The Second Day of Christmas: Personent hodie

I have a particular liking for some of the very old Christmas carols, the ones that can trace their pedigree back to the Middle Ages and are still commonly sung in Latin. ‘Personent hodie’ is a hardy perennial in this line. First sung as a monophonic chant about 1360 in Bavaria, it was published in 1582 in the Finnish songbook Piae Cantiones, and the Germans and Finns have been arguing about it ever since. In recent years, however, it has been a staple of choirs the world over: YouTube alone has versions recorded everywhere from Trois-Rivières to Singapore. It is often performed in Gustav Holst’s arrangement for organ, or Lara Hoggard’s arrangement for brass, but the melody lends itself to a seemingly inexhaustible range of interpretations.

Here, for instance, is a version that starts out faithfully in the Middle Ages, but breaks loose into a fusion of traditional and modern arrangements; for a brief spell it becomes terribly Irish, but pulls itself back together in time for what, to me, is a strikingly satisfying conclusion. I hope you’ll like it.

This is ‘Personent hodie’, as performed by Serpentyne:

Comments

  1. Merry 2nd day of Christmas!

  2. Thanks, that was very beautiful. I’m not sure it became “terribly Irish” in the middle (the rhythm, instrumentation, and key didn’t change), but on the other hand, it wouldn’t surprise me if the idea of putting a long instrumental break in the middle of songs is a modern invention.

  3. Sherwood says:

    Oh, that is a very fine version of that piece, which is one of my favorites.

  4. Thanks so much! That’s a talented group there and a lovely recording. I agree with Nancy that it didn’t sound terribly Irish. Mostly I think it’s because modern Irish music retains many medieval sorts of affectations and if I’m not mistaken, among other authentic-ish period instruments, they are using uilleann pipes, otherwise known as Irish bagpipes.

    • It wasn’t so much the uilleann pipes as the drumming that reminded me of modern Irish music. Mediaeval bands weren’t big on drumming; it’s no easy task for a small acoustic ensemble to play loud enough to be heard over a drum kit, and before the invention of electric amplifiers, they mostly didn’t try to. I can’t help thinking of the Gawain-poet in the 14th c., contrasting the ‘nwe nakryn noyse’, the newfangled noise of the kettledrums, with ‘þe noble pipes’. There are no kettledrums in Serpentyne’s arrangement, but the drummer makes ‘nwe noyse’ enough when he comes in.

      • I don’t disagree that there are modern influences. I’m pretty sure there is an electric bass in there. The drumming for the most part sounded fairly period tho, the way they would use it to accent the beginnings of lines and such. But the arrangement is where I think it sounds most modern, the dramatic pauses, the change-ups, and the layering. I don’t think it’s worse for it, necessarily.

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