Yes it is that time of year again, as we all know. Unless you have been hiding away in deepest Siberia or off world in some unknown corner of a forgotten galaxy then we all know it is… CHRISTMAS!!!!
With all its trappings and time honoured “Bah Humbugs!” we do very often lose track of the true meaning of Christmas and the Yuletide period in general. Even a hundred years ago this was not so and music particularly, as now, played an important part in everyone’s festivities. Getting away from the usual appalling Christmas fare and the usual unfortunately out of tune carols that smack of cringe worthy Victorianisms there is a wealth of wonderful music that stretches back through the Baroque, the Renaissance and into the exquisite world of the Medieval periods and even further if we look towards the Middle East and the Byzantine Empire.
For me, gone is the excitement of hearing Carols from King’s College on Christmas morning as a child or going to the carol service at the local church in the nearby village. The thought of hearing for yet another year endless repeats of “I wish it could be Christmas every day” has lost its appeal and so I turn to my own collection and find some lost gems of the medieval world or listen to Corelli’s Christmas Concerto for light relief from such ignominious tortures that we are bombarded with. So what works would be worth searching out this Christmas time? Well here are just a couple of albums that I go back to time and time again.
There is one album I always bring out for my own enjoyment and that is the recording entitled: “Christmas Music from Medieval and Renaissance Europe” and performed by Harry Christophers and the Sixteen.
This stunning album first came out in the 1980’s on record (LP) to those of us that remember such things. It contained some of the most amazing versions and singing of music that was, up to the 1980’s, virtually forgotten.
No.1 on my list of Christmas alternatives from this recording is the superlative “Gaudette”. The composers name is now lost but the excitement of the piece is undeniable. It was given a very good version by the marvellous English folk group Steeleye Span back in the 1970’s but if you search out this version you are getting the genuine item. It is a call and response piece that you can’t help but be swept along with and end up tapping the old tootsies to, as well as trying to sing along with at the same time in something approaching Latin.
Another beautiful piece from this album is the “Coventry Carol”. So well known and yet so unknown at the same time. It has an unusual, and that is by any era’s standards, key shift in the melodic line that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up; also the calm of the harmony lulls you to rest in a way few pieces can.
There is also to found on this amazing record “The Boar’s Head Carol” which harks back to pre-Christian days with its imagery and it’s link to the Boar Oath on New Year’s night. There is also the well-known “In Dulce Jubilo”. Not in the crazy fun version by Mike Oldfield but in its original calmer more sedate version that speaks of a more certain time than we currently live in.
A second album that is well worth owning and very few people can resist is “A Tapestry of Carols” by Maddy Prior. “Oh NO!!!!!!!!” I hear you all scream, “not fingers stuck in your ear moaning in a folk style no-one can hear a word of, or songs that no-one even knows”. Forget all that. This album is a little corker from one of our unsung vocal heroes and gems of the folk and music world in general. Maddy Prior has one of those voices that you cannot escape, or wish to escape from. She is better known as one of the vocalists of the group Steeleye Span but has worked with many artists over the years bringing the beauty of her voice to everything she has done, and this album is no exception.
The Carnival band were something of a strange scratch band of players who performed on any instruments that came to hand and this included weirdly lost instruments as the ‘Serpent’.
The tracks are certainly not unknown, with popular favourites as “The Sans Day Carol”, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Ding Dong Merrily on High” and others. What makes this album stand out is the manner of their performance. These are not the usual dry performances but rather are performed in the manner of the mid late 19th century country folk, especially in the fabled region of Hardy’s Wessex. The arrangements are basic, the sounds are rough and authentic and are sung and performed with such gusto and charm that you can’t help but be swept up with it all. All in all a well worth while album. I defy anyone not to end up singing along.
There are other records or tracks that I could mention but I will keep this wrapped up nice and tightly until Christmas day.
What alternatives do you like to listen to, and what would you recommend for others?