Recorded at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA , 1975
Elektra Nonesuch CD 9 71315-2

"...Reverent, Mystenous, and Exuberant..."
Craig Zeichner

JOEL COHEN, director
Tim Aarset, baritone, recorders, shawms
Mark Baker, baritone
Miriam Charney, alto
Joel Cohen, baritone, lute, oud
John Clark, tenor
Alison Fowle, rebec, viola da gamba
Sallie Gordon, soprano
David Griesinger, tenor
Rufus Hallmark, tenor
Adrienne Hartzell, vielle, harp, bells
Peter Hunsberger, baritone
Nancy Joyce, flutes, recorders, shawm
Barbara Lakeburg, soprano
Laurie Monahan, soprano
Deborah Prince, soprano
Charles Rhodes, countertenor
Kenneth Roth, shawm, organetto, recorders
Peggy Wright, alto

Nicholas Linfield, reader

The midwinter date of the festival of Christ's nativity coincides with many pagan celebrations of the winter solstice, and most particularly with the Roman Dies sol invictus ("the day of the unconquered sun"), December 25. Certain pre-Christmas forms and practices survived and intermingled with the Christian holiday, and elements of the Roman Saturnalia, a year-end bacchanal, are still present in our holiday merrymaking at Christmastime. But the specific themes of Annunciation, Advent, and Nativity make Christmas a celebration unique among mankind's other midwinter rites. By the 6th century, most elements of the medieval celebration of Christmas were in place.

As the Dark Ages waned, the relatively more stable living conditions of the 12th and 13th centuries encouraged a tremendous outburst of religious art, poetry, and music, and the musician-artisans of the Middle Ages, like their confreres in the visual arts, devoted much of their craft and creative energy to the elaboration of the Christmas story. But whereas the great monuments of medieval sculpture and design are well-known today, the musical world of the Middle Ages remains distant and mysterious.

The reason for this relative obscurity lies essentially in the difficulties we encounter when attempting to reconstitute the actual sound of a medieval performance, given the very sketchy notational systems then employed and the lack of a continuing oral tradition from those times. The musical shorthand of the Middle Ages functioned adequately as aide-memoire for the performers, but it leaves many of our essential questions unanswered. The plainchant hymni, for instance, is notated, like all Gregorian chant, in a system that indicates pitch but not rhythm. Some scholars have hypothesized a more measured and rhythmic singing style for medieval chant than that proffered in modern times by the Solesmes monks.

The nature of the poetry, and certain later versions of the Conditor melody, in vernacular, also point to the possibility of a regular, rhythmic interpretation. Our choice of a freer, arrhythmic style in this instance is thus only one of several possible hypotheses. A different decision - the use of measured rhythms - seemed appropriate in the purely chant portions of Iudea et Iherusalem, in light of the way the anonymous composer has incorporated chant into his polyphonic setting. Such questions of rhythmic interpretation must be posed afresh with nearly every piece of music from the early Middle Ages, and a modern-day performance will depend on many highly variable and subjective elements, including the nature of the text, the nature of the melody, and the function of the piece (is it a song for a procession?). The recording was released in January 1989, and won the French Grand Prix du Disque just a few weeks after its appearance. International critical response to the recording has been extensive and enthusiastic (see below).

A good proving-ground for this last question is provided by the paired Ave maris stella/O Maria, deu maire. The song 0 Maria is a Provençal version of the Gregorian hymn. Our performance draws on elements present for many centuries in Mediterranean-area music-making: a burden or drone to support the voice, the sounds of shawm, Arabic lute, and tambourine, and a melismatic, improvisatory style of singing. None of these dimensions of performance is suggested in the manuscript source, which indicates only poem and pitches; they reflect our hypothesis about what musical style in medieval Provence may have been like - given that area's affinities in the past with other, neighboring cultures.

In a larger sense, the direction given in any performance of medieval music depends on one's perception of the civilization as a whole - contradictions included. Our frequent use of instruments in this Christmas recording documents one such contradiction. Though the Church fathers persistently forbade the use of most instruments in the services, they re-appear at every generation with astonishing tenacity. The 12th-century tympanum and capitals at Moissac Abbey are covered with musical motifs. Several centuries later, Erasmus wrote this disapproving description of a Christmas feast: "We have introduced an artificial and theatrical music into the church, a bawling and agitation of various voices, such as I believe had never been heard in the theaters of the Greeks and Romans. Horns, trumpets, pipes vie and sound along constantly with the voices. Amorous and lascivious melodies are heard such as elsewhere accompany only the dances of courtesans and clowns. The people run into churches as if they were theaters, for the sake of the sensuous charm of the ear."

Thus any selection of medieval Christmas music must take into account the various manifestations of a tumultuous and complicated age. The monastic ideal of otherworldly contemplation cannot be understood without the raucous tumult of the Feast of Fools; the same manuscript which gives us our Ave Maria, gratia plena preserves the tune and text of Orientis partibus. The celebration of Christmas, in the Middle Ages as today, was as colorful and complex as man himself.

Coming Soon...

A Medieval Christmas, twenty-five years later
An appreciation from Early Music America magazine:

More so than any recording, A Medieval Christmas with The Boston Camerata (Nonesuch 9 71315) introduced me to the pleasures of early music. I remember a Christmas more than 20 years ago when my medieval literature professor suggested I pick up the record; I took his advice, and an obsession was born.. Thanks, Professor Murphy! This recording is simply the best of its kind. Director Joel Cohen's conception of the program is brilliant, using rnusic from varicus cultures, focusing mostly on the 10th to l4th centuries. To give you an idea of the scope of this disc, let's consider the first three tracks. Cohen opens with a Hebrew cantillation of Isaiah's prophecy of the comning of the Messiah, moves on te a 10th-century Spanish setting of a sibylline prophecy, and then takes us to 12th-century Provence witb the conductus Adest sponsus . The braying shawms and chirping recorders heard in this conductus sum up much cf what I love about the music of the season; it is reverent, mystenous, and exuberant-and all this on only the first three tracks! Readings from period literature are interspersed between the musical tracks, which provide a fascinating context for the music. They include a 10th-century Saxon version of the opening of St. John's Gospel, as well as a selection from Chaucer's The Prioresses Tale , containing a famous hymn to the Virgin. Of course, The Boston Camerata excels in this music and is superb whether they are singing the 13th-century organum Judea et Iherusalem , or the rebec, vielle, flute, and bell soloists are playing the gentle 14th-century Joseph, liber nefe min. The performances are always stylish and captivating.... a treasure and essential to your collection.

-- Craig Zeichner