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ClassicsOnline Home » Medieval Carols
In 15th-century England a tradition grew up for the composition of polyphonic
carols. None of them is ascribed to a specific composer or poet, neither is
their function completely understood. The form is that of alternating verses and
burdens (refrains), the language generally being a mixture of Latin and English.
The majority of the carols have sacred texts and it is possible that these were
designed for liturgical use. Others are moralistic or celebratory and were
possibly used to enliven feasts and banquets in aristocratic households or for
recreational purposes at educational establishments.
The most common type of carol is that relating to Christmas. The examples
offered here are 'What tidings bringest thou?', 'Now may we singen', and 'Nowell
sing we'. Not so overtly joyful but equally optimistic is 'Alma redemptoris
mater' whose verses poetically paint the scenes of the Annunciation, Nativity,
Crucifixion, and Resurrection respectively. After the Christmas carol the next
in order of popularity was the Marian carol as represented here by 'Ave Maria',
'There is no rose', and 'Hail Mary full of grace'. In these settings the
melodies are fluid and the harmonies subtle in order to portray the Virgin Mary
as tender and graceful. Additionally the lives of the saints were frequently the
subject of carols, none more robust than 'Eya mater Stephane' in honour of the
martyrdom of St Stephen. By contrast the carol 'Be merry be merry' rejects
specific subject matter altogether in favour of allusions to the many glories of
Christian life as a means to universal happiness. Most memorable of all is 'Deo
gracias Anglia' which recounts the defeat of the French by the English at the
battle of Agincourt. King Henry sails to Normandy, takes the town of Harfleur by
siege, wins the day at Agincourt, and drags the surviving French noblemen back
to London; all this, of course, in the name of Almighty God. In a more popular
style are the two Christmas carols 'Riu riuchiu' and 'Gaudete Christus est natus'.
Spanish and English respectively they are catchy traditional medieval melodies
whose refrains were harmonized in the early Renaissance.
Also included here are three monophonic songs. The simplest, 'Planctus
Guillelmus', is an anonymous strophic lament written upon the death of William
the Conqueror. The form of Peter Abelard's 'Planctus David' is more elaborate,
divided as it is into six sections, each containing metrical and musical
repeats. Abelard's poem is a reworking of David's lament upon the deaths of Saul
and Jonathan from the Second Book of Samuel. More rhapsodic still is Hildegard
of Bingen's 'Oviridissima virga' which portrays the Virgin Mary as the root of
beauty and fertility. This beautifully-paced meditation is one of the few
surviving examples of the musical work of this remarkable medieval female
The Oxford Camerata was formed by Jeremy Summerly in order to meet the
growing demand for choral groups specializing in music from the Renaissance era.
It has since expanded its repertoire to include music from the medieval period
to the present day using instrumentalists where necessary. The Camerata has made
several recordings for Naxos, and future plans include discs of music by Lassus,
Tye, and Fauré.
Jeremy Summerly was a choral scholar at New College, Oxford from where he
graduated with First Class Honours in 1982. For the next seven years he worked
as a Studio Manager with BBC Radio and it was during this time that he founded
the Oxford Camerata. In 1989 he left the BBC in order to join the Royal Academy
of Music as a lecturer in the department of Academic Studies and in 1990 he was
appointed conductor of Schola Cantorum of Oxford. He has recently signed a
long-term contract with Naxos to record a variety of music with the Oxford
Camerata and Schola Cantorum of Oxford.
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