Arts/Literature

Christmas music (14)–Best Christmas album by a European medieval babe group

This would be Eya Pueri, by Discantus. Discantus is a French medieval babe group, and the only difference between them and Anonymous 4 is that there are more of them–eight singers, as compared with four. Same era, though, mostly songs from before the 15th century. And while they have toured the US and the rest of Europe, they still haven’t toured anywhere in the UK. But I’m hoping. The group was founded by Brigitte Lesne, who is involved in some other excellent French early music groups as well, particularly Alla Francesca, which is a mixed group, but sadly does not appear to have done a Christmas album yet.

European Medieval Babe groups are becoming quite the thing. There are several Scandinavian ones, especially Trio Medieval, who have several lovely albums out on ECM. There’s Zorgina, from Italy. Canty is from Ireland. There are a number of mixed groups that are led by women, including the wonderful Joglaresa right here in England, whose own album of Medieval Italian Christmas music will get discussed in a later post. And then, inevitably, there’s an English group that actually calls themselves The Medieval Babes. Wait, it’s actually worse than that—it was originally the Medieval Baebes, which mercifully got dropped. Early music purists were horrified by the apparently unique combination of medieval chant, whole lots of cleavage and the size of the record contract, although one might infer that the last two items on this list were not unconnected. The only problem is that they’re only ok, and that’s about it—perfectly serviceable voices, but absolutely no sense of modulation, for example. Discantus, on the other hand, like some of the other groups just mentioned, is enchanting.

Considering the damage it has suffered over the centuries, France still has a surprising amount of medieval towns around, and they are just lovely to walk around. Mostly walled cities that have long since overgrown their walled boundaries, they still often have medieval centers full of dark little lanes and weirdly-shaped doors, and exposed beams everywhere. Many English towns are like this as well, except England hasn’t been overrun by foreign troops since 1066, and France, like much of the rest of Europe, has spent much of the past millennium watching troops move around the place at pretty regular intervals. It’s amazing anything is left.

When we moved here in 1998 we thought we’d be spending a lot of time in France–it’s right across the channel, and easy to get to. Actually, it hasn’t worked out that way, since the business traveling that I did was mostly to cities, which meant we get to Paris regularly, but not much else. In fact, we’ve probably spent more time in Italy and Germany than anywhere else. So a couple of years ago, on the 4th of July, we did what most self-respecting Americans living here did–we went to France, and had a lovely time. We rented a car and drove around the Somme valley, touring the WWI battlefields–what carnage–and some old paleolithic sites, and a fantastic bird sanctuary, and eating very well. Not to mention the cathedrals, which I am really getting into–and Amiens has one of the great mazes. And the Picardi National Museum in Amiens was a complete delight–a genuine surprise, with a world class medieval collection.

More recently, we spent a couple of weeks in the Dordogne. This is a very English thing to do, as it turns out—there are English people everywhere, so much so that it gets a little dispiriting. And they’re all either kayaking (they call it “canoeing”) on the rivers, or clogging the restaurants. And the reason for it, I suppose, is that it’s kind of a boring area, really—there’s not much to do except for kayaking the rather slow rivers, or touring some castles and villas, or eating phenomenally well, or—and this is the fun part—hitting the caves. This is where Lascaux is, and there’s been so much traffic there that they had to close the real cave. What you go through instead is a recreation of the high points of the original cave. I have to say, it’s still absolutely startling to see the artwork created thousands of years before there was any physical settlement that has endured. And it’s not just Lascaux, although that’s certainly the best known of the Paleolithic sites. There are a number of other sites in the area that are equally interesting, especially Rouffignac, where you take a train into the cave, and the cave itself is full of pictures of mammoths, hundreds and hundreds of them. What a trip. Nothing to do with Christmas, of course, except for the remarkable cathedrals and monasteries and cloisters we stopped at, places where the singing of chants was a daily occurrence for much of their lives, part of the fabric of the place, as it were.

These definitely did not chant.

These definitely did not chant.

Actually, the French occasionally can be irritating, I know, especially with their little trick of pretending not to understand English. But they’re not nearly as irritating at this as the Germans are. My favorites are always the ladies at the newspaper kiosks where they always spend a good two minutes, muttering to themselves, pretending to look for the price of the Herald Tribune or The Financial Times, even though they must sell dozens a day. I just stand there and look innocent. Of course, I could always learn French or resuscitate my German–that would probably solve the problem.

There are lots of medieval Christmas chant albums not by medieval babe groups. It’s not as if many of these chants were actually sung by women at the time (although I gather that recent scholarship disputes this, but I’m not about to get into this argument before I do a little more research). But there are a couple of old chestnuts that come to mind here, from either a male choir or a mixed choir. We’ve already mentioned the excellent album put out by the Niederaltaicher Scholaren, Christmas (The Moosburger Graduale of 1360), and Sequentia’s Aquitania, a series of 12th century Christmas chants from Aquitaine. Sadly, the Moosburger CD appears to have been discontinued, but these can always be tracked down somewhere. Also worth tracking down is Missa Medaeivalis, a collection of chants and organ solos from Capella Antiqua Stuttgart, which to my utter astonishment can be found on Amazon. This is very aggressive chant. What does that mean? Give it a listen and you’ll understand. The Chant of Christmas Midnight, from Schola Cantorum of Saint Peter’s in the Loop, was highly popular for a number of years, but it too seems to have been discontinued. There are others, of course—this is just a sampling of some of the chant albums that have attached themselves to me over the years.

A number of years ago clever marketers at record companies hit on a fresh marketing strategy, which appears to have worked. It was to repackage classical music, or bits and pieces of it, as Music for Relaxation. We are now so acclimated to this whole meme that we forget that music is supposed to do many things, and it’s not clear that “relaxation” is one of them. There’s nothing relaxing about listening, really listening, to music, and Christmas music, especially chant, is no exception. The dozens of chant CDs over the past two decades designed to be “relaxing” have done a disservice to both the music and its listeners. This was—and still is—a vital and frequently idiosyncratic form of music-making that requires attention, diligence and patience to perform, and listening should entail a comparable skill set. This was music that was created and performed for any number of centuries, with often unique regional attributes, and a range of complexity and beauty that even today continues to astonish. Go listen.