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Gabriel’s Greeting - Medieval English Christmas Music
Gabriel fram evene king (C14th) [4:25]
Salva nos, stella maris (C13th) [2:49]
Miri it is – Estampie (C13th) [4:15]
Salve, virgo virginum (C13th) [1:36]
Ave Maria, virgo virginum (C13th) [1:14]
Procedenti puero (C13th) [2:29]
Ecce mundi gaudium (C13th) [1:55]
Ut iam cesset calamitas (C13th) [1:30]
Gabriel fram evene king (C14th) [2:07]
Untitled instrumental piece (C13th) [5:15]
Vide miser et iudica / Vide miser et cogita / Wynter (3-part motet, C14th) [3:27]
Estampie (based on Wynter motet) [6:36]
Ther is no rose of swych vertu (C15th) [4:43]
Ther is no rose of swych vertu (instrumental realisation) [2:09]
Lolay, lolay. Als I lay on Yoleis nite (C14th/15th) [10:39]
Nowell, nowell, nowell! This is the salutacyon of the angell Gabryell (late C15th) [7:13]
Sinfonye (Vivien Ellis, Jocelyn West (vocals); Stevie Wishart (fiddle, vocals, sinfonye);
Jim Denley (percussion); Paula Chateauneuf (lute))/Stevie Wishart.
rec. 15-17 June, 1993. Venue not stated. DDD.
HYPERION HELIOS CDH55151 [63:08]



This is not a new CD – it was reissued in 2003 – but it seems to have slipped through the Musicweb net, so I thought I might add it to my recent reviews of seasonal music, especially as it is so recommendable.
 
The recording offers a varied and most enjoyable selection of music ranging across three centuries. The earliest piece, Miri it is, dates from around 1225, the most recent, Ther is no rose and Nowell, nowell, nowell! date from the end of the fifteenth century. The music falls into four categories: Gabriel’s Annunciation to the Virgin Mary, which gives its name to the collection, the Nativity, general praise of the Virgin Mary and warnings to mankind to repent.
 
This last category may seem out of place on a recording of Christmas music until we remember the rigours of the medieval winter and the dark thoughts that it brought. The problem now known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), seems to have afflicted the whole of society with a vengeance. As one of the Harley lyrics has it, “Wynter wakeneth al my care, / nou this leves waxeth bare. / Ofte y sike & mourne sare /when hit cometh in my thoht / of this worlds joie hou it geth al to noht.” [Winter awakens all my care, now these leaves grow bare. Often I sigh and mourn sorely when it comes into my thoughts how this world’s joy goes all to nothing. Carleton Brown, Religious Lyrics of the XIVth Century, no.9, spelling slightly modernised.]
 
Miri it is (track 3) reminds us that, just as the seasons change, decline and renew, so must mankind:

Miri it is while sumer ilast with fugheles song,
Oc nu neheth windes blast and weder strong.
Ei, ei! What this niht is long!
And ich, with wel michel wrong,
Soregh and murn and fast.
[Merry it is while summer lasts with birds’ song, but now draws nigh wind’s blast and rough weather. Alas, alas, how long is this night! And I, with very great wrong, sorrow and mourn and fast.]

The translation in the Hyperion booklet assumes that the wrong has been done to the singer. I hesitate to disagree, since the notes acknowledge the assistance of Dr Christopher Page and Dr Laura Knight with the Middle English texts, but I think that the original leaves it open to us to assume that the wrong has been done by him. As RT Davies notes, a great part of the poem is left unsaid. [Medieval English Lyrics (London:Faber, 1963)] Either way, the performance leaves us in no doubt that this is a powerful piece, confirming Davies’s assertion that this is sophisticated music, not that of simple rustics. Though it is generally true that the Anglo-Norman aristocracy were interested only in literature in Norman French, the existence in two manuscripts of the wonderful poem The Owl and the Nightingale demonstrates the existence of sophisticated vernacular poetry even at this early period.
 
The addition on this recording of an estampie based on the original melody of Miri it is, adds to the impression that this is courtly music. The notation in the manuscript is basic, offering no indication of rhythm, but the text itself provides that when it is as well interpreted as it is here. I haven’t heard the performance by the Dufay Collective or that by the Mediæval Bæbes [sic], but I cannot imagine either of them bettering Sinfonye’s performance. The juxtaposition with the Anglo-Norman Salva nos (track 2) is appropriate: both pieces lend themselves well to the strongly rhythmic, slightly acerbic performances which they receive.
 
Later successive visitations of the Black Death strengthened this winter’s mind of penitence, so that the mood of Advent changed from hopeful anticipation of Christmas to a kind of mini-Lent. Vide miser et iudica/Vide miser et cogita/Wynter (track 11, 14th-century) returns to the same theme but this time the invocation of the help of Mary offers a glimpse of hope at the end:

Heu! Nisi nos protegat felix puerpera,
Totum intellige stat in angaria.
[Alas! If the blessed pregnant lady did not protect us, know that everything stands in great anguish. There may be a pun, inevitably missed in the translation in the booklet, on felix, which can mean both happy and fruitful.]

The theme of this 3-part motet, like that of Miri it is, is emphasised on this recording by following it with an estampie based on it. Gabriel fram evene king (track 1, 2-part realisation on track 9) and the wonderful Ther is no rose (tracks 13 and 14) also receive this treatment.
 
The opening work, Gabriel fram evene king, belongs to a very fruitful branch of Middle English lyrics, those in praise of the Virgin Mary. This particular lyric is an English translation (or, rather, paraphrase) of the ubiquitous hymn Angelus ad virginem. Those interested in looking at other examples of this genre will find them, with translations and notes, in the Davies collection to which I have already referred and in the Norton anthology (see below). Gabriel fram evene king is poem 32 in Davies’s collection. Don’t worry about the slightly different spelling: Davies slightly regularises this throughout the collection. Though the Hyperion booklet spells evene as in the manuscript, Sinfonye in their performance adopt Davies’s spelling hevene and sound the initial h. (English manuscripts of this period were still sometimes copied by scribes whose first language was not English.)
 
Some Middle English poems exist in slightly variant versions. Such is the case with Lolay, lolay! (track 15) printed in a slightly variant form by Davies (No.38). The version on the CD is taken from a manuscript in the Bodleian Library, the Davies version from one in the National Library of Scotland.
 
Surprisingly, Davies does not include the wonderful Ther is no rose (track 13), familiar nowadays in modern arrangements and a fine example of the macaronic, in which the vernacular and Latin, in this case from the sequence Lætabundus, alternate. (Cf. In dulci jubilo.) The rose of the courtly-love poem Roman de la Rose, with its sexual connotations, has here been transmogrified into the flower of virgins. Luria and Hoffman equally inexplicably omit this piece from their Norton edition of Middle English Lyrics (New York, Norton, 1974). This otherwise recommendable alternative to the Davies selection is about to be revised; I very much hope that the new edition will include Ther is no rose. In any event, it receives an excellent performance here, the gentleness of its treatment making an apt contrast with the roughness of Miri it is.
 
The Norton anthology also omits Lolay, lolay! but includes a very similar poem from the Commonplace Book of John Grimestone (No.198). Neither Davies nor the Norton include Nowell, nowell, nowell (track 16) and I did not know either the lyric or the music before I encountered it here. It’s a real find and a wonderful piece with which to end this recording in such a lively performance.
 
Another excellent way to explore a wide range of Middle English poetry in praise of the Virgin Mary is via the TEAMS medieval texts series. This series of texts, intended to offer undergraduate and post-graduate students access to out-of-the-way medieval texts with translations and scholarly notes in reasonably-priced format is now available free online, an offering of incredible generosity, thanks to the US National Endowment for the Humanities. Ther is no rose is poem 20 in the section of Nativity poems from the Middle English Marian Lyrics volume, ed. K Sharpe (Medieval Institute, Kalamazoo, MI, 1998) and Lolay, lolay! is no.25. Gabriel fram evene king is poem 3 in the Annunciation poems in that collection; another translation, closer to the Latin original, is no.4. (Follow the hyperlinks for the whole contents of each section; the text should appear in a pane at the top of the screen, the notes in a separate pane at the bottom.)
 
I have concentrated on the vernacular lyrics because of their high quality in an age when Latin was the norm. Some of them, of course, like Gabriel fram evene king, are translations or paraphrases. Others also owe much to Latin and French models, like Lolay, lolay, an example of the chanson d’aventure. In such lyrics the poet riding forth, usually on a Spring morning, encounters a beautiful young lady, heartbroken at her desertion by her courtly lover. In our example, the adventure involves another beautiful young lady, the Virgin Mary. The poet hears the dialogue between herself and the infant Jesus in which he hints at the fate which awaits him, thus linking a Christmas lyric with the dialogues of Jesus and Mary at the foot of the cross which you will find in another section of the TEAMS anthology of Marian lyrics: “wat schal to me befall / heer after wan I cum til eld”. [What shall befall me hereafter when I am older.”] Be assured that the Latin texts are just as well worth hearing, just as well performed and recorded.
 
Both Latin and vernacular texts receive the appropriate pronunciation – nothing to set the scholarly teeth on edge, though I did just wonder about the hard g in regina (track 2).
 
The opening Gabriel fram evene king is performed without accompaniment; later it receives a text-less realisation accompanied by the sinfonye (track 9). Most of the other pieces are performed with instrumental accompaniment. The wonderful untitled instrumental piece (track 10) leads into the penitential Vide miser, accompanied only very discreetly on the sinfonye – a microcosm of the amazing contrasts between different aspects of medieval literature and music. Without wishing to get into the debate about the extent to which medieval singing was accompanied, suffice it to say that it is well done here, by Stevie Wishart, the director, and her two colleagues on percussion and lute. Tracks without accompaniment (1 and 5) emerge with greater freshness. Wishart plays fiddle and sinfonye, the instrument which gives its name to the whole group. (Better known as the hurdy-gurdy, but not to be confused with the later hurdy-gurdy or barrel-organ. The Wikipedia article hurdy-gurdy offered sound information, with illustrations, when I looked at it, but remember that wiki articles are subject to change, sometimes by the ill-informed.)
 
The booklet is almost de-luxe in quality – as usual with Helios reissues, fully the equal of the original full-price version and far better than any other bargain label. (With the exception of some Brilliant Classics issues: their version of Monteverdi’s Ritorno d’Ulisse, which I hope to get round to reviewing some time soon, contains a thick and scholarly booklet which puts some full-price sets to shame.) The recording, too, is up to Hyperion’s usual high standard, with no sense that it ever came between me and the performances. The texts of all the lyrics are included, together with accurate translations. In the Middle English texts the booklet even attempts to reproduce the obsolete letter yogh, employing a 3 for the purpose. (I shan’t try to reproduce the true shape of yogh here, because, as a non-ASCII character, it would probably disappear on the webpage.) Don’t be put off by the use of u for v and vice-versa. The understated cover, showing angels and men rejoicing above the scene of Mary and the infant Christ, worshipped by ox and ass, the whole contained within the initial C of Cantate Domino, Sing unto the Lord, sets the tone for a stylish and enjoyable hour of Christmas music with a difference. (Poor old Joseph, not much admired in the middle ages, just sneaks into the scene.)
 
The whole reissue is worthy of the warm welcome which Glyn Pursglove gave to another Sinfonye recording, Bella Domna (CDH55207) : “It belongs in every collection of medieval song.” Gary Higginson, welcoming Sinfonye’s Courts of Love reissue (CDH55186) admitted to having had some initial doubts about Bella Domna and the current CD, Gabriel’s Greeting, but professed himself now freshly captivated by both.
 
The Sinfonye approach to medieval music is different from that of the Gothic Voices, several of whose Helios reissues I have been reviewing recently; both are very recommendable. It isn’t just the seasonal spirit that inspires me to make this a Bargain of the Month. One warning: if you buy this CD, you’ll probably want the other two as well.
 
Brian Wilson
 



 


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