Steve C Smith and Peter Phillips
This recording presents three traditional ways of celebrating Christmas in music - medieval carols, renaissance motets praising the Virgin Mary, and German chorales. The medieval pieces are sung in their original forms, without modern 'arrangement'. All those performed here are of English provenance, and culminate in three versions of the Coventry Carol, which include Byrd's famous Lullaby. This is followed by four settings of Ave Maria, presented in chronological order of composition: two early renaissance examples by Josquin des Prés (c.1440-1521) and Verdelot (fl.1520-1550) with two by the great Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611). The last group of pieces is made up of some fine traditional chorale melodies, harmonized by the German composers Hieronymus Praetorius (1560-1629) and Michael Praetorius (c.1571-1621), who were not related to each other, and by J.S. Bach (1685-1750).
The carol was one of the main forms of popular music in medieval Europe. Both in their texts and in the cast of their melodies carols always retained an unsophisticated manner. In early medieval days this tradition was largely oral, only being committed to manuscript in the 15th century, so that it offers us a rare opportunity to understand what most weighed on the minds of illiterate people in the past. In fact it seems that for everyone, both high and low, most concerns were religious. There are some carols about drinking and fighting, but the majority are associated with the leading religious feasts of the year, and most of those refer to Christmas. The connection with popular music-making is emphasised by the characteristic inclusion in all medieval carols of a refrain. Presumably this would have been sung by everybody, while the verses were sung by the person who had thought them up in the first place. The refrain would have been repeated after each verse, as may be heard here in Nowell, sing we, There is no rose, and Lullay: I saw. Nowell: Dieu vous garde is altogether more complicated, having two refrains, some dialogue involving 'Sire Christësmas', three verses and an indiscriminate use of French with English. It beautifully evokes the welcoming nature of Christmas. Angelus ad virginem, by contrast, represents the official ecclesiastical view of Christmas, having a Latin text and being based on plainchant.
The Coventry Carol, with its well-known 'Lully, lulla' refrain, has been set many times, and we include three versions. Correctly speaking it is not a Christmas carol because the words refer to Jesus as an infant, and are not concerned with the birth itself. Lullay: I saw - one of the very earliest extant polyphonic carols - describes in old English what Mary sang to her child; while the other two on this recording go further along the story and refer to Herod's slaughter of the new-born babies. Byrd's setting, which preserves the carol format of refrain and verse, was published in his Psalmes, Sonets and Songs of 1588. There are two equally authentic ways of performing this work: with solo voice and viols, and with five singers. We have chosen the latter, but at the same time have given a slight prominence to the first alto part, which Byrd designated as his soloist or 'first singing part'.
Many renaissance composers set the beautiful words Ave Maria or 'Hail Mary, full of grace', so central to the Christian faith. One of the earliest is the four-part version by Josquin des Prés, famous for its simplicity of expression. The same simplicity and clarity of part-writing characterises the linked seven-part settings of Beata es virgo and Ave Maria by Philippe Verdelot, a Frenchman who worked in Rome and died around 1550. This substantial motet in two sections carries the Ave Maria chant in the second soprano part throughout. By contrast the two settings by Victoria (of which the four-part is only attributed to him) include wide variations of texture and rhythm, especially noticeable in his highly expressive eight-voice version.
The well-known repertoire of German Christmas melodies evolved rather later than the English medieval carol. All these melodies are taken from chorales, most of which were written after the Reformation in the 16th Century, though it is possible that some of them, like In dulci jubilo, go back earlier into oral tradition. However their texts and the present form of the melodies themselves date from the renaissance and were sanctioned by the Lutheran church. They have undergone many harmonizations and arrangements, though few can surpass in sensitivity those recorded here.
© 1986 rev. 1992, Peter Phillips