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A Medieval Christmas

Tired of jingle bells yet? This week on Harmonia, join us for something a little different.

A Medieval nativity scene

Photo: Toronto Consort

Three angels with a scroll.

Tired of jingle bells yet? This time of year, we are surrounded by Christmas music. This hour on Harmonia, join us for something a little different, as we explore Christmas music of another age – the medieval! We’ll hear music from the Tallis Scholars, the Boston Camerata, and more. Our featured release is a 2016 recording of Vivaldi’s violin concertos from the ensemble Gli Incogniti.


That was the Christian hymn “Veni, Veni Emanuel,” typically heard during Christmas and Advent, as performed live in concert by the Boston-based choral ensemble Blue Heron. We heard them under the direction of founder and artistic director Scott Metcalfe. That was from their 2015 live recording Christmas in Medieval England.


A Throwback Christmas

Back in the 1950s, when the 20th century early music revival was still finding its legs, LPs of Christmas music, performed by groups like the New York Pro Musica, brought a lot of new fans into the early music fold. For many Americans, it was their first introduction to medieval and Renaissance music, both vocal and instrumental. Perhaps you still have a few of those early recordings sitting on your shelf? The New York Pro Musica’s recording English Medieval Christmas Carols, originally released in 1956, features countertenor Russell Oberlin, a Juilliard graduate whose voice was, for many Americans, the first true countertenor voice they’d ever heard. A remastered version was released by Tradition Records in 1990.

We heard Christmas carols, performed by The New York Pro Musica Antiqua, from their 1956 recording English Medieval Christmas Carols.


Chant for Christmas

Chant played a really important role in the development of music in the medieval church. Despite the Catholic church’s attempt, under Charlemagne, to introduce a standardized form of chant – that’s the kind we now know as Gregorian – there have always been regional and national variations in the style and sound of chant. Let’s hear some Christmas chant performed by the Schola Hungarica, from their album Gregorian Chants from Medieval Hungary, Volume 1. 

We heard the Te Deum laudamus, from the recording Gregorian Chants from Medieval Hungary, Volume 1, performed by the Schola Hungarica.

As in many things, when it came to chant, the English church tended to do its own thing. Whether by virtue of stubbornness, geographical isolation, or occasional outright hostility towards Rome, no one really knows, but what is known is that the form of chant most often heard in the medieval English church was the kind associated with the eponymous Sarum Rite. The Sarum Rite was originally established in Salisbury in the 11th century. It was a variant form of the kind of worship prescribed by the Roman Rite. Ultimately, the Sarum Rite came to be used throughout most of England, Wales, Ireland, and eventually even Scotland. It continued to be heard right up until the events of the 16th century English Protestant Reformation. Let’s hear some Christmas chant from the Sarum Rite, sung by The Tallis Scholars.

We heard English medieval chant, from the recording Chant for Christmas from the Sarum Rite, performed by The Tallis Scholars, under the direction of Peter Phillips.


Themes of Christmas

Welcome back. This hour on Harmonia, we’ve been exploring medieval music for Christmas and Advent. As you may have already realized, medieval Christmas music tends to explore a lot of the same themes as contemporary Christmas music  – although with significantly fewer reindeer! Angels, lullabies, and the story of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus are all recurring motives. We’ll hear “Angelus ad virginem,” a medieval carol telling the story of the annunciation, performed by The Tallis Scholars.

We heard the medieval carol “Angelus ad virginem,” performed by The Tallis Scholars.

The image of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as represented by a rose, is familiar to many contemporary Catholics, but has generally lost resonance with most other Western Christians. However, back in the medieval era, it was a deeply familiar image for most Christians, one that would’ve been found in both music and art. We’ll hear the medieval English carol, “There is no rose,” performed by The Tallis Scholars, from their 1986 recording Christmas Carols and Motets.

We heard the medieval English carol “There is no rose,” as performed by The Tallis Scholars.

If you took music history at some point in your past, you might remember the term “macaronic,” which refers to a piece of music where the text alternates between Latin and the local vernacular language. The carol “In dulci jubilo,” which in its original form dates back to the Middle Ages, is a perfect example. The original text features a macaronic alternation between Latin and Medieval German. We’ll hear that carol now, in a 16th century setting by Hieronymous Praetorius.

We heard the medieval carol “In dulci jubilo,” in a 16th century setting by Hieronymous Praetorius, as performed by The Tallis Scholars.

We’ve already heard one carol telling the story of the annunciation, when Mary learns that she will become the mother of Jesus, but, let’s face it, it’s a pretty important part of the Christmas story, and one that has been told over and over again in music for many centuries. Let’s hear that tale again in a completely different setting, an anonymous Provençal tune, as performed by The Boston Camerata, from their 1992 recording A Medieval Christmas.

We heard the anonymous tune “Gabriel’s Prophecy,” as performed by The Boston Camerata.


Concerti per due Violini

Our featured release is a 2016 recording of Vivaldi’s concertos for two violins from the ensemble Gli Incogniti. Founded in 2006, the ensemble takes its name from the Venetian ”Accademia degli incogniti,” and specializes in bringing new, and sometimes experimental, interpretations of Baroque standards – Bach, Vivaldi, and Corelli, for example – to light. The group was founded by violinist Amandine Beyer, who is one of the featured soloists on this recording.

We heard Vivaldi’s concerto for two violins in C major, performed by the French-Italian ensemble Gli Incogniti.


Break and theme music

:30, Antonio Vivaldi: Concerti per due Violini, Gli Incogniti, harmonia mundi 2016, Tr. 3 Concerto per due Violini in Sib maggiore RV 529, I. Allegro

:60, Antonio Vivaldi: Concerti per due Violini, Gli Incogniti, harmonia mundi 2016, Tr. 4 Concerto per due Violini in Sib maggiore RV 529, II. [Adagio]

:30, Antonio Vivaldi: Concerti per due Violini, Gli Incogniti, harmonia mundi 2016, Tr. 5 Concerto per due Violini in Sib maggiore RV 529, III. Allegro

Theme: Danse Royale, Ensemble Alcatraz, Elektra Nonesuch 79240-2 1992 B000005J0B, Tr. 12 La Prime Estampie Royal

The writers for this edition of Harmonia was Elizabeth Clark.

Learn more about recent early music CDs on the Harmonia Early Music Podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or at http://www.harmoniaearlymusic.org.

Music Heard On This Episode

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Elizabeth Clark

Elizabeth Clark Elizabeth Clark splits her time between Bloomington, where she works for WFIU, and Columbus, where she teaches piano and directs the choir at First Lutheran Church. At WFIU, she writes for and produces Harmonia. She holds degrees in organ and harpsichord from St. Olaf College and Indiana University.

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