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The feasts of Christmas were particularly rich in subject and imagery and gave rise to some of the most captivating music from medieval England, with joyous salutations to Mary and the Angel Gabriel, as well as more intimate songs of the nativity. The cult of Mary seems to have been as real as the courtly domna of the troubadours, and for English song-writers she stands supreme over the Christ-child and all the other figures of the Christmas story. The most detailed story-song in her honour is one of a group of songs celebrating Christmas feast days at Winchester College when, according to the College statutes, a fire would be lit in hall and the scholars and fellows would pass the evening with songs and other decent entertainments, with poems, chronicles of kings, and the marvels of this world. Lolay, lolay is the only monophonic song in the collection and is a lengthy lullaby in which the poet eavesdrops on a conversation between a young mother and her son. As it unfolds we realize their identities and hear about the mysteries of the Christmas story.
One of the most popular of all songs relating the Christmas story appears to have been the hymn Angelus ad virginem and its English variant Gabriel fram evene king. There are no fewer than five versions in both monophonic and polyphonic musical settings and the song was sufficiently well known to feature in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales where the Miller describes scenes of music-making:
And al above ther lay a gay sautrie
Our performance is based upon the second of the three-part versions in the Cambridge manuscript which probably dates from the first half of the fourteenth century. This particular version is bereft of text but the full text survives in both its Latin and English forms in the Arundel Manuscript (BL MS Arundel 248 f.154). The two-part version which follows seems to be an earlier version, dating from the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, and is performed without the text.
Miri it is and the three-part motet Vide miser et iudica consider the sinfulness of the human condition, a theme which is often dwelt upon by English poets and one that is often symbolized through images of winter. Miri it is survives along with fragments of two trouvère songs as a single folio inserted at the beginning of a manuscript from around 1200. Only a single stanza remains but we have extended the song with an estampie based upon the vocal melody. The notation gives no metrical indications but, as Frank Harrison has pointed out in his edition of the song, the overtly rhythmic text invites a strongly metrical performance of the melody. Vide miser is included on one of the two flyleaves inserted into a fourteenth-century French manuscript but is associated with England through its tenor incipit ‘Wynter’. The tenor melody is a catchy phrase which repeats three times and may well be a remnant of a popular song on the theme of winter. The rich and highly independent melodic writing of the upper parts results in some remarkably fulsome polyphony, which is further heightened by the different texts in each part. Because of its repetitive melodic infrastructure which is strongly anchored around the tonic, the tenor also fits well on the fiddle which we use to realize the repeat of the motet.
Most of the Christmas lyrics which survive from this era are closely linked to the Christian church, even though the tunes themselves may be drawn from secular traditions. It seems the church had been careful to absorb pagan traditions, giving rise to hybrids like the clerical dance-songs. These Latin rondelli have religious themes such as those celebrating Mary and the Christ-child, but often use the form of the immensely popular Anglo-Norman carole with a communal refrain sung in the middle as well as at the end of the verse. If the general populace could not be persuaded to forego their passion for carolling, the rondelli were a way of infiltrating Christian dogma and so, on particular feast days, they were performed as accepted forms of adoration. The commentator Durandus (1230–1296) describes how the deacons in Normandy joined together to sing and dance antiphons on the Eve of St Stephen’s. Illustrations of dance-songs invariably show the dancers linked in a chain or circle. Sometimes they sing alone, as in the illumination preceding the sixty rondelli in the Florence manuscript, but in more secular settings they appear with a fiddle or frame drum.
Many aspects of performance practice can only be guided by informed speculation and musical taste. The estampie on the ‘Wynter’ motet evolved from improvising with the various motet melodies. Its repeating ‘open’ and ‘closed’ endings are based on the tenor’s repeating pair of opening phrases, and the nine puncta from the sequence of melodic phrases reading through the duplum and triplum respectively. There is only a handful of instrumental pieces surviving in English manuscripts, including the well known and superbly crafted monophonic untitled piece in Douce 139 which fits well on the sinfonye (hurdy-gurdy). It is untitled but features many of the repetitive structures of the stantipes (or estampie) and the ductia, although it is formally less regular and more through-composed. According to the thirteenth-century theorist Johannes de Grocheio, this is the repertory fiddlers perform ‘before the wealthy in their feasts and entertainments’. The stantipes is ‘distinguished by its sections’ which are the equivalent to the estampie’s puncta, a form which Grocheio admires because it ‘causes the mind of anyone who performs it – and of anyone who listens to it – to dwell upon it and it often diverts the minds of the powerful from perverse reflection’.
The corpus of English secular music is small but has a distinctive melodic and harmonic identity. The monophonic melodies tend to be more strongly drone-based than their Continental counterparts and often include distinctive triadic phrases, as in the opening phrases of the above untitled piece in Douce 139 and in our motet Gabriel fram evene king. During the fifteenth century the emphasis of the major third becomes a crucial feature of English carols, among which Ther is no rose stands as one of our finest and best known examples. The anonymous poet symbolizes Mary through the image of a rose, a favourite theme in English religious lyrics.
By this time the carol had evolved into its modem form with a series of stanzas linked by the refrain. The melody is only overlaid for the opening and, as is the case in Lolay, lolay, the exact melodic setting for each syllable of the text is often not clearly notated. Our realizations are based as closely as possible on the original and we have attempted to sing the remaining stanzas in a way which generally conforms to the melodic distribution of the first verse. Our final carol Nowell, nowell, nowell! is contained in a manuscript from the second half of the fifteenth century which is most probably from Beverly Minster in Yorkshire. It is particularly challenging for the singer, since the poet provides an extremely dense text which is rather undermined by its contrastingly simple melody. The carol is rather amusingly followed by a drinking song which the scribe suggests should be sung to the same tune.
Stevie Wishart © 1993