Skip to content

Concert Set: Music for the season

December 11, 2020

The 2020 Winter season is upon us and we see friends and colleagues across the globe struggling with very idea of celebration during a time when so many have very little reason to celebrate. This year, things are a bit different, but this is not the first time in history that the holiday season has been celebrated under duress. Even the figures in the nativity scene pictured above by Hugo van der Goes (c. 1430 – 1482) appear to be socially-distancing within their respective groups.

Music has traditionally been the ever-present herald of the Christmas season, with shops blaring out canned and sanitized versions of familiar December songs meant to nudge people into a guilt-driven retail mood. Musicians who normally have very busy performing schedules during the month of December are struggling to find ways to be heard at all, and many are resorting to rather awkward online performance platforms that the tech companies are insisting will be the new normal going forward.

Despite the fact that we participate in some forms of modern technology (like this blog), we are resistant to the idea of replacing the concert experience with the burps and blips, the fits and starts of a stuttering streaming concert. While online concerts presented with ample budgetary input can be relatively unproblematic, to us they really represent the surgical excision of the indefinable and ethereal magic of music heard in a live space by humans with engaged and proximate ears.

While we bide our time until we can return to live performance, we offer a Concert Set of recorded music we would normally perform for a live Christmas concert. This selection features music from the British Isles gleaned from our albums Duo Seraphim and Magnum Mysterium, and we hope it helps set a proper mood for the holiday season.

Ther is no rose of swych vertu is a carol from the 15th-century Trinity Carol Roll, a rolled parchment manuscript that measures over six feet long, with music and text for thirteen carols, now in the possession of Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge, MS O.3.58.  “Ther is no rose of swych vertu” is a beautifully stark and simple piece of polyphony that alternates in three- and two parts. Text and tune of the original carol have been fodder for a multitude of contemporary arrangements including a segment of Benjamin Britten’s well-known Ceremony of Carols. Our simple and transparent performance is sensitively arranged for the historically-appropriate combination of solo voice and lute, a combination that appears in 15th-century iconography.

Ther is no rose
Ther is no rose of swych vertu
As is the rose that bare Jhesu.
For in this rose conteynyd was
Heuen and erthe in lytyl space.

The aungelys sungyn the shepherdes to:
‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’.
Res miranda.

Ther is no rose of swych vertu
As is the rose that bare Jhesu.

Verbum caro factum est de virgine Maria, text from John Chapter I Verse 14
from the Bodleian Library MS. Arch. Selden B. 26, dated circa 1450. This two-voice macoronic English carol is textlessly arranged for solo lute by Ron Andrico.

This version of “O magnum misterium” is from William Byrd’s Gradualia (II) collection, published in 1607. Having been published in Protestant England at a time when practicing Catholicism was a very risky enterprise, the motet was most likely intended for private worship in the household chapel of Sir John Petre.

The intimate texture of Byrd’s setting transfers particularly well to our format of solo voice and lute, an historically appropriate performing medium for Byrd’s music that is strengthened greatly by the large number of his motets that survive for solo voice and lute in the Edward Paston manuscripts (Folger Shakespeare Library Mss V.A. 405-7). Byrd’s setting, originally for ATTB, sets the full responsory text beginning with O magnum misterium, the respond Beata Virgo, the verse Ave Maria, and completed by repetition of the respond Beata Virgo.

O magnum misterium et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum
jacentem in praesepio.

Beata Virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt
portare Dominum Jesum Christum.

Ave Maria, gratia plena: Dominus tecum.

Beata Virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt
portare Dominum Jesum Christum.

O great mystery
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord
lying in a manger.

Blessed is the Virgin, whose womb
was worthy to bear Christ the Lord.

Hail Mary, full of grace: the Lord is with you.

Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear Christ the Lord.

We next offer an instrumental interlude having nothing to do with seasonal music that is a setting for lute of John Taverner’s “In nomine”. The piece is a section of the Benedictus from Taverner’s Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas, composed sometime in the 1520s, that for reasons unknown was frequently set throughout the Tudor reign up to and including the early 17th-century music of William Lawes. Arrangements used Taverner’s theme buried in the texture as a cantus firmus with elaborations for keyboard, instrumental consort in four or five parts, and solo lute.

Let all mortal flesh keep silence, while not strictly from the British Isles, is an Advent hymn that Donna has known and sung in English translation for most of her life. The melody is derived from the traditional French carol, ‘Picardy’, and the communion text is translated into English by Gerard Moultrie (1829-1885). Our unique arrangement and harmonization seems to bear slight differences each time we perform it. Here’s one version.

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly-minded,
for with blessing in his hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth he stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
in the body and the blood,
he will give to all the faithful
his own self for heav’nly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
spreads its vanguard on the way,
as the Light of light descendeth
from the realms of endless day,
that the pow’rs of hell may vanish
as the darkness clears away.

At his feet the six-winged seraph,
cherubim, with sleepless eye,
veil their faces to the presence,
as with ceaseless voice they cry,
“Alleluia, alleluia,
alleluia, Lord Most High!”

The Wexford Carol is likely to be an ancient carol, but the English text probably dates from the 18th or 19th century. The Mixolydian tune is very effectively performed a cappella by Donna Stewart in our performance.

Good people all, this Christmas time,
Consider well and bear in mind
What our good God for us has done
In sending his beloved son
With Mary holy we should pray,
To God with love this Christmas Day
In Bethlehem upon that morn,
There was a blessed Messiah born.

The night before that happy tide,
The noble Virgin and her guide
Were long time seeking up and down
To find a lodging in the town.
But mark how all things came to pass
From every door repelled, alas,
As was foretold, their refuge all
Was but a humble ox’s stall.

Near Bethlehem did shepherds keep
Their flocks of lambs and feeding sheep
To whom God’s angels did appear
Which put the shepherds in great fear
Prepare and go, the angels said
To Bethlehem, be not afraid
For there you’ll find, this happy morn
A princely babe, sweet Jesus, born.

With thankful heart and joyful mind
The shepherds went the babe to find
And as God’s angel had foretold
They did our Saviour Christ behold
Within a manger he was laid
And by his side the virgin maid
Attending on the Lord of Life
Who came on earth to end all strife.

The Christ Child Lullaby is known as “Taladh Chriosta” in Scots Gaelic, and is a traditional song collected from the Isle of Mull in the Outer Hebrides. While the recording offered here is from our album Duo Seraphim, way back in 2008 we also posted a deliberately unadorned live performance of the carol, mostly as an experiment to judge the reaction to our music sung at home in a dry space.

My love, my pride, my treasure, O
My wonder new and pleasure, O
My son, my beauty, ever You
Who am I to bear You here?

The cause of talk and tale am I
The cause of greatest fame am I
The cause of proudest care on high
To have for mine, the king of all

And though You are the king of all
They sent You to the manger stall
Where at Your feet they all shall fall
And glorify my child the king

There shone a star above three kings,
To guide them to the king of kings.
They held You in their humble arms
And knelt before You until dawn.

They gave You myrrh they gave You gold
Frankincense and gifts untold
They traveled far these gifts to bring,
And glorify their newborn king.

My love, my pride, my treasure, O
My wonder new and pleasure, O
My son, my beauty, ever You
Who am I to bear You here?

From → All posts

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: