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Harmonia Early Music

Traditions Series: Christmas

This week, the Harmonia Traditions Series celebrates the holidays with a Baroque Christmas, including popular works from Germany, France, and Italy.

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The celebration of Christ’s birth was an important event in the Christian calendar of the 17th and 18th centuries. Christmas day was normally observed with a mass service that included specially composed music. Motets and cantatas calling for various musical forces contributed to the joyful exuberance of a very special day. Music wasn’t just a part of the service; it was an integral part of the expression of one’s faith.

The French word noël comes from the Latin natalis meaning “birth” or, perhaps, novus meaning “news.” The word has been used since the middle ages to express joy.  Noëls were very popular in France throughout the baroque era. Many composers took their melodies and arranged them for either small ensemble or organ.

One particularly successful collection was made by Michel Corrette and published in 1781. The title says it all: “Six symphonies for a quartet containing the most beautiful French and foreign noëls with variations.” Corrette’s arrangements speak highly of their composer-arranger, who led a long, successful, and wealthy life.

Today, villancico means Christmas carol in Spanish, but three hundred years ago its subjects were much more varied. Nevertheless, Christmas themed villancico’s were a favorite of numerous composers.

The Italian composer Alessandro Scarlatti is remembered primarily for two things.  First, he’s the father of Domenico, the more famous Scarlatti, and second, he was a prolific composer of cantatas. Naturally, some of his works were set on Christmas themes such as his “Cantata pastorale per la nascità di Nostro Signore,” which depicts a scene where shepherds are at the center of the drama.

Our new release of the week is a recording of Robert Dowland’s “Musical Banquet.” Soprano Monika Mauch and lutenist Nigel North collaborate in a production by the ECM label.

Here’s a video of bass Dietrich Henschel and the English Baroque Soloists (John Eliot Gardiner, dir.) performing the aria “Großer Herr, o starker Ko?nig” from J.S. Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio”:


The music heard in this episode was performed by Taverner Consort and Players, Gabrieli Consort and Players, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, Ensemble La Fantazia, and The Harp Consort.

Bernard Gordillo

Bernard Gordillo was born in Managua, Nicaragua, and raised in New Orleans. He holds degrees from Centenary College of Louisiana, the Early Music Institute at Indiana University, and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (London). Bernard also writes and hosts the Harmonia Early Music Podcast.

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