Arts/Literature

Christmas music (20)–Best other Medieval Christmas albums

Well, it’s the 11th day of Christmas by my medieval calendar, so I can get in another two posts on this before Christmas officially ends. And, purely by coincidence, it’s more medieval Christmas music, but from countries other than Germany. Actually, there are only a couple of them—France, Italy, the low countries, England—that’s pretty much it. There’s surprisingly little from Spain, at least that’s been recorded. One explanation is that there isn’t that much of it, largely because much has been lost. Another, and more likely, explanation is that when Moors and Jews were expelled from Spain in1492, they took their music with them—and much of it resurfaced elsewhere, particularly in Italy. The Catholic Church wasn’t particularly interested in multiculturalism at that time—quite the reverse, in fact.

But what we have is enough. One of the great things about the music of the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries (which arguably is Renaissance, but distinctions get fuzzy during this period) is the broad range of music that has been uncovered, and in fact is still being discovered. One finds chants, of course, and songs based on very chant-like song structures. But there is a broader range as well, ranging from the placid to the raucous. Medieval music is like modern music—it’s all over the place. Yes, polyphony was just beginning, but we still find a range of musical styles. And we find them all expressed in the Christmas music of the time.

On the quieter side, we find the Orlando Consort’s Medieval Christmas, which actually spans about 500 years of medieval and early Renaissance songs and carols from England, France and Spain. Like many such albums, it’s arranged in the narrative of the Christmas story. Among other things, Christmas is a story. Whether or not the life of Christ is the greatest story ever told, there is a long tradition in the Christian church of recounting the story of the prophecy, the annunciation, the flight to Egypt, the virgin birth, the angels, the shepherds…and so on. For Christians, the story has a deep religious significance. For non-Christians, it is still one of the compelling narratives that shaped western civilization. And for singers and musicians, it’s a wonderful way to shape the form of a Christmas concert, or a Christmas album. In the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries, it was the most powerful of stories, and a number of albums of medieval Christmas music adhere to this order. (A number of modern collections, too—check out John Eliot Gardner’s Once as I Remember.) The Boston Camerata’s A Mediterranean Christmas also follows this sequence, in the form of songs around the themes of The Sign of Judgment, The Dawn Approaching, Star of the Day, The Birth of Jesus, and Mother and Child. These are songs from southern Europe, including Spain and Italy, of the 12th and 13th centuries. Again, these will sound completely unlike Christmas songs you’ve heard before. And given the part of Europe these songs come from, the Moorish influence shines through.

It’s not unusual to find medieval Christmas albums that span countries, in fact. There are a number of excellent ones that do exactly that, particularly the Folger Corsort’s Medieval Christmas, with works ranging from Aquitanian chants to 13th century Italy to 15th century England, and Thys Yool, from the Martin Best Ensemble, with songs from, well, all over the place. But we can also concentrate on individual countries, and it comes as no surprise that there are a number of excellent English and French medieval carol albums. We can take our pick, or mix and match. From here, we have the always excellent The Sixteen bringing us Chrisus Natus Est: An Early English Christmas, with a range of traditional Latin and early English carols, many based on dances. Also included are some marvelous pieces by the 16th century English composer John Sheppard. Two other English albums are worth noting—the Oxford Camerata’s Medieval Carols, which are all from the 15th century, and Medieval Christmas from Pro Cantione Antiqua, from the same period. These are both a bit livelier than The Sixteen’s contribution. From France we have the always dependable Boston Camerata bringing us Noel, Noel!, a collection of French Christmas music from 1200 to 1600 that bounces right along. From even earlier times we have La Nuit Saint Nicholas form the French/Italian group La Reverdie, a collection of chants associated with an early 11th century mass dedicated to Saint Nicholas (which appears in a collection of 14th century masses). Very pure and chanty, and lovely. Finally, and again from the Orlando Consort, is Alleluia Nativitas, music for Christmas composed by a range of medieval composers, including Pérotin. Actually, this album contains both French and English medieval music, but since it’s all in Latin, you wouldn’t necessarily know that anyway.

At the more raucous end, we’ve got a trove of wonderful albums. And raucous they are. This is Christmas music as a festival, which often it was, particularly during 12th night, the feast before epiphany. Joglares’s Stella Nova: Celebratory Music from Medieval Italy is a case in point. It’s a live album, and captures Joglaresa’s usual mix of improvisation and manic style. This is Christmas music to dance to—full of drum and percussion, improvisations on bagpipes, and whatever comes to mind. Joglaresa is one of several medieval music groups that specializes in improvisational styles of southern Europe, particularly the Moorish music of Spain and Italy—and this album captures their style perfectly. Since it’s all in some earlier version of Italian, or late medieval Latin, you can play it any time of the year. This is Christmas music that doesn’t sound like Christmas music. And it’s great. Joglaresa just released several new albums, all of which are terrific—one of Shepardic songs (Dancing in Tetuán), one of music from Moorish Andalusia (Dreams of Andalusia), and a new Christmas one—songs from medieval Ireland and England (In Hoary Winter’s Night) that we actually saw them do last year. They cover a lot of ground. Which is one reason why they’re one of my favorite groups.

While we’re in Italy, let’s give a mention to Altramar, who have brought us Nova Stella: A Medieval Italian Christmas. This is another lively album, although a bit more moderate than Joglaresa’s, but with many of the same songs—so you can compare and contrast. Altramar is that rare thing—like the Boston Camerata and Pomerium, it’s an American early music group. This is actually a collection of what are called lauda songs associated with St Francis of Assisi, who, among other things, brought us the first crèche. The song selection is perfect, and the arrangements, both vocal and instrumental, are just fine.

Also in this group would be Zefiro Torna, an early music group from Holland and Belgium, with El Noi de la Mare. This is a collection of medieval songs about the Nativity, but the style is raucous as can be—this is about as aggressive as you can get in this genre. Starting with the remarkable Miri it is, from the early 13th century, the group presents a collection of songs spanning the 13th through the 15th centuries, many of which you want to dance to. This music is full of cognitive dissonance—you’re not supposed to want to dance to Christmas music, but for hundreds of years medieval and early Renaissance songwriters and musicians created music the intent of which was exactly that.

From a wonderful Italian early music group with a German name, Ensemble Weltgesang, comes Personent Hodie, another album of medieval songs surrounding the Nativity. Personent hodie is one of those great medieval songs that has persisted, more or less unaltered, although there is a version that shows up in some Protestant Hymnbooks. This one will be hard to track down, but it’s worth it.

Finally, let’s note that Joglaresa, or more specifically the marvelous Belinda Sykes, often collaborates with two other similar groups—One Wytars, and Ensemble Unicorn. And while neither has produced a Christmas music exactly, they have collaborated on the marvelous On the Way to Bethlehem: Music of the Medieval Pilgrim, which does happen to have on it a number of songs associated with Christmas. This is a collection of music, vocal and instrumental, that the medieval pilgrim would have encountered as he or she traveled from England through France, German, Eastern Europe and the Balkans, and what is now Turkey and Syria, to the holy land–something medieval folk did for hundreds of years. Again, a joyous, hectic and invigorating album—Christmas music from 700 or 800 years ago that you can dance to, or be enthralled by. Or both.

Tomorrow–Wait till next year.

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