Christmas Ancient and Modern

Which of the choral pieces on our programme tonight are medieval and which are modern? 

The poetry of the Middle Ages and of medieval times has been a great influence on modern composers of choral music, particularly, it seems, in Great Britain. Why do these ancient texts draw composers so? Could it be their atmosphere of elevated piety or on the other hand the earthly quality of the minstrel songs? Or is it the colourful flavour that the Middle Ages appear to have in our imagination? Could it be a dearth of “settable” modern poetry? Middle English is not more understandable than the English of modern poetry and many of the musical scores and collections of poetry must include glossary explanations of the words.

This attraction seems strong in the middle of the 20th century and especially so for Christmas music written for a time at which we look back to that Birth and forward to the New Year. Several composers represented on our programme used medieval texts and styles: Benjamin Britten, Peter Warlock, Gustav Holst, John Rutter and Edgar Pettmann. But not only then and there. Timothy Rodgers was born in 1961. Elizabeth Poston is an American and has set an American 18th century text.  Some of the texts are so old that the exact meaning has been lost, as in “A New Year carol”, although over the centuries a kind of intimation of meaning opens up through that magic combination of voice and verse.

Some of the pieces are genuinely old:  Praetorius’ “Psallite unigenito”, for example.  “Hodie Christus Natus Est” is the oldest piece (that we know of) on the programme, the plainsong for Christmas Day vespers, (probably) 13th century; it was used by Benjamin Britten in his 1942 cantata A Ceremony of Carols, which is the version we use here. Some of these ancient texts, for example “Adam lay ybounden”, have been set many times. The ESOC Chorus has sung three of these settings, by Boris Ord, Benjamin Britten and, tonight’s, by Peter Warlock. The 15th century manuscript of the poem, held in the British Library, is believed to have belonged to a wandering minstrel.

“O remember Adam’s fall (O thou man)”, is a kind of pop song of its time.  The words were written by Thomas Ravenscroft, 1592 - 1635, who worked at the Globe Theatre in London.  The music manuscript of 1733 allows us to see into the singing style of the time, shows a strong Puritan influence not least in the way it reminds us that religion, even at Christmas, was a serious subject.  You will be happy to know that we are not singing all of the twenty or so verses.

The ancient text “O Magnum Mysterium”, a responsorial chant for Christmas morning, has also been set many times. Last Christmas the ESOC Chorus sang a 16th century setting by Tomás Luis de Victoria.  This year we are performing the Poulenc setting from 1952, one of the most evocative settings imaginable. The word painting is exquisite.

The Anglo-Welsh composer Peter Warlock, whose real name, under which he wrote music criticism, was Philip Heseltine, was primarily a composer of songs.  His tastes were wide ranging and he also set the poems of W.B. Yeats, Robert Nichols and Bruce Blunt to music. He always chose texts of high artistic value, many of them from the Middle Ages. Warlock suffered from depression most of his short life and it is not known if he committed suicide or if his death from gas poisoning was an accident. 

Gustav Holst, an English composer of Swedish ancestry, has provided a wonderfully atmospheric and dramatic arrangement of a combination of words and tune that is included in almost every English hymnal in use today. The tune is described as an “old French melody”, and the words are from the liturgy of St. James, 4th century, translated from the Greek by Gerald Moultrie in 1864.  This then could be the oldest text on our programme tonight.  

Jeanne Conard and Michael Jones