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MP3 Hesperus & Rosa Lamoreaux - Dancing Day

A delightfully unconventional Christmas album blending Medieval and Renaissance carols and dances with traditional tunes from the British isles on viols, lute, cittern, hammered dulcimer & recorders with the incandescent Rosa Lamoreaux.

17 MP3 Songs in this album (67:30) !
Related styles: Holiday: Folk, Classical: Early Music, Mood: Christmas

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Performers include:
Scott Reiss, recorders, whistles, hammered dulcimer, Arabic percussion, medieval bells
Tina Chancey, treble and bass viols, rebec, vielle, lyra, kamenj, fiddle, recorder, percusssion
Mark Cudek, cittern, lute
Jane Hershey, tenor and bass viols, recorder, percussion
Josh Lee, viol, percussion
Dan Rippe, viol, percussion

This recording is a collection of some of our favorite medieval, Renaissance and traditional Christmas music spanning about five hundred years. Much of it originates in the British Isles, although we do include music from Italy, France, Spain and Germany. They demonstrate a great variety of musical styles, learned and rustic, complex and engagingly simple, yet most of these pieces share a common theme; they tell some part of the Christmas story in a very personal way.
Many of the pieces we’ve gathered are slow and serious but others are lively and rollicking. This juxtaposition of religion and frivolity may appear unseemly, but it got its start in the Middle Ages. As late as the 14th century, the Church was still trying to eradicate native paganism, especially among the common people. Some traditions, such as the hanging of mistletoe and ivy, were simply absorbed into Christianity. To reach the largely illiterate masses, though, the Church used pomp and spectacle, drama and pageantry. The first medieval Christmas carols originate here.

The word ‘carol’ has a dancing origin; it may go back to the Greek ‘choros’ which was originally a circle dance, and many of the early carols were danced as well as sung. However, by the fourth century the word ‘carol’ was no longer mentioned. It didn’t appear again until the close of a long puritan era, which lasted through the Dark Ages and far into the 14th century. By that time the dawning of the modern spirit of humanism transformed the ‘lascivious’ carol into something honest and respectable. More religious music appeared in the vernacular, paralleling and spurred by the growth of miracle and mystery plays.

We have titled our recording “Dancing day” after the carol “Tomorrow shall be my Dancing Day.” Reminiscent of the many fifteenth-century ‘cradle prophecy’ carols in which the infant Christ foretells his future to his mother, the song’s comparison of His life to a dance makes it unique among traditional carols. The clue to the origin of this image is in the line “To see the legend of my play” which implies that the carol was sung during one of the three-day cycles of morality plays so popular in 16th century Cornwall. Each play dealt with a different subject matter; a common trilogy was Creation, Crucifixion and Resurrection, with each night’s entertainment ending in piping and general dancing. [”Lord of the dance,” a contemporary tune set to the Shaker tune “Simple Gifts,” echoes the earlier tune’s dance imagery.]

Many call ‘Angelus ad Virginum’ one of the first medieval carols. It is an Advent story, the one piece of music that has a direct association with Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The young scholar in the “Miller’s Tale” sings it to the accompaniment of a psaltery in order to charm his lady visitors. We perform the piece as an unmeasured chant and in a joyful polyphonic version. Other carols in our repertory include the 15th century “Nowell, this is the salutation” and “Syng we to thys mery companie” which certainly betray their terpsichorean roots. You’ll notice some spirited, irregular phrasing in the first, and a playful scattering of Latin in the early English text of the second (these mixed-language texts were called ‘macaronic’). We also include a touching dialogue between the infant Jesus and his mother, “Ah my dear Son.”

Related to the carol in their bouncing rhythm and catchy melodies, ‘Cristo e Nato’ and ‘Salutiam’ are laude, popular, folk-like songs that may have been used in street processions. Laude were sung by wandering groups of penitents who sought to atone for the sins of the world by flagellating themselves as they sang. We believe they put down their whips for Christmas, however.

Most of the plain chant we hear today is the standardized version created by Pope Gregory in the 8th century. Although Gregorian chant is not always sung in Latin in contemporary Catholic services the original melodies are still used occasionaly and many have been adapted into hymns in the regular Catholic liturgy. On this recording, however, we present a variety of monophonic or single-line chant; ‘Letabundus” from the Sarum ritual created by St. Ambrose, the great bishop of Milan who played an important part in St. Augustine’s conversion; and the joyful “Dies est laticiae,” one of the most popular of all Christmastide songs in German-speaking countries (praised by Luther in his sermons, who called it “a work of the Holy Spirit.”) Another German song we play in both chant and polyphonic versions is the spunky “Verbum Patris umanatur” with its nonsense refrain.

Two sublime examples of the power of a monophonic melody have more complex forms than the simple verse-chorus alternation of Verbum and Dies. “In sapiencia” is a prosa; a long piece with each musical phrase repeated with new, rhyming text. It can be found in a manuscript preserved at the Castilian monastery of Las Huelgas dating from the 14th century. “ Natus est Rex” is an 11th century ‘vers’, a non-liturgical religious song from a manuscript in the great library of the Abbey of St. Martial in Limoges, south-central France. It may have been sung by monks as recreation or as an addition to liturgical services. The text presents an ecstatic, rhapsodic interpretation of the birth of Christ.

We balance and set off our medieval repertoire with a number of traditional English tunes, many of which have their roots in the 17th century. One tune extremely popular today, “Lute Book Lullaby,” also known as “Sweet was the song the Virgin sung,” is performed here as a consort song. This was a favorite Elizabethan and Jacobean scoring for one or more voices and a consort of viols, something like our modern string quartet. The viola da gamba (leg viol) was a cousin of the violin, or viola da braccio (arm viol), family. Viols came in different sizes from treble, to violone (the size of a double bass.) In Renaissance Europe, the violin was a dance band instrument played by professionals who made their living by it; cultivated amateurs played the viol or lute.

Another tune that has worked its way into our favorites list is the melancholy, modal “A Virgin most Pure” with its ironic chorus “Then let us be merry, set sorrow away.” A third, “To drive the cold winter away,” was originally a ‘broadside ballad’ or a newly composed poem created to be set to an existing popular or ‘common’ tune. A common tune is one that many people in a society know by ear. For example, today our personal collections of common tunes may include a melange of advertising jingles, children’s songs, carols, musicals, and movie themes. Common tunes in 17th century England might feature Scots and Irish ballads, hymns, drinking songs, arias from operas and plays, and country dancing tunes.

“The olde year now” began as a broadside ballad as well, set to the tune of ³Greensleeves²,’ which is also one of our modern common tunes. However “Greensleeves² is really just one of many melodies that developed over a repeating Italian dance bass pattern that came to England after 1550 (too late to support the popular belief that Henry VIII composed the tune.) As with many other popular tunes of the period, by the end of the 17th century “Greensleeves² had lost its bass and developed melodic variants at odds with the original harmony. It appears in manuscript in both duple and triple versions and we mix and match them here. “From Heaven on High², another 17th century piece, is a Scots ballad that ends with a reference to the tune “Balulalow,” itself a translation of the Christmas Eve Carol Martin Luther wrote for his son Hans, ‘Vom Himmel Hoch.’

Our recording also features some tunes whose origins are difficult to pinpoint; they were passed down from parent to child, often for centuries before they were written down. The ‘Seven Joys of Mary’ began as one of the innumerable and interconnected ‘devotions’ to the Virgin Mary that proliferated in the medieval church. It grew from the same roots as the Rosary which consists of three groups of five ³’Mysteries.” The numeral “5” remained the standard number of Joys in Britain until the fifteenth century, though other numbers became important: 7 Words from the Cross, 7 Cardinal Virtues and 7 Deadly Sins, 15 decades of the Rosary, 10 commandments, 12 Apostles, and so on. This delight in numbers extends into the secular realm. From “100 bottles of Beer” to “Green grow the rushes-O” to “The 12 Days of Christmas”, there has always been a simple pleasure in counting and enumeration rituals. This song was popular with those of the poor who sang carols for money; young girls or women calling at houses with a ‘wassail,’ box going ‘a-Thomasing’ on St. Thomas’s Day, December 21.

‘A Wassail’ is a 20th century wassail song learned through the oral tradition. According to the New Oxford Book of Carols it was transcribed from the singing of ‘grand old Phil Tanner, before he died in a Gower (Wales) workhouse in 1947.’ The words of the refrain are a homegrown equivalent of ‘Fa-la-la.’ The ‘Wexford Carol’ has also been collected on tape and transcribed; sung around 1912 by a Fr. Patrick Cummins who learned the song from his grandmother.

Tina Chancey (Thanks to Oxford Book of Carols, New Oxford Bood of Carols and Robert Eisenstein)

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