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Saturday morning quotes 4.30: Advent II

December 6, 2014

“When I read a book I am like someone strolling across a level lawn, thinking how jolly it all is, and when I am suddenly confronted with a [footnote] it is as though I had stepped on the teeth of a rake and had the handle spring up and hit me on the bridge of the nose.”

– Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (1881 – 1975), Over Seventy: An Autobiography with Digressions, Herbert Jenkins, London, 1957.

One of the hallmarks of early music is the tiresome trend of thorough documentation provided by academics in a self-conscious attempt to cram a given piece of music into a convenient category—a programmed response to a compulsive need to demonstrate that the music is better than it sounds.  My first experience performing with an early music ensemble left me scarred and skeptical of the music’s intrinsic value after having to endure the director of the ensemble drone on at the podium for seven minutes as he described a (fairly insipid) piece of music that, when played, lasted about a minute. Footnotes are mainly a vehicle for demonstrating the writer’s familiarity with the subject matter, and we are at times guilty of indulging in profuse citations.  But only when it serves to cushion the music, allowing it to descend upon the ears in a gentler manner.

In our second installment of an adapted weekly Advent calendar, we feature a bit of background on one of our favorite bits of seasonal music.

One of the best-loved carols of the season is “Ther is no rose of swych vertu,” a beautifully stark and simple piece of polyphony that alternates in three- and two parts.  The source of the piece is the Trinity Carol Roll, now preserved in the archives of Trinity College, Cambridge (MS O.3.58), and it appears as a vellum roll that includes the earliest surviving examples of English polyphonic carols. One can view a facsimile of “Ther is no rose of swych vertu” from images of the original manuscript here.

Text and tune of the original carol have been fodder for a multitude of contemporary arrangements including this one from Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols (the professional harpist’s seasonal bread and butter), charmingly performed by a fresh-faced Canadian choir.

Our simple and transparent performance of Ther is no rose of swych vertu is included on our recording  Duo Seraphim: Lute songs and solos for Advent and Christmastide, and is arranged for the historically-appropriate combination of solo voice and lute. We provide this link so you might enjoy the music for its effect –  not for the footnotes.


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One Comment
  1. Erika permalink

    I have a very simple rule: the longer the conductor (or ensemble director or radio announcer) talks about a piece, the less likely I am to enjoy it.

    Good music talks directly to the listener.

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