|Program Notes on:
On Yoolis Night
Medieval Carols and Motets
During the high Middle Ages, Christian Europe was swept up in a wave
of passionate adoration of the virgin Mary. If we may judge by surviving
sources of sacred music and poetry, nowhere was her cult stronger than
in the British Isles, where Ladymasses and other special votive services
were said and sung daily in churches large and small. The English
adored the "spotless rose," virgin both before and after bearing Jesus;
and the central event in her life, the Nativity, fascinated them almost
as much as did Mary herself. The topics of the incarnation, the virgin
birth, and Jesus’ humble origins occur so often in medieval English song
and poetry that it sometimes seems as if it were the English who gave form
and substance to the celebration of Christmas.
We have chosen a programme of plainchant, songs, motets, and carols
for Christmas from English sources of the 13th through 15th centuries.
These works illuminate all of the aspects of the Christmas story and its
many kindred legends: biblical precursors, Balaam’s prophecy, Gabriel’s
greeting, Mary’s virginity, the birth of Jesus, the rising of the star,
the angels and the shepherds, the manger and its animals, the three Magi
and their gifts. And these works express a range of responses to these
marvels: mirth and joy, wonder and praise, and even theological exegesis.
But the thread that ties this music together is a striving toward something
out of the ordinary, a special sound or gesture, reserved for this most
All of the plainchant on this recording is taken from a 13th-century
antiphoner from Worcester. These hymns, antiphons, and the responsory Tria
sunt munera were sung in the daily devotions of the divine Office during
the Christmas season, from Advent (four weeks before Christmas) through
the Epiphany (January 6). The striking, fanfare-like opening of the hymn
Vox clara, ecce, intonat is perfectly attuned to its Advent theme, recalling
John the Baptist’s proclamation that he was "a voice crying in the wilderness."
In the ancient Christmas hymn A solis ortus cardine, with its hauntingly
curved melody line, each verse begins with a successive letter of the alphabet,
and proceeds through the events in Jesus’ life. We sing the Christmas portion,
from A through G.
While selecting a group of 13th- and 14th-century polyphonic works on
Christmas themes, it became apparent to us that some special technique
had been used in each piece, as if to set it apart somehow from its fellows.
In excelsis gloria and De supernis sedibus are both conductus, in which
all parts are newly composed and a single text declaimed. But they are
also fine examples of rondellus, a procedure in which the different voice
parts interchange melodic fragments, creating a hypnotic, imitative texture,
here carried to exquisitely dizzying lengths.
The medieval English motet, based on a pre-existing foundation or tenor
part, usually declaims multiple texts simultaneously. The motet Orto sole
serene / Origo viri / Virga Iesse / [Tenor] is quite lavishly verbal, touching
on almost every biblical image and reference to Jesus’ birth, and offering
a generous amount of commentary as well. The two motets Balaam de
quo vaticinans / Ballam and Alleluya: Christo iubilemus are unusual in
that jolly rondellus sections are superimposed on the basic motet
structure. The special genius of the pes motets Puellare gremium / Purissima
mater / [pes] and Prolis eterne genitor / Psallat mater gracie / [pes]
(built on a brief recurring melodic fragment called a pes, or foot) lies
in the way their simple, repetitive tenors are artfully obscured and reinterpreted
with subtly shifting harmonies and melodic phrasings. It seems fitting
that both motets praise Mary, a woman whose humble simplicity was to be
so greatly elevated and adorned.
The two works we call songs have strong popular connections and were
apparently widely known. In "The Miller’s Tale" from the 14th-century Canterbury
Tales, Chaucer describes Nicolas, Clerk of Oxenford, as a fine musician,
sweetly playing Angelus ad virginem on his psaltery. Gabriel, fram heven-king
is an English-language version of this 13th-century work. The poem Peperit
virgo, from the 14th-century Red Book of Ossory, is meant to be sung to
the tune of the secular songs Mayde in the moore lay and Brid one breere.
No doubt realizing that these elegant love songs would not be repressed,
and wishing to turn the minds of his musical monks toward more spiritual
thoughts, the Irish Franciscan abbot Richard de Ledrede composed a new
Nativity text in gentle praise of Mary.
Though they all follow a basic structure of burden (refrain) alternating
with a number of verses, the seven carols included here are as varied and
individual in expression as are the chant and polyphony. Lullay, lullay;
Als I lay on Yolis night is a ballad-like lullaby carol of the 14th century.
Dating from the early 15th century, the other carols vary between two-
and three-voice texture. The two-voice sections of these pieces sometimes
lend themselves to fauxbourdon, an improvisatory technique in which a third
harmonizing voice is added between two written outer voices, creating a
rich triadic harmony, much like the chordal progressions of "English discant"
heard in Puellare gremium / Purissima mater / [pes] and many other works
of its time. We have used fauxbourdon in the carols Ther is no rose of
swych vertu, Ave Maria, Nowell; Owt of your slep and Ecce quod natura.
This last carol survives in multiple versions; our performance of it combines
two of these, one quite simple, and one more elaborate.
The music in this program spans a thousand years, from the 5th-century
hymn A solis ortus cardine to the polyphonic carols of the 15th century.
The styles and textures vary greatly; the texts speak with many voices.
But despite all the technical diversity, we sense a common purpose in these
works. As if in response to the quiet force of a supernatural moment, when
the paths of humanity and divinity meet, the anonymous composers marked
each piece with some special characteristic, making each a universe in
itself, and making each a unique artistic response to the Christmas story.