Legends of St. Nicholas

Legends of  St. Nicholas
(Harmonia Mundi Catalog # HMU 907232)

Medieval Chant and Polyphony

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Track List

Hymn: Intonent hodie
Conductus: Exultemus et letemur
Conductus: Gaudens in domino
Reading: Seint Nicholas was borne in the citee of Patras
Responsory: Confessor dei nicholaus
Conductus: Cantu mirro, summa laude
Song: Sainte nicholaes
Reading: Whanne the bisshop of the citee of Myre deied
Conductus: Nicholai presulis
Hymn: Cum quidam fluctuantia
Conductus: Novus presul prodiit
Song: Sainte nicholaes
Reading: All the province of Seint Nicholas suffered gret peyne for hunger
Hymn: Plaudat letitia
Motet: Salve cleri speculum/Salve iubar presulum/[Sospitati]/[Sospitati]
Song: Sainte nicholaes
Reading: A worschipfull man hadde thre doughtres virgines
Conductus: Fulget nicolaus
Responsory: Ex eius tumba/ Prosa: Sospitati dedit egros
Conductus: Gaudens in domino
Reading: And whanne our Lorde lust to take Seint Nicholas oute of this worlde
Motet: Psallat chorus/Eximie pater/[Aptatur]
Conductus: Nicholae presulum
Conductus: Nicholaus pontifex
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Reviews of Legends of St. Nicholas

"If you're feeling jaded at the prospect of the usual holiday fare, Anonymous 4 has a truly sublime musical treat in store with their latest release. The contemporary world has turned Santa Claus into an icon of consumerist mania, but the historical figure from whom he ultimately derives was a  uniquely inspiring religious figure to medieval Europeans. Anonymous 4 has culled together music from the liturgy of the hours and other sources originally produced to celebrate the legendsassociated with the fourth-century St. Nicholas, who was considered the patron of sailors, unmarried women, Russia,  and -- ironically -- merchants. As with their earlier Christmas celebration, On Yoolis Night, the quartet ethereally blends their seamless, unaccompanied vocals in this collection of chants, hymns, and readings recounting the saint's life and miracles on behalf of those in  need. In addition to Latin settings, the program includes one of the oldest known English-language hymns ("Sainte nicholaes," by a contemporary of Hildegard) and a number of verse-refrain pieces  thought to inspire dancing in church. Most of the musical material involves simple unilinear trails of chant, which the ensemble spins out with their trademark unanimous purity of tone. Elsewhere, as in the spiraling eddies of "Novus presul prodiit," their suave harmonies glint like a sudden shaft of light  through stained glass. And it is all captured in a warm, ambient church acoustic that is balm for  modern ears." --Thomas May, Amazon.com 

"For their second Christmas-themed CD, Anonymous 4 offers the  Liturgy of Saint Nicholas. The Office in honor of the 4th-century  Saint was written in the 10th century, and much of the music  written to its texts in the 13th and 14th centuries is included in this modern rendering of the Office. Anonymous 4's version of  the liturgy was assembled by selecting appropriate monophonic  songs and hymns and polyphonic conductus and motets. For the  readings, they set a 15th-century English translation of a 13th-century telling of the Saint Nicholas legends using  contemporary melodic formulae. The results are, as expected,  remarkable. The ensemble's compositional contributions to the  program do not call attention to themselves, even surrounded by  "real" medieval music. The singing is pure in tone and  well-blended, and the acoustic of the Mont La Salle Chapel at  the Christian Brothers Retreat in Napa suits the music well.  Kudos to Anonymous 4 for another fine disc of unusual medieval  repertoire !" -- TowerRecords.com 

"This disc is not just more of the same old Ho, Ho, Ho! The women of Anonymous 4 are not just gifted with beautiful voices, they also have scholarly passions. Their  research into medieval legends about old St. Nick shows that sometimes when he came down the chimney, he beat up bad boys to teach them a lesson. Among the legends on this CD is one about the saint's "loathing" when a poor man prostitutes his daughter, hardly the stuff of your usual Christmas album. Anonymous 4 found  the music in unpublished sources, and their deep understanding of the Middle Ages ensures that the tone and pacing of the works have convincing verve. LEGENDS OF ST. NICHOLAS may be appreciated on many levels: as a charming melodic treat for those who aren't interested in the Latin texts, and as a profound statement about the violence of medieval life and the passion of saints for listeners who probe deeper. Either way, it is a fascinating panoply of sounds by this extraordinarily mellifluous group."  -- Benjamin Ivry, BarnesandNoble.com 

Legends of St. Nicholas Program Notes

Medieval Chant and Polyphony

A medieval legend In the 11th century, the popular new liturgy of St. Nicholas was chanted throughout Europe, but had not yet been instituted at a certain monastery in France. The brotherhood’s elders approached their prior about this, asking that they be allowed to sing the new chants, but he denied their request, saying that it would be wrong to replace the ancient custom with modern inventions. But when the prior lay down on his cot as did the others, lo, the blessed Nicholas appeared visibly before him with a fearful demeanor and upbraided him in the bitterest terms for his obstinacy and pride. Dragging him from bed by the hair, he shoved him to the floor of the dormitory. Beginning the anthem “O pastor æterne,” and with each modulation inflicting most severe blows on the back of the sufferer with the switches which he held in his hand, he taught the wayward prior to sing the whole from beginning to end. At last, restored by divine compassion and the intervention of the blessed Nicholas, headdressed the brothers in congregation: “Observe, my dearest sons, that after I refused to obey you I underwent severe punishment for my hardness of heart. Now do I not only freely accord with your request, but as long as I live I will be the first and most skillful chanter of the historia of that great father.”
-- The Saint Nicholas Liturgy and its Literary Relationships, translated by Charles W. Jones, (University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1963), p. 47?49; reprinted with permission of the Regents of the University of California.

There was indeed a dark side to the legend of Saint Nicholas, and there are many stories of visits to evildoers in which he left them with far more painful reminders of their misdeeds than a stocking full of coal. But it is the kinder, gentler St. Nicholas who has survived and become a modern icon of Christmas charity.

Arriving at the “truth” of St. Nicholas is virtually impossible, since the earliest written accounts date from about 500 years after his lifetime. The story begins with his birth around the year 300 in modern-day Turkey. His noble Christian parents left him an orphan with great wealth, which Nicholas promptly gave away to the poor. He was selected bishop of the seaport town of Myra through divine intervention, and the remainder of his life was a series of courageous, altruistic and miraculous acts performed in defense of his flock, including suffering imprisonment and torture under the emperor Diocletian. After his death (given as 6 December, in various years around 342), his bones exuded a fragrant healing oil, and reports of his miracles steadily increased.

By the mid-seventh century, shrines to St. Nicholas began to appear in western Europe. But it was the forcible removal (or “translation”) of the saint’s remains from Myra to Bari by a group of Italian merchants in 1087 that caused the cult of Nicholas to grow rapidly throughout the west. Because of his reputation as a preserver of ships and sailors, Nicholas was especially honored in seafaring places, such as Holland, Normandy, and the river towns of Germany. After the Reformation in the 16th century, saints were deliberately devalued by Catholics and Protestants alike, and the cult of Nicholas waned. 

Traditions of St. Nicholas Day (6 December) suchas feasting, the giving of gifts and St. Nicholascookies, survived and were brought with 17th-century Dutch settlers to New York City (then New Amsterdam). During the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, New Yorkers of English extraction needed a patron saint to counteract the British St. George. They looked to the St. Nicholas (or Sinter Klaas) traditions of their Dutch antecedents for inspiration and created Santa Claus.

In the ninth and tenth centuries, clericalmusicians in Charlemagne’s Frankish Empire wereenergetically and skillfully enlarging theofficial Roman liturgy with new words and music.One of their favorite vehicles for this was theliturgy of the divine office (the daily round ofchanted prayers and psalms) newly created for aparticular saint and based on a medieval tellingof the saint’s life. One of the most popular ofthese was the tenth-century Liturgy of SaintNicholas, (taught so quickly and effectively bythe saint to the recalcitrant prior) from which we have chosen the responsories “Confessor dei nicholaus” and “Ex eius tumba” from an English antiphoner of the 13th century. Hymns were an important part of the divine office liturgy and were composed in great numbers to “localize” standard services. “Intonent hodie” and “Cum quidam fluctuantia” are contrafacts (new words to existing music) that catalog the well-known miracles of the saint, while the hymn “Plaudat letitia” is an original work of praise. Perhaps it was the beauty and widespread use of this Liturgy, along with hundreds of hymns to St. Nicholas and several music-dramas, that helped keep the amount of medieval polyphony in his honor relatively small. In fact, almost all of it that survives from between 1200 and 1350 is included in this  recording.

Motets of the 13th and 14th century are based on a rhythmically-adapted bit of plainchant over which are stacked newly composed (usually texted) melodies. The brief three-voice motet “Psallat chorus/Eximie pater” blends two texts in honor of St. Nicholas. The expansive, complex English motet “Salve cleri speculum/Salve iubar presulum” uses a double tenor and two texted melodies and is based on the plainchant prosa from the responsory “Ex eius tumba.” In the 13th century, the conductus was considered “para-liturgical,” possibly meant to accompany processions where no liturgical music was prescribed. In the polyphonic conductus, the voices all declaim the same text and move more or less in rhythmic lock-step, a compositional procedure that leaves room for a great variety of styles and sounds. Among the two-voice works, “Exultemus et letemur” is a fanfare-like call to attention, while the very simple two-voice “Gaudens in domino” and the playfully virtuosic “Cantu mirro” could hardly present a greater contrast within the genre. Or consider the range of expression in the trio of three-voice conductus: “Nicholai presulis,” straightforwardly merry, the elegant masterpiece “Fulget nicolaus” and the complexly structured “Novus presul prodiit” (the latter a reconstruction based on the conductus “Novus annus hodie” for the “Feast of Fools” on 1 January). The two pieces that close this recording, “Nicholae presulum” and “Nicholaus pontifex,” are a type of monophonic (single melody) conductus called rondellus, with a simple verse and refrain structure that some scholars have related to dancing in church.

The brief song “Sainte nicholaes” by the Englishmystic Godric of Yorkshire (d. 1170) is one of theoldest in the English language. Godric was a close contemporary of the German mystic Hildegard o fBingen and, like her, was said to have received his songs during his miraculous visions of heavenly beings. Our readings of the life and legends of St. Nicholas are taken from The Gilte Legende, an English translation made in 1438 of the Jacobus of  Voragine’s Golden Legend of the late 13th century. We have set them to music ourselves using melodic formulas found in contemporary Middle English song and chant.

--Susan Hellauer 

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