Advent theme, recalling John the Baptistís proclamation that he was "a voice crying in the wilderness." In the ancient Christmas hymn A solis ortus cardine, with its hauntingly curved melody line, each verse begins with a successive letter of the alphabet, and proceeds through the events in Jesusí life. We sing the Christmas portion, from A through G.
While selecting a group of 13th- and 14th-century polyphonic works on Christmas themes, it became apparent to us that some special technique had been used in each piece, as if to set it apart somehow from its fellows. In excelsis gloria and De supernis sedibus are both conductus, in which all parts are newly composed and a single text declaimed. But they are also fine examples of rondellus, a procedure in which the different voice parts interchange melodic fragments, creating a hypnotic, imitative texture, here carried to exquisitely dizzying lengths.
The medieval English motet, based on a pre-existing foundation or tenor part, usually declaims multiple texts simultaneously. The motet Orto sole serene / Origo viri / Virga Iesse / [Tenor] is quite lavishly verbal, touching on almost every biblical image and reference to Jesusí birth, and offering a generous amount of commentary as well. The two motets Balaam de quo vaticinans / Ballam and Alleluya: Christo iubilemus are unusual in that jolly rondellus sections are superimposed on the basic motet structure. The special genius of the pes motets Puellare gremium / Purissima mater / [pes] and Prolis eterne genitor / Psallat mater gracie / [pes] (built on a brief recurring melodic fragment called a pes, or foot) lies in the way their simple, repetitive tenors are artfully obscured and reinterpreted with subtly shifting harmonies and melodic phrasings. It seems fitting that both motets praise Mary, a woman whose humble simplicity was to be so greatly elevated and adorned.
The two works we call songs have strong popular connections and were apparently widely known. In "The Millerís Tale" from the 14th-century Canterbury Tales, Chaucer describes Nicolas, Clerk of Oxenford, as a fine musician, sweetly playing Angelus ad virginem on his psaltery. Gabriel, fram heven-king is an English-language version of this 13th-century work. The poem Peperit virgo, from the 14th-century Red Book of Ossory, is meant to be sung to the tune of the secular songs Mayde in the moore lay and Brid one breere. No doubt realizing that these elegant love songs would not be repressed, and wishing to turn the minds of his musical monks toward more spiritual thoughts, the Irish Franciscan abbot Richard de Ledrede composed a new Nativity text in gentle praise of Mary.
Though they all follow a basic structure of burden (refrain) alternating with a number of verses, the seven carols included here are as varied and individual in expression as are the chant and polyphony. Lullay, lullay; Als I lay on Yolis night is a ballad-like lullaby carol of the 14th century. Dating from the early 15th century, the other carols vary between two- and three-voice texture. The two-voice sections of these pieces sometimes lend themselves to fauxbourdon, an improvisatory technique in which a third harmonizing voice is added between two written outer voices, creating a rich triadic harmony, much like the chordal progressions of "English discant" heard in Puellare gremium / Purissima mater / [pes] and many other works of its time. We have used fauxbourdon in the carols Ther is no rose of swych vertu, Ave Maria, Nowell; Owt of your slep and Ecce quod natura. This last carol survives in multiple versions; our performance of it combines two of these, one quite simple, and one more elaborate.
The music in this program spans a thousand years, from the 5th-century hymn A solis ortus cardine to the polyphonic carols of the 15th century. The styles and textures vary greatly; the texts speak with many voices. But despite all the technical diversity, we sense a common purpose in these works. As if in response to the quiet force of a supernatural moment, when the paths of humanity and divinity meet, the anonymous composers marked each piece with some special characteristic, making each a universe in itself, and making each a unique artistic response to the Christmas story.SUSAN HELLAUER
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