A memory, as Christmas approaches

I was born in Vancouver, B.C., many aeons ago in a former world, and immediately put out for adoption; which happening in due course, I found myself with the man and woman whom I remember as my parents. They had a massive RCA console black-and-white TV with built-in stereo, about four or five feet long, something very much like this: [Read more…]

The Kings of Old

A carol.

The kings of old wore purple and gold
while children in rags knew hunger and pain.
They sacrificed to idols of clay,
their blood and their labour they offered in vain.
A child is laid in a manger,
yet princes bow down and presents they bring:
Now sing, choirs of angels,
proclaim to the world the newborn King!

The kings of old in darkness and cold
abandoned all hope and thought themselves wise.
The children ask, ‘Is there nothing better?
If night is for ever, why do we have eyes?’
But a star shines in the darkness,
and green is the tree that promises spring.
Rejoice, all who sorrow:
a new life begins when Christ is King!

The kings of old, their people they sold,
enslaved them in lies, enchained them in sins,
despair and death in sad iteration—
Each generation ends as it begins.
A way leads out of the prison,
and Heaven’s bright gates are beckoning:
Hear, all ye nations,
and all shall be free in Christ the King!

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’.

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.

The Seventh Day of Christmas: Morgenstern

At Eastertide or thereabouts, I posted a short piece on ‘Easter’ and related names, in which I mentioned (among other fussy and pedantic things) that the morning star is used in Old English poetry as a symbol of John the Baptist, heralding the sun (and Son) to come.

Of course (and this is a thing that some students of mythology can never get through their heads) every metaphor arises by the conscious decision of a human mind, and every decision could have gone some other way – and frequently does. Men change their minds all the time; it is the saving grace of our species, or rather, the principal element we contribute to our ability to be saved by grace. Those who seem to know most about it assure us that angels do not have the power to change their minds. Not having physical bodies, it would seem, they also lack the emotions, the changes of sensation, the circumstances that lead us to favour sometimes one, sometimes another of the alternatives available to us.

Whether there are any angels or not, this is an elegant bit of reasoning: as good a thought-experiment as anything about aliens in the hardest science fiction. In fact there was a good deal of science in some of the best mediaeval fiction. Peter Nicholls, in the Science Fiction Encyclopaedia, looks upon The Divine Comedy and calls a spade a spade: ‘it is sf in the strict sense, albeit the science is medieval.’ But I digress—

We humans, mortal and therefore changeable as we are, have a childlike fantasy and freedom that the angels can never know: we can not only invent metaphors, we can change them if we choose, as often as our clothes. If angels have metaphors, they grow them like limbs or noses and keep them thereafter, I suppose. So the morning star, which in one poetic tradition ‘was’ John the Baptist, in a closely related tradition ‘was’ Our Lord himself: as his earthly life and career was the bright forerunner of a far brighter dawn, the daybreak of the Kingdom of Heaven.

This delightful idea finds expression in the poetry of the early Lutheran pastor, Philipp Nicolai, when he announces the birth of the Christ child in astronomical terms: ‘Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern’ – How lovely shines the morning star. The composers of the day ran with the idea (and the verses), and are running still; the principal Bach did great things with it. But I find myself drawn to the musical setting by Michael Praetorius, which seems to me to express the sentiment of Nicolai’s metaphor with a simple and unencumbered joy. I hope you like it.

The Sixth Day of Christmas: Gaudete!

A lively Latin carol from the 16th century, performed by the Chor Leoni Men’s Choir from my own birthplace, Vancouver, B.C.

The Fifth Day of Christmas: Fum

Today’s carol is brought to you by the magic of the Internet, and I am using the word magic in something very close to its technical sense. As we have seen so far, by providing performers of mediaeval and Renaissance music with a worldwide audience, the Net amply fulfils the old expression, more hopeful than realistic till recently: ‘Everything old is new again.’ But it is equally true to say that everything new is newer than it has ever been.

This performance is a fine example of both trends. ‘Fum fum fum’ is a fine old Catalan Christmas carol; which is to say that it is the fruit of a tradition so old and ramifying that the very myths and legends of Catalonia are bound up with its Catholicism, and even the landscape has been, so to speak, baptized. The outstanding natural landmark of Barcelona is the mountain called Tibidabo – ‘I will give thee’ in Latin – in honour of the belief that it was from this very mountain that Satan tempted Christ by offering him all the kingdoms of the earth. Every patch and corner of Europe has its local saints and its miracle stories, but sp far as I know, only the Catalonians have the cheerful effrontery to make their oldest saint Our Lord himself. It is not good history, perhaps, but it is good art, and it is the very perfection of myth.

In any case, ‘Fum fum fum’ was composed about four hundred years ago, and I am assured, has remained popular in Catalonia and elsewhere ever since. The words have been translated into many tongues, including Spanish, the language of the version below. A little while ago, the choir of Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación in Marbella recorded this lively performance; and the video was posted to YouTube, as I write this, just seven days ago. The video has not ‘gone viral’: it is utterly devoid of the kind of shocking or prurient interest that helps so many YouTube videos do that. But in one little week, it has leapt across the Atlantic to delight an obscure Canadian writer and blogger, and now I am passing it on to you.

Nothing like this could have happened in the days when the distribution of recorded music was in the hands of the record companies. Therefore I find myself giving thanks for the spirit of faith and human ingenuity that makes it possible for people to reach one another so quickly and effortlessly. It is good to remember (as George Orwell said in the 1930s, and someone else will be saying a thousand years hence) that our age has not been altogether a bad one to live in.

Here is ‘Fum fum fum’, as performed at the church of Our Lady of the Incarnation.