Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Garden of Song: Christmas in Medieval England

What do we think of celebrating "Christmas in Medieval England"?
          Judged by the concert program of that title performed last weekend by the Boston-based vocal group Blue Heron, it was simply divine. Led Scott Metcalfe the highly-regarded Boston based vocal group performed English church music likely sung in the 14th and 15th centuries. 
        Oh, happy medieval English ears!
        Performing with virtually no instrumental accompaniment -- a very quiet harp is heard (if just) is some of the pieces -- the voices of a small number of singers fill air with the beauty and volume we might have expected from a heavenly choir. After the voices, the significant instrument is the hall itself, given the tremendous acoustic value of old wood and cathedral ceilings. Like its medieval forbears, the First Congregational Church of Cambridge, where concert was held, has both qualities.
            It's hard to get over how much beautiful sound these voices produce. The ensemble in this performance appeared to number about a dozen (eleven were named in the program), and included two female vocalists, only one named in the program. (When we first heard them a few years back, the singers were all men, as if the group was making some sort of point about the range and value of male s voices.) But often the songs were sung by only three or four singers, sometimes a half dozen, and a couple times by the full group. If you closed your eyes you'd swear a whole chorus was filling the cathedral.
          In his notes on this year's program Metcalfe tells us that the medieval period's 'Christmas season' music -- a season consisting of church calendar season Advent, the feasts of Christmas and of Mary, a series of saints days, epiphany, and all the way through to Candlemas (the 40th day after Christmas) on Feb. 2 -- was both liturgical and popular. The official liturgy was "embellished and expanded," Metcalfe writes, and included "carols" that were "popular in character" if not popular music in our sense of the term. 
          Fifteenth century English music, he writes, developed its own repertoire of "carols" outside the liturgy. He puts this number at 130. (Who knew?) We're not of course talking about carols that developed after the middle of that century, and up to the popular music genre of our time: their number is legion. 
          I can't say that many of the "polyphonic carols" (Metcalfe's phrase again) are familiar today. But a few links between the chant-rooted music of the early church, sung entirely in Latin, and the semi-popular carols of this concert's medieval program and the Christmas music heard today are worth noting. The lyrics of some of these carols are a mishmash of Latin, Middle English, and something close to modern English. 
           The most familiar tune to modern ears may be the song that began the concert, its lyrics sung here totally in Latin, its title given as "Veni, Veni, Emanuel!" We know it today as "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." (The Hebrew word is translated as "God is with us" or "with God.") Anne pointed out to me that another Hebrew word survives in the last stanza: "Veni, veni, Adonai." Adonai is a Hebrew word for "the Lord." The song's words as sung in this version also include references to captive Israel, the Rod of Jesse, and the Key of David. 
            Performed in Latin by Blue Heron, the piece was transporting and passionate. Most of us will be happy if we get the opportunity this season to give it a go in English.
            Another song  rendered in early 15th century English here, "There Is No Rose of Swych Vertu" is familiar to our ears because of its appearance in Benjamin Britten's "Ceremony of Carols." It's a praise-Mary song. The lyrics as rendered here begin with the first-line title, then"as is the rose that bare Jhesu." This is English with only a few 'ye olde' spellings, the two-line verses followed by a Latin cap: res miranda ('miraculous things,' literally) in the first verse. You can see the language community blending their Latin, Fremch and vernacular English together.
             The third of these generally familiar songs is one made popular by 'ye olde English Christmas' entertainments such as The Christmas Revels and anyone else recording or performing music of this period. It's begins with the chanted refrain "Nowel, Nowel, Nowel!" It's the happy shout-song of the season, sung in an English of common words with old-time spelling. "Deme" for instance instead of "deem" (meaning 'judge').
            So while the Puritans who founded Massachusetts did not celebrate Christmas, as is endlessly pointed out in these parts, in the country they came from it was "one of the most glorious feast days of the Christian year," as Metcalfe tells us. Blue Heron's concerts savor of the old-time

glory.