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Medieval English Carols for Christmas
Recorded in the Wren Library in Trinity College, Cambridge, these beautiful medieval carols include famous works such as Ther is no rose, the Agincourt carol and Nova, nova. The performances include accompaniment on a wide range of medieval instruments including the psaltery, plectrum lute and the ethereal gemshorn.
18 tracks 65 min
The Trinity Carol Roll (nos. 1-7)
1. Hail Marye ful of grace
2. Nowel, nowel, nowel
3. Alma redemptoris mater
4. Now may we syngyn
5. Be mery, be mery
6. Nowel syng we
7. Deo gracias Anglia
8. Nowel, nowel
9. Lullay, lullay
10. Princeps pacis
11. Nova, nova
12. Tibi laus, tibi gloria
The Trinity Carol Roll (nos. 8-13)
13. Now make we merthe
14. Abyde I hope it be the beste
15. Qwat tydynges bryngyst thu messager
16. Eya martir Stephane
17. Prey for us the prynce of pees
18. Ther is no rose of swych vertu
ALAMIRE, directed by David Skinner
Highly significant to the history of medieval English music, the Trinity Carol Roll is nevertheless an enigmatic document. Its striking physical format, a roll of parchment 18 centimetres wide and some two metres in length when fully unrolled, is highly unusual. Rolls were both portable and economic to produce, so were often used in the Middle Ages for texts that needed to be written down and passed on rapidly, but their lack of binding made them especially vulnerable to loss and damage, and it is likely that many medieval rolls have been destroyed. Inventories listing the (now lost) music-manuscripts held by medieval churches sometimes mention rolls, and they regularly feature in artistic depictions of singers, unfurled over a lectern to be sung from. But the Trinity Carol Roll is a rare survivor of this type of manuscript, and astonishingly well preserved. Its place of origin is unknown, as is the history of its ownership before it was donated to the College in the 19th century by H.O. Roe. The only evidence of the Roll's place of origin comes from the dialect of the carols themselves: this shows signs that the poet(s) or scribe hailed from south Norfolk, though the Roll itself may have been produced and used elsewhere. A few different indicators suggest that the manuscript was produced in the second or third decade of the 15th century: its script and musical notation are both of a style that dates to the first third of the century, and one of its carols refers to events of 1415, so it cannot have been written before that year. These indicators make the Trinity Carol Roll the earliest of the manuscripts to contain musical settings of medieval carols.
In the 15th century, the carol's distinctive structure (a number of stanzas preceded by and alternating with a recurring burden) was one of the most popular choices for lyrics in the English language, though in the vast majority of cases, only the texts of these carols survive. Perhaps many of these were intended to be sung nonetheless, and in a few cases carol texts are annotated with the names of well-known tunes to which they were to be sung. If this is the case, though, the carols for which music was committed to parchment belong to a different musical sphere: these polyphonic carols, of which those in the Trinity Roll are the earliest examples, are complex and intricate, and could only have been composed, sung and notated by highly trained musicians. Their part-writing, for two or three independent voices, is of a musical sophistication that goes well beyond the plainsong that formed the musical bread-and-butter of most medieval choirs. Moreover, the carols are not based musically on any pre-existing plainsong melodies (as is much medieval polyphony) but involve two or three newly-composed voice-parts, equal in importance. A few of the carols in the Trinity Carol Roll vary the musical texture by setting the stanzas in two voice-parts and the burden in three; Abyde I hope it be the beste (track 14) is the most ambitious in this respect, with a total of four sections, using one, two and three voice-parts. Both this carol and Deo gracias Anglia (track 7) open with a burden in unison, a striking musical gesture that may perhaps be a nod to the monophonic tunes to which other carols were once sung.
The carol's association with Christmas dates from late in its history: in the 15th century, the Nativity was only one of a range of religious topics that inspired carol-writers. Many early carols relate to other festivals of the church's year, and it is possible that they were intended to be sung at feasts or evening entertainments on such occasions; an account of a royal banquet in 1487 records that members '
of the King's Chapell
incontynently after the Kings first course sange a Carall'. Six of the Trinity Roll's carols take up the theme of the Nativity, and one each is devoted to St Stephen and St John the Evangelist, whose feast-days fall within the broader Christmas season (on 26th and 27th December respectively). A further three praise the Virgin Mary, and one is a more general moral text. The most unusual carol in terms of its subject-matter is the renowned 'Agincourt Carol', Deo gracias Anglia (track 7), which is one of only a few carols in the entire 15th-century repertoire to relate to contemporary events. Celebrating the victory of King Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt, this carol seems likely to have been composed soon after the events of 1415 to which it refers, and we can speculate that it may have formed some part of the spectacular pageant that was staged in London in November of that year to welcome home the king and his troops.
Though 15th-century carols rank among the highlights of late-medieval poetry in the English language, it is a distinctive feature of the genre to incorporate short phrases in Latin, often in the burdens. Many of these Latin phrases were drawn from the church's liturgy and would have been well-known to medieval audiences, churchmen or laypeople. Deo gracias Anglia (track 7) ends every stanza with the phrase 'Deo gracias' ('Thanks be to God'), a phrase spoken or sung at the close of many church services. Ther is no rose (track 18), on the other hand, derives its Latin lines from a less familiar source, a much older poem for the Christmas season, the sequence Letabundus exultet fidelis chorus. For the poets of the carols, the incorporation of Latin phrases offered the opportunity to link their texts into the framework of the liturgy whilst simultaneously displaying their skill as wordsmiths in weaving phrases in two languages seamlessly together. Though unlikely to have been sung during official church services, the carols are evidence that, in 15th-century life, the worlds of ecclesiastical worship and secular entertainment were never very far apart.