Archives for January 2014

The twelfth day of Christmas: Adeste

One likes to close on a high note, and since I began this twelve days’ journey in the Baroque period, I shall end there. ‘Adeste fideles’ is one of the most familiar Christmas carols all round the world; I dare say it has been translated into every living language except possibly Pirahã.

I thought of posting one of the performances at the Vatican, either from Christmas Eve, 2011, or from Epiphany a year ago. But while every material resource has been lavished on these – the best choirs, the best orchestras, the best arrangements and conductors – I am sad to say that the results do not justify the means employed. These versions plod. They limp from note to note; the choirs are not tight, the rhythm diffuse and imprecise, with the inevitable result that the words become mushy and indistinct. I had the impression that the singers would have fallen asleep but for the sheer volume of the orchestra. Both those performances were a chore to listen to, and I suspect they were a chore to perform: an old favourite of the masses that must be trotted out for its yearly exhibition, no matter how tired of it the musicians have become.

But even at this late date, it is still possible for a choir to treat the song, not as a staid set piece from an over-familiar repertoire, but as an invitation to make a joyous noise. As an example, I offer this performance by the choir of Hendon St. Mary’s in London, directed by Richard Morrison, with soloist Jo McGahon.

Merry Christmas to all, and a joyous Epiphany tomorrow; and may God’s grace go with you in 2014.

The eleventh day of Christmas: Veni

And now, a 12th-century piece that needs no introduction: ‘Veni, veni, Emmanuel’.

Happy eleventy-twelfth!

As you (of course) recall, Bilbo said his farewell to the Shire at his eleventy-first birthday party. Apparently ‘eleventy-one’ is a perfectly good word in the Shire, which leads one to infer that Hobbits have a mathematical terminology all their own, not necessarily aligned with plain old mundane decimal arithmetic.

In Chapter VII of The Hobbit, when Gandalf was slowly introducing Beorn to the members of Thorin’s Company (a scene sadly omitted from the wretched Peter Jackson films), Beorn offered this parenthetical comment:

‘But look here, Gandalf, even now we have only got yourself and ten dwarves and the hobbit that was lost. That only makes eleven (plus one mislaid) and not fourteen, unless wizards count differently to other people.’

Wizards may count differently to other people, for all I know, but Hobbits definitely do: at least when they are counting birthdays past 109. ‘Eleventy’ is a good word all the same, and deserves to be used more often. Indeed, say I, there ought to be a special dispensation to extend the eleventies beyond the customary ten years of a decade. A man of 121 ought to be proud to announce his age as eleventy-’leven; and today, the third of January, 2014, is, I am honoured to observe, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s eleventy-twelfth birthday.

Beyond eleventy-twelve, I fear, we shall have to let arithmetic take its course. ‘Twelvety’ is an awkward word, and neither ‘twelvety-three’ nor ‘eleventy-thirteen’ quite has the right sound for a number. We therefore stand at the apex and terminus of that whole line of linguistic development. Eleventy-twelve is the top.

So let us pause awhile on this summit, looking far and wide over Middle-earth, and salute the learned author who acquainted us with the first Three Ages of its previously untold history. Mr. J. R. R. Tolkien is a real gentlehobbit, I always have said, whatever you may think of some others of the name, begging your pardon. So here’s to him, in Niggle’s Parish, or the Delectable Mountains, or wherever he may be; and may God rest his soul still, and grant him joy of his journeys!

The tenth day of Christmas: Nowell

Here is another fine old English carol. After the discussion in the combox about the Middle English pronunciation of yesterday’s selection, I should point out that this song is rendered in just about perfect M.E. Perhaps a little too perfect; for the early stages of the Great Vowel Shift were already underway in the 15th century, when this carol was written. At that stage, if the reconstructions are to be trusted, the long vowels were just beginning to be diphthongs, but they were diphthongal versions of the original English vowels, and had not begun their Völkerwanderung all over the phonological map. The effect would have struck our ears as a kind of drawl or twang. At any rate, all such niceties have been left out of this rendition, and the vowels have been told to stay at home as if they were still perfectly content there, and had not embarked on their secret conspiracy to swap places until the whole system of English spelling became a manifest nonsense.

About the carol itself, there is not much to say, except that it is an interesting example of what is called macaronic verse:

Nowell sing we both all and some,
Now Rex pacificus is y-come.

Ex ortum est in love and liss,
now Christ his grace he gan us giss, etc.

Compare the tongue-in-cheek elegy by John Skelton, which ended with the lines:

Sepultus est among the weeds,
God forgive him his misdeeds,
With hey ho, rumbelo,
Per omnia saecula,
Saecula saeculorum.

As this example shows, macaronics were generally employed for comic effect, mixing Latin words and phrases with the vernacular in whatever silly way the metre would allow. Latin–English macaronic verse usually has a doggerel quality, partly because rhymes are so much easier to come by in Latin than in our own language with its ill-assorted collection of stolen words. But in ‘Nowell sing we’, the macaronic is employed with a perfectly serious intent, using bits of Latin that every Englishman of the times would have known from the Mass, and not at the end of the line for easy rhyming, but at the beginning of each verse to introduce a particular topic.

Each verse ends with the line ‘Both all and some’, which seems like an oxymoron, but in fact is probably the shortest possible way of putting the central paradox in the Christian doctrine of salvation. Christ died for us all, so that we might all be saved; but it remains with each one of us to accept or reject that gift, and only some of us, in the end, will do so. The blood of Christ is pro vobis et pro multis effundetur, ‘poured out for you and for many’ – a reminder that the efficacy of the gift is not extended to all, and in particular, not to those who sincerely refuse it. It is, in effect, a gift for ‘both all and some’.

Here, for all and some, is ‘Nowell sing we’.

The Ninth Day of Christmas: Lullay

The English language is haunted by its own ghosts: you see it most in the spelling, which preserves the living speech of half a thousand years ago. One of those ghosts (as Dickens would hasten to assure us) is the Ghost of Christmas Past; for England was once a Christian country. Here is a fourteenth-century English song with a tune as haunting as its language. It reminds me, at any rate, what a strange and eldritch thing Christmas is. In the dead of a winter’s night, Nature holds her breath, and far off through the silence we hear the first faint rumour of an enchantment that will remake the world.

And now, ‘Als I Lay on Yoolis Night’.

The Eighth Day of Christmas: Jubilo

I dare say ‘In dulce jubilo’ is the best-known piece in Michael Praetorius’s oeuvre, at least in the English-speaking countries. After posting a bit of Praetorius yesterday, I went looking for a suitable version of this song as a follow-up. It was, I may say, a frustrating quest, and for a while it seemed that it would be a fruitless one.

For this is a song that has been interpreted to death. There are versions catering to every questionable taste from the soporific to the bombastic. I found an arrangement for a solo voice, but the soprano was drowned out by the brass band that accompanied her. Then there was an arrangement for (I think) fourteen voices, in which every line of the melody is drawn out into an endless hurdy-gurdy of contrapuntal variations before going on to the next, so that you never hear the structure of the tune. One version sported eight violas, none of which, it seemed, had been tuned first; and I may say that while the viola at best is not one of Man’s greatest inventions, an untuned viola is a genuine instrument of torture. The harmonics of those bottom strings, subtly beating against one another, seemed to produce a ninth voice – the buzzing of an infernal bluebottle against the windowpane of Hell.

Fortunately, the ever reliable choir of King’s College, Cambridge, came to my rescue with this superb performance.