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Saturday morning quotes 8.15: New or old?

Our new CD, Unquiet Thoughts, has been making the rounds over the past few weeks and we have been receiving a very positive response to our unique take on English music for voice and lute from circa 1600. This is quite satisfying because we put a great deal of effort into this recording, intentionally aiming for a warm and intimate sound to convey the spirit of an excellent collection of profound poetry and moving music from the age of Shakespeare. Our recorded program opens with four songs from John Dowland’s groundbreaking First Booke (1597), contrasts Dowland’s innovative work with that of his contemporaries Thomas Campion, Robert Jones and John Danyel, and closes with some of Dowland’s most iconic songs from later prints. This is music we love, and we hope it shows.

“In my opinion, the most beautiful music is in singing well and in reading at sight and in fine style, but even more in singing to the accompaniment of the lute, because nearly all the sweetness is in the solo and we note and follow the fine style and the melody with greater attention in that our ears are not occupied with more than a single voice, and every little fault is the more clearly noticed—which does not happen when a group is singing, because then one sustains the other. But especially it is singing poetry with the lute that seems to me the most delightful, as this gives to the words a wonderful charm and effectiveness.”

– Baldassare Castiglione, Il Cortegiano (1528).

We were particularly taken by a comment from a listener who appreciated our “modern” approach to this music, a comment that led us to scroll through and review our writing on this blog in order to clarify our position on just what is a modern approach to early music. If you are a regular reader of our blog, you might very well guess that we have made a broad and deep investigation into historical performance practices, and we feel strongly that our approach is securely rooted in the performing tradition of Dowland’s time. But the comment made us pause to consider just what inspired the person to think that our sound is “modern.” Again, if you have read our posts on the natural voice, or on the importance of strong rhythmical phrasing, or even on recording the lute, you know exactly where we stand.

The first consideration is that the original music was almost always sung in small rooms for the performers themselves or just a few listeners.

“The lute is a closet instrument that will suffer the company of but few hearers, and such as have a delicate ear; for the pearls are not to be cast before the swine.”

“…If we must incline to one side, the gentle and soft playing is to be preferred before others, so that you play neatly and in a little room or to please a small company (the lute not being fit to play in a hall before a multitude of people; there the violin is most fit).”

– Mary Burwell’s lute teacher, circa 1670

The aptness of smaller rooms being the case, a projected voice was never used and specifically discouraged by the likes of Nicholas Lanier, known to be the singer who first introduced the Italian stile recititavo to England.

“It shall therefore be a profitable advertisement, that the Professor of this Art, being to sing to a Theorbo or other stringed instrument, and not being compelled to fit himself to others, that he so pitch his Tune, as to sing in his full and natural Voice, avoiding feigned Tunes of Notes. In which, to feign them, or at the least to inforce Notes, if his Wind serve him well, so as he do not discover them much; (because for the most part they offend the Ear;) yet a man must have a command of Breath to give the greater Spirit to the Increasing and Diminishing of the Voice, to Exclamations and other Passions by us related; and therefore let him take heed, that spending much Breath upon such Notes, it do not afterward fail him in such places as it is most needful: For from a feigned Voice can come no noble manner of singing; which only proceeds from a natural Voice, serving aptly for all the Notes which a man can manage according to his ability employing his wind in such a fashion as he command all the best passionate Graces used in this most worthy manner of Singing.”

– Nicholas Lanier, An Introduction to the Skill of Musick, John Playford, London, 1674, ppg. 54-55.

Dance rhythms with strongly articulated phrasing were the norm, and those rhythms are particularly evident in the music throughout Dowland’s First Booke. To fail to articulate those rhythms is a grievous oversight, surely akin to reading poetry in a monotone drone, which robs the words of proper articulation, meaning, spirit and life. But the thing must be done with sensitivity and with the understanding of a nimble-footed musician who can indeed dance.

“Dauncing (bright Lady) then began to be,
When the first seedes whereof the world did spring,
The Fire, Ayre, Earth and Water, did agree
By Love’s perswasion, Nature’s mighty King,
To learne their first disordred combating:
And, in a daunce such measure to observe,
As all the world their motion should preserve.

Since when they still are carried in a round,
And changing come one in another’s place,
Yet doe they neyther mingle nor confound,
But every one doth keepe the bounded space
Wherein the daunce doth bid it turne or trace:
This wondrous myracle did Love devise
For Dauncing is Love’s proper exercise.

– Sir John Davies, Orchestra, a Poem of Dancing, 1594

As for recording techniques, yes, recording is a modern technology that facilitates the act of performing our music in living rooms across the globe. We have produced 14 (soon to be 15) CDs in an epic struggle with this technology, persistently attempting to capture a natural sound in a manner that conveys the spirit of the music. Our last four CDs were all recorded live, which is a significant act of derring-do if you know anything about recording the lute. For Unquiet Thoughts, we entered the recording studio with very specific ideas as to the sound we were seeking. Among the problems associated with recording in live spaces, balance of voice and instrument is of paramount concern. In the studio, we are able to record both voice and lute with a close microphone placement that conveys the warmth of texts and music but, again, close placement is an act of bravery that exposes each breath and every movement of the fingers. There is a very good reason most recordings involving voice and lute have a “cathedral” sound despite the character of the music; it is mostly to insulate the performers from the inevitable exposure of their human imperfections when examined under a microscope. But we feel the close mic placement conveys the warmth of sound heard in a small chamber, bringing the listener closer to the original historical experience of the music. How often does a listener get to feel the resonance of a lute as though it were in his or her lap?

While we respect as an approach interpretations by our peers following the modern conventions of today’s early music aesthetic, after studying the sources and absorbing the context of the original music, we are secure in the understanding that our interpretations are historically appropriate. It is a well-established fact that the vocal quality of singers circa 1600 was nothing like that of our modern conservatory-trained singers indulging in modern bel canto style, affecting what is really a post-Victorian approach to vocal projection and diction. And we are just a bit dismayed when this patently unhistorical approach is reinforced by teachers as the standard 21st-century voice type, regrettably applied to early music. We have heard many promising singers possessing beautiful natural voices emerge from their degree program saddled with a voice that is sadly unsuitable for early repertory. The sources are very clear on this matter: A natural voice was preferred by and expected from singers in Dowland’s time. Full stop.

Perhaps the one aspect of our approach that might misguidedly be construed as modern is that we do not venture near the slippery slope of attempting to recreate an Elizabethan accent. But one must consider that singers in Dowland’s time would certainly not have indulged in employing an outdated Old English pronunciation dating from before Chaucer’s time, primarily because no one would have understood the words. Our phrasing and engagement in rhythmic devices simply represents an attentive involvement in the poetry and the music in a manner that we are certain was expected by the original composers. Our approach effectively leapfrogs over the Victorian influences of today’s early music norms to restore an intimate aesthetic that communicates historical poetry and music. If our directness and intimacy reaches beyond the bounds and has some appeal to listeners dwelling outside the moated castle of modern early music norms, we’re OK with that.

Saturday morning quotes 8.14: Unquiet Thoughts

We are pleased to announce the release of our long-awaited recording of English lute songs, available as of today, April 10, 2021. Unquiet Thoughts, Mignarda’s 14th album, is the capstone of decades of insight into the songs of John Dowland and his peers.  Having edited and published Dowland’s complete music for voice & lute in 2020, our new album represents the fruits of the long labor of having touched each note and every word of Dowland’s collected lute songs. To round off the selection of Dowland’s magisterial songs, the album includes a few exceptional works of poetry set by Dowland’s composer-contemporaries Thomas Campion, John Danyel and Robert Jones. 

As always, our interpretations are based upon deep research into historical context and performance, and we have lived with and performed each song for the necessary number of years to uncover the context and meaning of the poetry, giving equal time to musical phrasing and rhythmic gestures.  Our interpretations honor the original songs as the popular music of their day: These are popular songs that can come off as mere trifles when performed as though they were light Art Songs of a later era, but are songs full of art when sensitively rendered with directness and intimacy.

Unquiet Thoughts presents a selection of rarities and perennial favorites by John Dowland (1563 – 1626) and a few of his contemporaries, concentrating on songs with exquisite poetical texts by some of the best poets of the Elizabethan age. It is no accident that we chose the very first song from Dowland’s First Booke as the title of our album, as the eloquent term so appropriately describes a genre that pairs an intimate voice with the most personal of instruments to express the secrets of the soul. Unquiet Thoughts is also the title of this blog (soon to be published in book form), which since 2010 has been a platform that offers our insights and experience of music for voice and lute and its relevance in the modern era.

English lute songs circa 1600

John Dowland’s ayres for voice and lute represent the pinnacle of a musical form that appeared in manuscript and printed sources throughout Europe for at least 100 years prior to the publication of Dowland’s First Booke in 1597. Continental examples of lute songs distilled an arrangement of polyphonic vocal music that assigned the lower parts to be played on the lute. English music for voice and lute prior to Dowland’s First Booke consisted of psalm harmonizations and secular poetry set to Italian dance grounds.

Building upon this foundation, Dowland retained the rhythmic vitality of dance forms that were improved with his gift for melody and expressive text setting. Strongly influenced by French and Italian examples, Dowland forged a new style of accompaniment that drew upon the resources of the lute, employing characteristic plucked-string techniques such as cross-string suspensions, rhythmic syncopations and running passages interspersed with expressive chordal events, creating a rich and complex musical effect.

Our recording opens aptly with Dowland’s very first song from his First Booke, “Unquiet Thoughts.” We feature our definitive performances of other iconic songs by Dowland as bookends, surrounding worthy works of poetry by Thomas Campion, Sir Philip Sidney and Samuel Danyel, all published in The Mignarda Songbook Volume One: English Ayres. Dowland’s song texts set poetry by mostly anonymous authors, but in recent memory Anthony Rooley has proposed that some of the poetry set by Dowland may be attributed to Robert Devereaux, the famous Earl of Essex, adding an interesting twist to the broad story of Elizabethan melancholy.

The three lute solos featured on our album are all drawn from a single manuscript source: Cambridge University Library Add. MS. 3056, formerly known as the Cosens Lute Book. The manuscript includes several well-known solos from the golden age of English lute music, but each piece is given a unique twist one way or another. The version of Dowland’s famous “Frogg galliard” (lute solo version of the song, “Now O now I needs must part”) bears idiosyncratic yet appealing decoration. The untitled Fantasia attributed to Dowland is a veritable discourse on the famous “Lachrimæ” theme and the many ways it may be woven into the fabric of a free-standing fantasia, and the recording gives the piece time and space to allow the many quotations of the theme to rise to the surface. John Danyel’s “Rosa” is an instrumental setting of his brother Samuel’s 1592 poem “The Complaint of Rosamond,” which illuminates the legend of Rosamund Clifford and her unhappy dalliance with King Henry II. The tolling of the death knell in the third section of the pavan says it all.

A word about interpretation

From the beginning of our work as a duo specializing in music for voice and lute, we have followed a very different interpretive path from most performers in the genre. Our interpretations delve deeply into the meaning of the language—and the clever bits hidden in the music—in an effort to attain a level of performance that honors the original context and performing style of each and every song.

As working musicians, we understand from an insider’s perspective that the published scores of the repertory of English lute songs represent only a starting place, and that 17th-century musicians would never have been bound by the constraints of our modern pitch reference (A=440 Hz) with the resulting chirruping sounds when performed without judicial adjustment. It is well-understood today that historical lutes were larger, strings were thicker, and reference pitches were generally lower. The evidence indicates that most of Dowland’s solo songs were intended to be sung in the tenor range with the octave transposition implied. We make use of different lutes tuned to gentler pitches in order to adjust the range of the song for optimal communication of the text, as we are certain was done originally.

Unquiet thoughts your civill slaughter stint

The very first song in Dowland’s First Booke (1597), was described by Diana Poulton as “charming and melodious” but a deeper interpretation reveals much more substance may be assigned to both text and music. At face value, the cantus part is notated in a rather high tessitura and the song could be (and has been) performed as a chirpy little number with a bubbling lute accompaniment. But examining both text and musical devices in the accompaniment, “Unquiet thoughts” becomes a gripping and passionate journey into the restless soul of a melancholy lover. The anonymous poet is served well by Dowland’s sensitive musical setting that borrows subtle lute technique from the French luthistes whom Dowland surely met while in Paris, and, all in all, the composition is breathtakingly advanced compared to music of his English contemporaries. Our recording of the song follows the logical and historically-accurate performance practice of accompanying on a lute tuned a fifth lower than the standard G-lute typically used today, resulting in a warm and intimate interpretation of the text in a range that restores the communicative properties of the song that Dowland thought should occupy pride of place in his innovative First Booke.

Unquiet thoughts your civill slaughter stint,
And wrap your wrongs within a pensive heart:
And you my tongue that maks my mouth a minte,
And stamps my thoughts to coyne them words by arte:
Be still for if you ever doo the like,
Ile cut the string, that maks the hammer strike.

But what can staie my thoughts they may not start,
Or put my tongue in durance for to dye?
When as these eies the keyes of mouth and harte
Open the locke where all my love doth lye;
Ile seale them up within their lids for ever,
So thoughts and words, and looks shall dye together.

How shall I then gaze on my mistresse eies?
My thoughts must have som vent els hart wil break,
My tongue would rust as in my mouth it lies
If eyes and thoughts were free and that not speake.
Speake then and tell the passions of desire
Which turns mine eies to floods, my thoghts to fire.

We quote a paraphrase of the text by David Hill from John Dowland: Complete Ayres for Voice & Lute, Volume One, Mignarda Editions, 2020.

You disturbing, rebellious thoughts that fight and kill inside my head: cease,
For I must keep the wrongs (that have been done to me) in my heart, and consider them.
And you, my tongue, who mints words out of my thoughts in my mouth, by giving voice to them,
just as a coiner stamps blank metal into coins, you must be silent.
But if you cannot be still,
I must cut the string that controls your ‘minting’.

But what can stop these thoughts which have put my tongue under sentence of death?
My eyes (which are the keys to the locks of my mouth and my heart), open both,
revealing my unrequited longing to my mistress.
Perhaps I should therefore seal up my eyes (rather than punish my tongue),
so that my thoughts, words and looks are all killed at the same time,
by being withheld from her?

But, if I were blinded, how could I then gaze at my mistress’ eyes?
I must have some release for my thoughts, or my heart will break.
My tongue would simply seize up, whilst it lies in my mouth,
were I not able use my voice when my eyes and thoughts remained free and uncontrolled.
Therefore I’ll be brave. I’ll speak to my mistress, and explain to her my passionate and painful desire,
which causes my eyes to weep floods, and my thoughts to burn like fire.

It turns out that Edmund Spenser (1552 – 1599) had previously published a poem with the title “Unquiet Thought” in Amoretti, a collection of 89 sonnets written in Petrarchian form, but with an interesting conceptual framework in that the poems all correspond with the scriptural readings prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer for specific dates in 1594, the year of Spenser’s marriage to Elizabeth Boyle.

Vnquiet thought, whom at the first I bred,
Of th’ inward bale of my loue pined hart:
and sithens haue with sighes and sorrowes fed,
till greater then my wombe thou woxen art.

Breake forth at length out of the inner part,
in which thou lurkest lyke to vipers brood:
and seeke some succour both to ease my smart
and also to sustayne thy selfe with food.

But if in presence of that fayrest proud
thou chance to come, fall lowly at her feet:
and with meeke humblesse and afflicted mood,
pardon for thee, and grace for me intreat.

Which if she graunt, then liue and my loue cherish,
if not, die soone, and I with thee will perish.

There are echos and a conceptual similarity in that Spenser’s poem is about restless thoughts that must escape the womb and be expressed, but the use of metaphor is sharply divergent from that of Dowland’s poet and the idea of stamping thoughts with a minter’s hammer. 

A Tribute

Our recording of English lute songs is dedicated to the memory of Edward Doughtie (1935-2014), Professor of English Literature at Rice University and a specialist who possessed a broad and deep knowledge of the poetical texts from which the songs of Dowland and his contemporaries were drawn.

In his iconic Lyrics from English Airs, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1970 — in near-constant use in our household — Doughtie traced with conciseness and clarity the evolution of the unique marriage of words and music that became known as the Golden Age of English lute songs.

Generous with his knowledge of the sources, context, and meaning of English lyrics, Ed informed our interpretations through our many conversations on the subject. His influence on our approach to the texts of English lute songs was at first through his essential publications, but was later reinforced through a very active correspondence and culminated in his contribution of an essay published in the booklet of our 2013 recording John Dowland: A Pilgrimes Solace.

Ed kindly expressed his appreciation for our interpretive insights, and he even composed a new lute song for us. He clarified many textual details that bridge the vast chasm that lies between simply performing a song and completely inhabiting the emotional context of a piece, and he is with us in spirit whenever we perform English lute songs. We are honored to have been bequeathed his notes and annotated copies of facsimiles from his indispensable research on English lute songs. 

Dedicated to the memory of Edward Doughtie, Unquiet Thoughts honors the artful marriage of Elizabethan words and music, offering performances that channel the aesthetic of circa 1600 and bridge the gap between then and now.

Saturday morning quotes 8.13: Cost of re-creation

We live in a jaded age that is bereft of truly original artistic innovation. The concept of “retro” is embraced wholesale as a marketing angle because it is generally accepted that today’s dependence upon technology only undermines creativity, forcing users of technology to overload their minds with memorized menus, keystrokes and passwords. In a world that places the gathering and monetizing of data first and foremost, we are compelled to look to the past to explore and re-create older forms of artistic achievement if we care to identify as culturally literate.

Attempts to rediscover the soul of our shared cultural heritage after decades of rampant industrialization was a primary motivation for the early music movement that first began more than a century ago. But what happens to an art form when it is studied as an historical curiosity from the detached perspective of a later age; when cultural heritage is wrested from its original context and subjected to classification and categorization for the convenience of scholarship? When priceless instruments—like those pictured above from the Henry Ford museum—are taken out of circulation and suspended as silent and listless objects in glass boxes, they no longer produce sound and therefore entirely lose their significance as musical instruments. The items in the display case might just as well be a hammer and sickle as musical instruments.

“[Henry Ford’s historic Greenfield Village] represents the American world which Ford’s revolutionary achievements destroyed. Adjacent to the village the immense museum deepens the paradox still further. Inside a one-story building fourteen acres in extent—its façade, features a replica of Independence Hall—stands one of the world’s finest memorials to the Industrial Revolution. Here an astounding array of tools, engines, machines and devices record the progressive mechanization of agriculture, the evolution of lighting, of communications, of transportation, and most important of all, the great record of modern man’s efforts to harness mechanical and electrical power.”

“Henry Ford’s museum, in short, is a monument to all the great technical achievements that put finish to the life represented in Ford’s re-created American village. There is no resolving that contradiction and no reason to try. It is nothing less than the grand contradiction of modern American life, the San Andreas Fault in the American soul—the schism between our faith in technological progress and our profoundly gnawing suspicion that the old rural republic was a finer, braver and freer place than the industrial America that now sustains us. If that contradiction runs through Henry Ford’s titanic reconstruction of the American past, it is because no American ever experienced the contradiction more intensely than Henry Ford himself.”

– Walter Karp, Indispensable Enemies: The Politics of Misrule in America, 1980.

Henry Ford (1863 – 1947) was overseer to the destruction of a way of life, a fact that dawned on him later in life and, like his Robber Baron contemporaries, he established a philanthropic organization in what has been cast as an attempt to pay society back for laying waste to a rich cultural landscape. The Ford Foundation was established in 1936, and during its early years was under the leadership of Ford family members who allocated their resources for “scientific, educational and charitable purposes, all for the public welfare.” The Ford Foundation was responsible for contributions that helped establish several symphony orchestras, and their alignment with political figures promised that high culture would “rid our society of its most basic ills–voicelessness, isolation, depersonalization–the complete absence of any purpose or reason for living.”

Following the lead of philanthropic organizations, the federal government established the National Endowment for the Arts, which sparked the growth of new orchestras from 58 in 1965 to 225 in 1988. But we know now how all that happy cash was destined to dry up by the 21st century, funneled back to the one-percent who simply lost interest in sharing. Upon closer examination, it turns out that the Ford Foundation had a slightly different broad idea in mind, and its close connections with the CIA allowed for the advancement of ulterior motives, nefariously disguised behind the smiling façade of philanthropy.

When we delve into the more substantive areas of early music, we feel a connection—not just with the sounds—but with the entire context of the music, its creation and its reception. As performers, we find that there is very little opportunity today to present intimate music to receptive listeners who might be affected in the same manner as our ancestors: Singing the music of Josquin for the Latin Mass is about the nearest we can come today to the original context of historical music. We have little commentary to offer to the growing tide of performers who feel as though they must turn early music concerts into multimedia circus acts, except that such gimmicks only rob the music of its dignity and leaves us with the feeling of having visited the very equivalent of Henry Ford’s museum.

We are obliged to point out that some modern approaches to early music only succeed in creating a false impression of the true value of our shared cultural heritage, and we believe that value lies in the depth, dignity, intimacy and intensely personal nature of the music. And we are obliged to point out that Henry Ford, the man who was responsible for setting fire to a way of life and then collecting artifacts from the ashes to place in his museum, was the driving force behind bland party-machine presidential candidate Warren G. Harding, who ran successfully in 1920 on a platform of a “return to normalcy.” Sound familiar?

Saturday morning quotes 8.12: O Death rock me asleep

“O Death rocke me asleep” is an interesting example of a lute song originating from the sixteenth century that bears a distinctive accompaniment of an instrumental character, rather than a distilled arrangement of vocal polyphony. The piece also fits into the category of mid- to late-century consort songs, or solo songs with accompaniment in multiple parts for bowed strings like those of William Byrd. But it was also arranged for solo voice and lute in British Library Add MS 15117 (circa 1599), “a collection, mostly comprising compositions for the lute, as well as songs, anthems, madrigals, duets, and an extract from an opera, all with lute accompaniment.”

A digitized version of Add. MS. 15117 can be examined on the British Library site, with the lute song appearing on folio 3 verso. The historical consort song version of “O Death rocke me asleep” is available in the Musica Britannica series Volume 22, Consort Songs, edited by Philip Brett, Stainer and Bell, London, 1967, with an additional version seen on the Choral Public Domain site.

An historically significant resource often overlooked today is William Chappell’s, Popular Music of the Olden Time, published in two volumes in 1855-1856. Chappell transcribed and printed “O Death rocke me asleep” in its version from British Library Add. MS. 15117, but, as was often the case in early musicology, the editor filled out the rather sparse lute accompaniment in an adaptation meant for the keyboard.

“The accompaniment here given is little more than a translation of that written in tablature for the lute under the song in the MS…A few chords have been filled up, where they were disagreeably bare in the original, but in form and substance the composition is given practically as found. I draw attention to the fact, because the song affords the earliest example, so far as I know, of an independent accompaniment; which, moreover, in this case is an accompaniment in the most modern sense of the word, the knell supplying a kind of comment throughout.”
– Chappell, 1855, Volume 1, p. 113.

Certainly, the lute part as transcribed by Chappell could appear to be chordal (vertical) but, as usual, effective realization of the lute tablature demands a more horizontal (contrapuntal) point of view. The consort version exhibits a great deal of interplay among the parts, with frequent passing of the tolling knell figure from one part to the next.

The text of the song is attributed to Anne Boleyn (c. 1501 – 1536 ), or possibly to her brother George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford (c. 1503 – 1536). The poetry is found in British Library Additional MS 17492, and while the conjectural attribution lends an interesting dimension to the death by separation of head from body of Henry VIII’s number two wife, the attribution appears to have no supporting evidence.

O Death, rock me asleep,
Bring me to quiet rest,
Let pass my weary guiltless ghost
Out of my careful breast.
Toll on, thou passing bell;
Ring out my doleful knell;
Let thy sound my death tell
Death doth draw nigh;
There is no remedy.

My pains who can express?
Alas, they are so strong;
My dolour will not suffer strength
My life for to prolong.
Toll on, thou passing bell;
Ring out my doleful knell;
Let thy sound my death tell.
Death doth draw nigh;
There is no remedy.

Alone in prison strong
I wait my destiny.
Woe worth this cruel hap that I
Should taste this misery!

Toll on, thou passing bell;
Ring out my doleful knell;
Let thy sound my death tell.
Death doth draw nigh;
There is no remedy.

Farewell, my pleasures past,
Welcome, my present pain!
I feel my torments so increase
That life cannot remain.
Cease now, thou passing bell;
Rung is my doleful knell;
For the sound my death doth tell.
Death doth draw nigh;
There is no remedy.

We created a performing version of the song toward the end of the last century, and augmented the accompaniment as Chappell did, but filled out the sparse lute part by adding notes from the consort song version to create a more contrapuntal realization than that of Chappell. Over a quarter-century, our particular version has been passed around and fallen into the hands of that discourteous brand of unappreciative lutenists who willfully neglect to cite the source of their music, but we will now make our version freely available to any who bother to write and ask via the contact form at the top of this page.

As far as we can tell, no other scholar has mentioned that the tolling knell accompaniment figure of the 16th-century “O Death rocke me asleep” was used by 18th-century composer Marin Marais in his Sonnerie de Ste. Geneviève du Mont-de-Paris from La Gamme et Autres Morceaux de Symphonie, No.3, (1723). Marais picked up precisely where the original song left off, adding instrumental filigree for violin and viola da gamba but creating the same somber effect.

Saturday morning quotes 8.11 Musical Literacy

“I have always belonged to the well-to-do classes, and was born into luxury, so that necessarily I ask much more of the future than many of you do; and the first of all my visions, and that which colours all my others, is of a day when that misunderstanding will no longer be possible; when the words poor and rich, though they will still be found in our dictionaries, will have lost their old meaning.”

– William Morris, “The Society of the Future (1887),” in A. L. Morton, ed., The Political Writings of William Morris, International Publishers, New York, 1979, p. 190–91.

An important aspect of so-called Early Music is that the surviving music found in hand-written manuscripts and from the early printing press is representative of music of the nobility. The cost of paper and books in general was dear, and only the wealthy class possessed libraries and provided private musical instruction for their children. But as we dig deeper into the past, we see a history of noblesse oblige that guided the wealthy in their responsibility for the welfare of the less fortunate, and we see a trajectory of the lower classes having access to education.

“[Prior to the Reformation] Education was generally free, so boys of the poorer classes had an opportunity of specialised training in music…Two principles seem to have actuated the teaching of music in the Grammar Schools; to help diction for the reading of Latin and Greek texts, and to train pupils to sing the musical sections of the Church Services. Apparently music was not taught with a view to fit the pupil with a necessary social accomplishment.”

– David G. T. Harris, “Musical Education in Tudor Times (1485-1603)”, Proceedings of the Musical Association, 65th Sess. (1938 – 1939), pp. 118-121. 

This trend led to the rise of an educated society that promoted literacy for all and, by extension, widespread musical literacy. The innovation of the printing press had everything to do with literacy, and the eventual decline in the cost of paper after 1650 led to an increase in access to printed materials, with the advent of affordable prose novels and almanacs in the 18th century. In Britain, 100 new titles of popular literature per year were printed circa 1750, and the number increased to 600 per year by 1825 with up to 6,000 per year before the end of the 19th century.

“In 1840, two-thirds of all grooms and half of all brides in England and Wales were able to sign their names at marriage; in 1900, 97 percent of each group was able to do so. This increase contrasts with the roughly constant proportion signing at marriage between 1750 and 1840…Surveys of reading habits in the 1840s suggest that in London most working class families possessed books and newspapers, while in rural areas printed matter was largely confined to religious material.”

– David Mitch, “The Spread of Literacy in Nineteenth-Century England,” The Journal of Economic History, Mar., 1983, Vol. 43, No. 1, The Tasks of Economic History (Mar., 1983), p. 287.

In the US, the received notion of the uneducated backwoodsman having no use for books or printed music is shattered by examining the facts. Since the US is primarily populated by immigrants, there has always been a strong tradition of European musical literacy, seen in collections such as the American Vernacular Music Manuscripts, ca. 1730-1910, where we find some 345 manuscript music books including books of fiddle tunes and song collections like The American Harmony, a manuscript music book of untexted psalm and hymn tunes, set in four parts and copied in 1798 by Aaron Cowling, the namesake of my grandfather who was born some eighty years later.

“Where urban life tended to dominate Northern culture, cites in the Upland South were small and relatively few. Southern industries were restricted to processing products drawn from the local countryside. High value was placed on family connections, maintained across generations and geographical distance. The region was populated chiefly by people of English, Scotch-Irish, and German background: people with strong cultural ties before they migrated. Their identity was closely tied to religious affiliation…[L]ong after the music of Billings and Company had all but disappeared from the composers’ native region, it remained alive and well in the South. Moreover, it continued there in a practice of sacred singing that revolved around oblong tunebooks and singing schools teaching the four-syllable New England system of note reading.”

– Richard Crawford, America’s Musical Life, W. W. Norton, New York, 2001, p. 159.

Musical literacy can be considered a given for any educated person up until the 1920s, when a convergence of factors undermined its importance. The post-WWI and post-Spanish influenza economy constituted a “great reset” that employed the entertainment industry to broadcast and instill new attitudes that converted every person from a citizen to a consumer. Moving pictures portrayed an idealized template for the modern lifestyle, and entertainment in the home could now be had with the flick of a switch, and the wireless and the gramophone cancelled the need for widespread musical literacy.

Today, musical literacy is can be described as a class distinction. Public musical education for the many now concentrates on how to use software to create synthesized sounds, and the cost of musical instruments and private tuition is such that only the wealthy can afford to teach their children actual music in the historical tradition. Sadly, the utopian future of William Morris was not founded in reality.

Saturday morning quotes 8.10: Authenticity 2021

Authenticity.  The Early Music community has bandied the term about for several years, with some performers at first claiming that their particular approach faithfully recreated sounds of the past, then later abandoning the term altogether when challenged to present a defensible case.  By now we have all come to realize that most of the early music we hear in concert halls and on mainstream recordings possesses no verisimilitude and has nearly nothing to do with the historical context of a given repertory.  The unvarnished truth is that, without placing the music in its proper context, it represents nothing more than a modern invention.

So what is authenticity as applies to early music?  An informative answer arises from an article by Bernard D. Sherman found in The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, ed. Michael J. Kelly, Oxford University Press, New York, 1998.

“Musical performance before the late eighteenth century typically focused on new compositions, about which posterity was not expected to care…During the nineteenth century, however, public concerts centered increasingly on music by earlier composers. One reason for this trend was the era’s new awareness of history, which helped bring forth the idea of a canon of masterpieces in music, with Beethoven and a few other composers holding classic status. Other crucial developments included: an unprecedented rise in prosperity…, sufficient to support widespread participation in art music; the growing significance of art music for the expanding middle classes; and the fragmentation of the musical public into diverse “taste groups”…, with one group focused on respectful experience of the music of the classic masters. This group eventually, in the later part of the century, defined the culture of classical-music performance.”

Today, the public at large treats music as a consumer good, and “classical” music is a component of a cultural brand.  We are subjected to a constant barrage of sound and imagery and sales talk that has been carefully crafted to tell us what to think about music and, more to the point, what music we should buy that will provide entry to an established elite cultural norm. 

Now more than ever, it is essential to question the motives behind every bit of information that flickers by on our screens, a necessary response that sadly feeds a wary distrust in our institutions, our news media, and our neighbors.  This sorry state of affairs that can only be overcome by the free and cooperative exchange of ideas and experiences, the act of sharing our joy and sorrow—an act that is ultimately diminished and seems less immediate when we are separated by distance and electronic cables and plastic screens.   We can hope to regain our authentic lives someday soon, but the more time that lapses, the more political maneuvering will come into play as the elites think of yet another way to capitalize on crisis.

But back to the point: How do we cut through the fantasy world that has created today’s Early Music, Inc?  How do we cancel out the marketing BS that puts an artificial sheen on our shared musical heritage?  How do we add authenticity to our experience of music of the past that was composed to serve an actual function and elicit an actual emotional response?  And how do we as musicians present music that actually deserves to be called Early Music? The answer: Engage and learn from the past.  Authenticity is not represented by the use of a particular brand of reconstructed instrument, nor is it achieved by holding that instrument in a particular manner seen in one or two paintings from the past.  It turns out that, in virtually any sort of music, authenticity can be measured by whether a performer can elicit an intended response from the listener.

We tend to listen for authentic interpretations from different genres of music.  Below find a few exceptional examples.

Saturday morning quotes 8.9: Teach music

Given that we presently inhabit an age where elected leaders are more prone to exhibit childish behavior than actually lead, it is high time we pause to consider just what sort of example we are setting for the next few generations in all aspects of life. It’s time to reflect how we arrived at such a point in time, ponder possible remedies and put them in place pronto before what remains of the mess of our hard-won civilization dribbles down the bunghole and seeps into the longanimous earth leaving behind nothing more than a malodorous smudge of a stain.

It turns out that the state of music is a good gauge for measuring the health of our society. In past ages when children were educated in the rudiments of music, society was blossoming, and innovative and useful discoveries were seen as a sign of progress. Music is now nothing more than a consumer good that has been ripped asunder from its creators by digital distributors for the sole purpose of maximum profit. The quality of most commonly heard music today is uniformly appalling, and the meaningful puzzle canons of figures like Ockeghem are now supplanted by angry grunting profanities accompanied by throbbing electronic percussion. It’s really no wonder people now tend towards unkindness and suspicion of their neighbors.

How did we arrive at this unfortunate point? The answer lies in the deplorable defunding of music education that has occurred over the past several generations. A particular parsimonious point of view has crept into state legislatures and local school boards, and the misguided message is that society is better served by a system of education that churns out consumers of products rather than creators of ideas and arts. Tech companies are smothering school systems with seemingly generous donations of computing devices for all, but they are creating dependency on these devices rather than advancing creative and critical thinking.

Examining historical approaches to education reveals that attitudes in the 16th century were much more enlightened than today. Sir Thomas Elyot (c. 1490 – 1546) was responsible for educating the children of the notorious Henry VIII, and in The Boke named the Governour (1531), set down an outline for the proper education of a person of noble rank who was destined to rule. Elyot describes how and why it is necessary for a ruler to understand the the concept of harmony as a metaphor for the ideal state:

 “…[H]e shall commend the perfect understanding of music, declaring how necessary it is for the better attaining the knowledge of a public weal, which as I before said, is made of an order of estates and degrees, and by reason thereof containeth in it a perfect harmony: which he shall afterward more perfectly understand, when he shall happen to read the books of Plato and Aristotle of public weals: wherein be written diverse examples of music and geometry. In this form may a wise and circumspect tutor adapt the pleasant science of music to a necessary and laudable purpose.”

– Sir Thomas Elyot

Although many facets of our cultural history bear a distinct class bias, we see that during Tudor times the opportunity for an essential education in music was not confined to the elite class.

“[Prior to the Reformation] Education was generally free, so boys of the poorer classes had an opportunity of specialised training in music…Two principles seem to have actuated the teaching of music in the Grammar Schools; to help diction for the reading of Latin and Greek texts, and to train pupils to sing the musical sections of the Church Services. Apparently music was not taught with a view to fit the pupil with a necessary social accomplishment.”

– David G. T. Harris, “Musical Education in Tudor Times (1485-1603)”, Proceedings of the Musical Association, 65th Sess. (1938 – 1939), pp. 118-121. 

Eliminating funding for education in music and concentrating on coding for and fluency in the use of tech devices is robbing our young people of a life that explores the abstract, the ephemeral, and the practical life skills one gains from an education in music. Dependence on tech devices has unfortunately led us to a drab existence that is defined by manipulative fanatics and identitarian fads that ultimately gain momentum by fomenting division rather than fostering harmony. What we get is now called the “cancel culture”.

“The problem we have online is that an algorithm decides what we want to see, which ends up creating a simplistic, binary view of society…It becomes a case of either you’re with us or against us. And if you’re against us, you deserve to be ‘canceled.’”

“It’s important that we’re exposed to a wide spectrum of opinion, but what we have now is the digital equivalent of the medieval mob roaming the streets looking for someone to burn…So it is scary for anyone who’s a victim of that mob and it fills me with fear about the future.”

Rowan Atkinson

Contrary to marketing philosophy that elevates young people as the bearers of useful information regarding current technology to the disadvantage of the traditional wisdom of the elders—a serious but blatantly calculated public delusion—young people need and respond to benevolent guidance and example. The abysmal level of cultural standards today can be directly linked to our reliance on marketing statistics as a measure of the success of our society. In point of fact, youth culture is for all intents and purposes absent today because young people are crouched over their electronic devices instead of expanding minds and artistic standards by practicing their musical instruments.

“…You can only play Shakespeare when you have reached a certain stage of technical expertise. So often you will see very young actors who look divine. Then they open their little traps. You think, oh dear.”

Barbara Jefford (1930 – 2020)

If we want to improve the world for the present and for our children, we must teach them through example.

Saturday morning quotes 8.8: At Last

Finally, we bid farewell to a year that has been more than problematic for us and others who provide an essential musical antidote to our modern technology-obsessed present. If you have dipped into our blog before, you know that we offer a calm but important reality-check by pointing out that life should be made convenient by technology rather than allowing our lives to be enslaved by technology run amok. We like to remind all and sundry that it is vital for all humanity to retain actual practical skills rather than blithely allowing so many facets of our lives to be rendered insignificant by so-called artificial intelligence.

We like to remind our readers that the music we perform for voice and lute was a staple of domestic entertainment for a few centuries, eventually replaced by the parlor guitar or piano with the format still in vogue as recently as 100 years ago.  The 20th century marked the age when people were effectively re-categorized from the role of citizens to that of consumers, from active creators of art and entertainment to passive shoppers.  The change did not happen by accident, but by deliberate design wrought with intent by the corporate culture and their paid enablers occupying governmental leadership roles. In 1928, then US President Herbert Hoover told a group of advertisers and public relations specialists:

“You have taken over the job of creating desire and have transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines. Machines which have become the key to economic progress.”

Today, we suffer the consequences of a century of relentless corporate control of our lives. We appear to be experiencing a pandemic, but we have neither a trustworthy source of news as to the actual severity of the situation, nor the leadership essential to coordinating an effective response. Let us be blunt: Leadership in the US is ineffective in a time of crisis because leadership is beholden to corporate interests and there is zero accountability to citizens. The only way our leaders are accountable to citizens is through their publicly visible votes on important legislation, and they appear to be expending much more energy on avoiding votes than in acting responsibly in our interest. This is business as usual.

The US, having the dubious distinction of winning the contest of maximum neglect of its population in all categories during a time of crisis, is not the only nation exhibiting completely absurd behavior towards its citizens. The New Year marks the implementation of Brexit in the UK, with the absurd undoing of decades of diplomatic and economic progress, all in the name of corporate convenience. Journalist Nikolaus Blome has written that Britain has been “captured by gambling liars, frivolous clowns and their paid cheerleaders. They have destroyed my Europe, to which the UK belonged as much as France or Germany.”

But all is not doom and gloom. No matter how difficult the circumstances, musicians continue to find ways to make music and touch listeners with deeply felt performances that help take us outside of ourselves, albeit with the aid of technology. An example is an amazing concert of music by two musicians with a high degree of empathy in their performance. Of course, one can always take advantage of technology to dip into wonderful recorded historical examples of music by improvising musicians applying themselves to some of the standard baroque repertory. And we can consciously use technology to offer examples of our alter-ego performing the sort of music that happens at our house from time to time.

We sincerely hope that the year 2021 will mark the return of live music played to live audiences, because we are all in desperate need of it. Happy New Year all, and remember to use technology wisely so it does not use you.

Saturday morning quotes 8.7 Fact v. Fancy

“I am prepared to believe, after sifting through all the available scientific evidence, that (1) oat bran lowers cholesterol and that (2) it does not. Meaning only that when confronted by the conflicting arguments of acknowledged experts, I tend to think both sides may be on to something. In any event, argument is the essence of truth-seeking, whether medical or musical.”

– Donal Henahan (1921 – 2012), Music View; Bach looked ahead, or was it back? New York Times, Jan. 28, 1990.

People have a peculiar way of arranging the facts in such a way as to support whatever idea they might wish to advance. This is particularly true in the world of current political discourse, where inventing facts to establish and control the narrative is the way a certain contingent of octogenarians believe the world actually works. But writers of every sort tend to draw upon favorable fragments of ideas to support a theory, sometimes speculating past the point of reason in order to lend credence to an interpretive point of view.

Take the four-note chords that appear in the Sei Solo a Violino senza Basso accompagnato by J. S. Bach. Having lost touch with playing techniques of just a few generations earlier, musicians and musicologists of the late 19th century decided that Bach must have commonly used a special type of bow that enabled the violinist to sound four-note chords at once, rather than tastefully arpeggiate the notes as we now know was the custom in Bach’s time. The idea for the absurdly arched bow, equipped with a mechanical lever that engaged to slack the bow hair on demand, was first proposed by Arnold Schering (1877 – 1941), musicologist and violinist who studied with the famous 19th-century master, Joseph Joachim. A strong advocate for German nationalist music at an unfortunate moment in history, Schering was an early Bach specialist who had very instructive insights into the disposition of voices in Bach’s choral music. Schering successfully promoted the funny-bow-for-Bach idea to one Albert Schweitzer (1875 – 1965), another noted musicologist enthralled with the music of Bach, but one whose ideals ultimately followed a very different humanitarian path.

“Every one who has heard these sonatas must have realised how sadly his material enjoyment of them falls below his ideal enjoyment…Anyone who has heard the chords of the Chaconne played without any restlessness, and without arpeggios, can no longer doubt that this is the only correct and, from the artistic standpoint, satisfactory way of playing it.”

– Albert Schweitzer, J. S. Bach: Le Musicien-Poète, published in 1905 (English translation by Ernest Newman published in London, 1911).

Schweitzer appreciated the musical result of using the novel bow, but acknowledged that this adaptation actually seriously attenuated the incisive brilliance of sound the violinist was able to achieve through the historically-appropriate arpeggios that Bach intended in the score. Paradoxically, filtered through the unfortunate and distinctly unhistorical mechanical contrivance of the bow, Schweitzer was able to hear Bach’s music more acutely, and made an astute observation when he wrote that it was his wish that “the works for solo violin would disappear from the programmes of the larger concerts, and be restored to the chamber music to which they really belong.”

We have come a long way towards gaining an understanding of the techniques that enable us to play old music in a manner that approximates the sounds that may have been heard in days gone by. But we still have a long way to go in terms of understanding the historical context of the music as it was originally heard; in a chamber for a small gathering rather than on the concert stage. Or perhaps we understand the context but it has not been convenient to play to a more intimately-sized audience because that does not fit the 21st-century concert paradigm.

Musical sound transfers as pressure that activates the human ear but is also felt by the rest of the body when in close proximity to the source. Intricate music was meant to be heard in an intimate space by auditors who are capable of engaging with the music. Technical solutions, like the unhistorical bow, only confound the senses. But the otherwise hairy idea actually did inspire some great music by jazz violin virtuoso, Joe Venuti, who used a standard bow that was taken apart so the slack bow hair would cover all four strings. Venuti would then improvise in four-part harmony (5:45 in the video) in a manner that even Bach may have appreciated.

[E]very musician must constantly measure his instincts against the available fact. This is difficult. Often the musician (like the historian) will find a fact or a body of information which clearly contradicts his assumptions, common sense and musical instincts. This will not be the moment for an impulsive about-turn—something which is difficult enough for the historian but so much more so for the performer. The information must be stored—in the back of the mind, perhaps, or in red letters on some handy cork-board. But it must not be forgotten merely because it is for the moment ignored. That, it seems to me, is where musicology fits into the musician’s life.”

– David Fallows, review of Denis Stevens, Musicology: A Practical Guide, Macdonald, London, 1980, in Early Music, Vol. 9, No. 2, App. 244.

Concert Set: Music for the season

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?