The Cherry Tree

The Cherry Tree

Songs, Carols & Ballads for Christmas

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Track List

Prophetarum presignata
Nowel syng we bothe al and som
Alma redemptoris mater
The Shepherd's Star
Newell - Tydings trew
Mervele noght Iosep
Synge we to this mery cumpane
Qui creavit celum
A Virdin Unspotted
Now may we syngyn
Lullay my child - This ender nithgt
Star in the East
Veni redemptor gencium
The Cherry Tree Carol
Salve mater misericodie
Hail mary ful of grace
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Reviews of The Cherry Tree

Artistic Quality 10/10 Sound Quality

As fans of Anonymous 4's first 18 or so recordings you may remember this legendary group's first attempt at retirement from the studio--2003's phenomenal best-seller American Angels; or, was it 2005's The Origin of Fire, or the American Angels 2006 followup, Gloryland? However, it seems that, like a certain NFL quarterback who keeps returning to do what he knows and loves, to ever more acclaim, this very successful quartet has returned once more--and plans for future releases are in progress. In the music world, retirement can be a very good thing, especially when you've really nothing more to say, or when your skills and technique are failing. But this never was the case with Anonymous 4, and evidence of continued recording projects and concert performances is most welcome: the world absolutely needs music like this--of such purity and grace and beauty, supplanting the seedless hull of popular fashion with a sustainable harvest of spiritual sustenance and sheer musical pleasure. No one will ever deplore Anonymous 4 for its excess!

And although the mere idea of Christmas as a religious holiday celebration is fast disappearing from mainstream consciousness, these carols and songs preserve and continue to enliven a rich and meaningful tradition. And even if you're not a particularly religious person you can revel in these carols' possible origins in the songs of ancient and very secular feasts and festivals. Regardless, music that's been around for hundreds of years and still touches people needs no publicity machine, no slick marketing campaign, no media blitz to artificially certify its value. Like all of Anonymous 4's repertoire, this is music that celebrates its elemental form, and as such is more affecting and memorable than anything concocted by today's formulaic songwriters and highest-tech production studios. (Let's see how many people are performing Lady Gaga in 500 years.)

So, is there a review somewhere in here? Anonymous 4 fans already will be looking for the first opportunity to buy this new release--it combines the group's signature early chant and polyphony, this time mostly from 14th- and 15th-century English sources, with several selections representing English imports to the New World, including the title Cherry Tree Carol (Kentucky, 1917), The Shepherd's Star (from Southern Harmony, 1835), and William Billings' four-part fuging tune Bethlehem.

You can hardly believe the purity and clarity of the voices--and I know I've said this with every new Anonymous 4 disc release--which are recorded so intimately that if there were a flaw anywhere you'd notice. But you don't. No wonder these singers regularly are compared to angels and similarly otherworldly beings.

Highlights include any of the polyphonic pieces, but particularly the 15th-century English carols Veni redemptor gencium and Alma redemptoris mater, the latter reminiscent of the well-known carol There is no rose of such virtue (not included on this program). Fans of early American tunes will appreciate the folk hymn entries from the 19th century, rendered by these very accomplished singers in a style appropriate to time and place, but with restrained use of vocal slides and syllabic inflection that makes you want to come back rather than retreat, a performing philosophy similar to the group's tasteful and respectful interpretive style on American Angels and Gloryland. The sound, from an appropriately "otherworldly" venue, Lucasfilm's Skywalker Sound, and from the more earthly Sauder Concert Hall at Goshen College, Indiana, is as extraordinary as the singing, which--and I don't hesitate to say it again--is possessed of superhuman clarity and faultless intonation. Don't argue with this; just buy it.

--David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com

The nearly inexhaustible supply of medieval and Renaissance music for the Christmas season has happily provided Anonymous 4 with material for yet another holiday album. The Cherry Tree: Songs, Carols & Ballads for Christmas draws on English and Irish sources as well as several from the New World: William Billings, Southern Harmony (1835), and a 15th century English ballad carol in a version collected in Kentucky in 1917. The American selections are especially fascinating, ranging from the exceptionally sweet folk hymns from Southern Harmony to the intricate counterpoint of Billings' late 18th century fuguing tune, Bethlehem, probably the most advanced music written by a North American up to that time. The singers invest the pieces with a distinctively American folk sound without resorting to twangy clichés, often in startling contrast with the straight, pure tone used in the English repertoire. That is hardly a surprise given the group's history and demonstrated skill in adapting to a broad variety of national and regional styles of vocal production. What is unchanging in their work is the life and spirit that the singers breathe into this music; there is nothing academic sounding about their scrupulous attention to the subtleties of the various vocal styles they bring to these wonderfully attractive pieces. The sound of Harmonia Mundi's hybrid SACD is characteristically clean and warm, with a natural, intimate ambience. The CD should interest any fans of the group, anyone looking for appealing new Christmas music, and anyone who loves top-notch a cappella vocal ensembles.

- Stephen Eddins, www.allmusic.com     

There are dozens of Christmas albums with the 15th-century carol “The Cherry Tree” included in it but here is one with a real difference. A CD released by the harmonia mundi label with Anonymous 4 brings that carol and 16 other English and Irish songs, carols and ballads in an album that presents the artists and the material with an extraordinary freshness that creates an odd combination of quaint Christmas with modern sensibilities.
The artists are Anonymous 4, four ladies who for the past 25 years have been singing mostly medieval tunes with their distinctive vocal clarity. But here they turn away the ballads and songs of the 12th and 13th-century and move into the first “modern” carols used during the period to celebrate special heroes and events of the Christian church. It is here that the verse, chorus, and repeat musical form became central to folk music. This compilation of material, though, celebrates Christmas.

Who better to bring these Christmas songs to us than Anonymous 4. Consisting of Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek (not all four are original members) this group has traveled the country with their brilliant voices, matching perfectly and providing polished performances. They have thrilled crowds with their singing year after year. Previous albums for their record label have sold close to two million copies with one CD, “American Angels”, topping the classical chart for 76 weeks.                                                                                                                                                                                  
The program on the CD smoothly moves from old English ballads to some 18th to 20th-century American versions—to assure us that these antique carols came to us through the English tradition and remained very close to the original. The title song, “The Cherry Tree” is offered in this CD in a solo by Marsha Genesky using a 1917 Kentucky version.                                                          
The packaging of the CD is colorful, presumably to add to the Christmas spirit. It works well. Notes on the history of each carol by members of Anonymous 4 are clear and lively. Since many of the songs are sung in old English, the printed lyrics provided in both old and modern language is not only useful, but pretty much required to follow the folk stories.        

Technical data on the album is also intriguing. Recordings were made at Skywalker Sound in Marin County, Ca. and Sauder Concert Hall at Goshen College, Indiana. A list from academe are acknowledged and source material is outlined in a full page. The recording is presented in Super Audio CD format giving the singers additional roundness of tone.                                                        

“The Cherry Tree” with Anonymous 4 is available both on line and in stores for about $17.00.

By Bill Peters - PetersMusicNews.com


10 Oct 2010

The Cherry Tree Program Notes

Songs, Carols & Ballads for Christmas

Notes on the program

In the much-beloved miracle ballad, The Cherry Tree Carol, Joseph doubts the divine origin of Mary’s pregnancy; but to his astonishment, and to his shame, Jesus speaks from within Mary’s womb, causing a cherry tree to bend its branches and offer his mother its fruit. This ballad originates in medieval England; we know that it was spoken or sung during the Coventry Plays for the Feast of Corpus Christi, around 1400. The Cherry Tree Carol was passed on from singer to singer in the British Isles for hundreds of years, and eventually established roots in America, as well. The cherry tree story also made its way into medieval British carols of the mid-fifteenth century. On this recording, The Cherry Tree, we sing an American version of The Cherry Tree Carol, some of its medieval carol ancestors, and other medieval British carols and British-rooted American tunes.

Early in the thirteenth century, Franciscan missionaries traveled to the British Isles, preaching a return to a simple, selfless form of Christianity. As in Italy, where Franciscans composed or inspired the composition of numerous laude spirituali (sacred refrain songs in Italian, based on popular models), Franciscans in Britain set in motion a wave of religious poetry and song in English, the language of the common people.

The medieval English carol is a product of this same vernacular-religious song tradition. We now associate the word carol with Christmas, but this was not the rule in the fifteenth century, when carols were written to celebrate other feasts, saints and occasions, or to teach a moral lesson. The origin of the medieval British carol has been the subject of musicological debate in the twentieth century: were these carols composed to accompany liturgical processions, or were they church-sanctioned alternatives to rude and rowdy dance songs with pagan roots? If it was the latter case, it stands to reason that many of these songs would be appropriate to the Christmas season, which was, since ancient and pagan times, an season of riotous festivity and unruly celebration.

Fifteenth-century carols have an opening and recurring burden (refrain), to be sung by the chorus, and, for the soloist(s), a number of stanzas, the latter word derived from the Latin stans (standing). In fact, scholars see the folk origins of the carol’s burden-stanza alternation in the ‘Obby ‘Oss Day (May Day) celebration in Padstow, Cornwall, where the mass procession, or line dance, halts (stands) for the soloist’s singing of the stanzas of the traditional song, and moves forward while the refrain (burden) is sung by everyone.

All of our carols have this structure, but several of them also have a pre-burden to cue the chorus that “the burden is coming, get ready to sing!”  Most of the polyphonic carols are celebratory in nature; we find their verses switched around or omitted in various sources, with no real alteration to their message. But some are narrative in nature, like Mervele noght iosep which tells a version of the cherry tree story.

Although they share the same formal structure, all of these carols display great variety in musical texture and style. Most, like Nowell synge we, Alma redemptoris mater, and Now may we syngen, are simple, straightforward, and sonorous, with rich triadic English harmonies. Others, such as Mervele noght iosep and Veni redemptor gencium, exhibit the intricate polyphonic writing characteristic of fifteenth-century art songs. We have occasionally created fa-burden, filling in duets with a middle line that creates the triadic harmonies typical of the time. This is the sound of the so-called contenance angloise popularized on the European continent in the mid-fifteenth century, and heard in the works of Guillaume Dufay and his contemporaries.

Our program also includes the fifteenth-century, monophonic ballad carols Newell: Tydings trew, and Lullay my child: This ender nithgt. The second of these is a musical reconstruction from the surviving refrain music and full text. Rather than compose a new tune for the verse, we’ve made a variant of the refrain tune to set the entire story, thus creating a ballad out of this fragment. Typical of many medieval Nativity poems, it makes reference to Jesus’ later suffering and death, thus putting Jesus’ birth into the context of the salvation story.

Qui creavit celum is the well-known Carol of the Nuns of Chester. While not technically a carol in the “burden-stanza” sense, it has lullaby refrains such as are often found in fifteenth-century carols. The anonymous Irish sequences, Prophetarum presignata and Salve mater misericordie are taken from the Dublin Troper, a late fourteenth-century Irish manuscript compilation of (mainly) tropes, proses and sequences. Usually sung after the Alleluia of the Mass, sequences are composed in double-versicle, or couplet, fashion.
                                        Susan Hellauer

Anglo-American sacred and secular music was first carried to the New World in the memories of the earliest American colonists. This is true of The Cherry Tree Carol, which dates at least as far back as the fifteen century, but is still widely sung in both the British Isles and America. Our version of The Cherry Tree Carol comes from the Appalachian Mountains in Kentucky.

A Virgin Unspotted was imported to America in the second quarter of the 18th century as part of a movement to “improve singing” in the Colonies. William Knapp’s four-part setting of the anonymous 17th-century English text was published in London in 1743, and first appeared in an American publication just before the American Revolution. We sing a simple three-part version of A Virgin Unspotted, with a new harmonization of Knapp’s tune, from the American tunebook Wyeth’s Repository of Music, Part Second (1813).

For his Bethlehem, the 18th-century New England tunesmith William Billings set a popular British psalm text in the form of a joyous, four-part, imitative fuging tune. The tunes of The Shepherd’s Star and Star in the East, both using the same text by the English clergyman and hymnodist, Reginald Heber, were either adapted from oral tradition or newly composed, and arranged in spare, archaic sounding three-part settings typical of their time, yet vaguely reminiscent of medieval harmony. Each of these anonymously-composed or arranged folk hymns made its first appearance in print in the mid-1820s. We sing them as they appear in the famous 19th-century Southern tunebook, The Southern Harmony (1835). 

                                        Marsha Genensky

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The Cherry Tree Four Centuries of Chant Gloryland Noel The Origin of Fire American Angels
Wolcum Yule Darkness into Light la bele marie The Second Circle 1000: A Mass for the End of Time Legends of St. Nicholas
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