Founded in 2008 to perform and share the glorious and vast repertoire of choral music for unaccompanied voices, Quire Cleveland has earned both popular and critical acclaim. Quire's singers are professional musicians, trained at some of the finest music conservatories and universities, representing collectively over 500 years of choral singing. Under the direction of artistic director, Ross W. Duffin, Quire brings to life timeless masterpieces with "an inspiring mastery of blend and intonation" (ClevelandClassical.com). "Carols for Quire from the Old & New Worlds" was recorded live in 2009, at concerts that immediately became the start of a popular annual tradition. The variety of musical styles, languages, sentiments, and harmonies will please listeners of all ages and backgrounds.
For many of us, Christmas carols conjure up happy times past with family, just as surely as does the aroma of a roasting turkey. No other religious celebration has engendered so many musical works expressing joy and hope, from sophisticated solemn motets to danceable villancicos. In this program, Quire Cleveland sings some of the most beautiful Christmas music over the centuries, from Renaissance Europe to Colonial Mexico, New France, and America.
The opening two motets, by Orlando di Lasso and John Sheppard, respectively, are of contrasting character. Lasso’s Resonet in laudibus is a joyous work with changes of meter to lilting triple, and sections for full choir along with some for fewer voices, passages of imitation, and others where all voices declaim together. The tune occurs again on this recording, in its German version, Joseph lieber. Although Lasso was born in Flanders (current-day Belgium) and lived for a while in Italy, he spent his last decades at the Court of Bavaria in Munich, so his use of this favorite German Christmas tune is no surprise. Verbum caro is a responsorial motet, meaning passages of chant are inserted between the sections of polyphony. Like so much Latin music from England in the early Renaissance, the work features soaring lines for high sopranos—probably originally sung by boys. The chant on which the piece is based meanders in measured tones in the tenor part, while the other voices weave a tapestry of intricate polyphony around it.
The Spanish set features one work from Spain that was printed in Italy, one work from Iberia that traveled to the New World, and one composed in Mexico. The first work is from a collection of anonymous villancicos printed in Venice in 1556, which includes a special section of Christmas songs. The most famous Christmas song from this source is Riu riu chiu, which alternates sections for solo bass with the full group. Serenissima una noche was composed by the Franciscan friar Gerónimo Gonzales, who was active in Portugal in the 1630s. Set for high voices, it features a wonderful “call to dance” as its refrain. The third work, Ay ay galeguiños, is by the organist and composer Fabián Ximeno, who was mæstro de capilla at Mexico City Cathedral in the mid-17th century. Its lively and intricate four-voice imitative sections are punctuated by charming duos. These latter two works are preserved in a manuscript now in the Mexican Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, but which originally belonged to the Holy Trinity Convent in Puebla, Mexico, from around the same time that mole poblano was invented there. These pieces are just as delicious.
William Byrd’s Lullaby is from his Psalmes, Sonets, & songs of sadnes and pietie of 1588. It is a song of comfort from Mary to the infant Jesus in the context of the Massacre of the Holy Innocents, where King Herod tried to have all the newborns killed in an attempt to prevent the survival of the rumored child-king. The gentle lullaby section, heard first and last, contrasts with the darker, mournful section lamenting the slaughter.
Thomas Ravenscroft is best known today as the earliest publisher of Three Blind Mice. He was a chorister at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London at the end of the 16th century, during a time when the boys were also active in dramatic presentations. While still in his teens, he published two volumes of rounds and catches, presumably acquired through his theatrical connections, and two years later, in 1611, he published a third volume, Melismata, from which this Christmas song is taken. In contrast to the light-hearted entertainments he published, this piece is more serious, and shows a bent towards sober Puritanism, which was on the rise in England in the decade before the Mayflower left for our shores. The stanzas gradually get less somber, and progress from admonishment through description to celebration at the end.
Celebration is certainly what Sweelinck’s Hodie Christus natus est is about. The tenors begin and keep coming back to a lively triple statement of “hodie, hodie” (today, today), sometimes in melodic inversion, and the work has plenty of joyous “alleluias” and “noe, noe” (noel, noel) acclamations, as well. Sweelinck was renowned as a composer and organist at the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam. This motet is from his Cantiones sacræ of 1619.
Every schoolchild in Canada knows the Huron Carol as the earliest Canadian Christmas carol. Its attributed author, Jean de Brébeuf was, for the 1630s and ’40s, a Jesuit missionary among the Huron Indians at Fort Ste. Marie in Ontario, near the south end of Georgian Bay. Brébeuf was martyred in 1649 at the hands of the Iroquois, and thus became the first Canadian saint, but some years before that, he wrote this carol in Wendat (aka Wyandot), the language of the Hurons. The earliest musical version survives in an early 20th-century collection with French words by a late 18th-century French/Indian notary, Paul Picard Tsa8enhohi. In its romanticized English translation, “’Twas in the moon of wintertime” (by Jesse Edgar Middleton in 1926), the carol to that tune has achieved considerable fame, but there is no musical source for it before 1907. Clearly, however, the melody was based on the 16th-century French tune, Une jeune fi¬e\e, which was used by Charpentier for his Messe de Minuit pour Noël in the late 17th century. It was famous all over Europe by that time, in Italy being long known as La Monaca after the first two lines of its text: “Madre non mi far monaca, che non mi volgio fare.” This is a story-line that relates to Nonette, its earliest title in France, based on the Une jeune fillette lyrics: “Mama, don’t make me become a nun, ’cause I don’t wanna.” This is an ironic—and therefore entirely plausible—choice of tune for a French Jesuit missionary in the wilds of Canada. It also happens that a separate American-Indian Christmas carol was copied in Maine in the early 18th century with a version of this same tune. We have therefore set the original Wendat words of the Huron Carol to a version of the Une jeune fi¬e\e tune that was current when Brébeuf wrote the lyrics.
Quem vidistis pastores celebrates the witnessing of the nativity by shepherds. The choirs of angels they heard also make for glorious polyphony. This is the first of two Christmas pieces by Tomás Luis de Victoria, the leading Spanish composer of the late Renaissance. The second is O magnum mysterium, one of the most famous motets of the Renaissance. Both works appeared in Victoria’s first collection of motets, published in 1572 while he was working at the Jesuit Collegio Germanico in Rome.
In between the two Victoria motets is another set of carols from the New World. The tune and text of Away in a manger are both American in origin, but the history of our arrangement is complicated. The tune comes from a musical setting for voice and guitar of Robert Burns’s love poem, Flow gently sweet Afton, published in Philadelphia in 1838 by J. E. Spilman. The Away in a manger lyrics, probably written by James R. Murray, first appeared in an 1885 Lutheran children’s collection, Little Children’s Book for Schools and Families, and were possibly written to celebrate Luther’s 400th anniversary two years earlier (which accounts for the occasional attribution to Luther himself). Only the first two stanzas were included, however. The third stanza appeared for the first time in Gabriel’s Vineyard Songs, published by Charles H. Gabriel in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1892. The Afton Water melody was first borrowed for the lyrics some time in the next decade, but we have taken the earliest part-setting of that tune for our performance. That three-voice setting is from Warren’s Minstrel, a shape-note collection published by James Sullivan Warren in Columbus, Ohio, in 1857. The lyrics, slightly varied from the common versions in use today, are from the earliest sources.
The other three American carols are by two of the most famous American composers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, William Billings and Daniel Read. Judea is from Billings’s Singing Master’s Assistant, of 1778, and features a lively dance-like refrain, “Then let us be merry.” Read’s Sherburne, from his American Singing Book of 1785, presents the well-known lyrics of “While shepherds watched their flocks by night,” in a much more spirited setting than the carol commonly sung today. Finally, Billings’s Shiloh is from his Suffolk Harmony of 1786, making a quick chronological succession for our last three American carols. Again, the tempo is lively and the feeling joyous. The harmonies, so reminiscent of shape-note singing, are uniquely American: “primitive” perhaps, by European standards of the time, but heartfelt and effective, and a pleasure to sing.
The last set features German carols, including Michael Praetorius’s famous In dulci jubilo and Es ∆t ein Ros entsprungen from his Musæ Sioniæ collection of 1607. Praetorius published well over a hundred settings of Christmas music. On occasion, he also presented works by other composers, such as the beautiful Joseph lieber setting by Luther’s Wittenberg colleague, Johann Walther (originally published in his Geistlich Gesangbüchlein of 1551). We close with Wachet auf, with the first two stanzas as set by Praetorius in 1607, and the final stanza in an exquisite chorale setting by Johann Sebastian Bach from his cantata of the same name (No. 140), written in Leipzig in November 1731. What more fitting ending to a program of Christmas choral music (or any choral music) than Bach?
— Ross W. Duffin