Since the mid-19th century, the Medieval carol Orientis partibus has been popularly known as The Song of the Ass. It tells the story of the donkey on which Mary rode into Bethlehem, and was apparently sung as part of the Epiphany celebrations at Beauvais, France, from the Middle Ages until at least the 17th century. Six stanzas survive in a 13th-century manuscript, each with slight musical variants, and another four stanzas in other manuscripts of the period. Our performance presents music to the entire song as it appears in the original manuscript, but we use the delightful rhyming English translation by Henry Copley Greene.
Dating from around the same time, but from across the Channel, is Gabriel from Heven King, which exists also in Latin as Angelus ad virginem, a title mentioned in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (sung by Nicholas the Clerk in the Miller’s Tale). The song tells of the dialog between Mary and the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation; we highlight the dialog by having men sing Gabriel’s part and women sing Mary’s. The Middle English text is slightly hard to follow, so we are fortunate that the Romantic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89) made a rendering of it that has formed the basis of our singing version. The musical text is taken from two manuscripts of the 14th century.
From the next century in England come several Christmas songs in a popular form for lyric works at the time—the carol. So common did the use of this form become for Christmas works that nowadays we use the term “carol” to denote a Christmas song, although it did not originally have that connotation. The typical carol uses a refrain, or “burden,” alternating with verses. Another feature of these delightful English carols is their “macaronic” text, that is, lyrics that move back and forth between Latin and English. They also all feature use of a fauxbourdon texture, where the outer voices are frequently in parallel at a distance of a sixth, and the middle voice is a fourth below the top. This texture of sweet, parallel first-inversion triads is strongly associated with late-Medieval polyphony, and seems related to what the French writer Martin le Franc referred to c.1440 as “La contenance angloise”—the English Guise.
An English carol from the early 16th century Quid petis, o fili? survives as the most substantial musical work in a manuscript copied for the court of Henry VIII. Like the earlier Gabriel from Heven King, it uses imagined details and dialog to tell a story. Here, the long, Latin “burden” for the chorus alternates with florid soloists’ verses in English describing Mary interacting tenderly with the baby Jesus.
Next are two works from a collection of anonymous villancicos printed in Venice in 1556 with a special section of Christmas songs. The sole surviving copy is in the University Library in Uppsala, Sweden, so it has been dubbed the Cancionero de Upsala. In E la don don, monophonic verses for men alternate with a polyphonic refrain sung by the full group. Dadme albricias features soprano solos and duets with tenor, alternating with the chorus.
Palestrina’s A solis ortus cardine is a setting of a chant hymn for Christmas morning at the service of Lauds. The chant follows the contour of the well-known Gregorian melody, but the composer puts it in a different mode (Dorian, rather than Phrygian), which we have used in this performance. Palestrina’s setting uses alternatim technique, where verses of the chant alternate with polyphonic verses variously for three, four, and ultimately five voices. It was published in 1589, during which time Palestrina was maestro di cappella at St. Peter’s in Rome, but two other sources are manuscripts copied by Palestrina himself, so it seems to be a work of which he was especially fond.
William Byrd’s This day Christ was born is “A Carroll for Christmas Day” from his Psalmes, Songs, and Sonnets of 1611. In keeping with Byrd’s Catholic background in Protestant England, the text is a translation of the antiphon to the Magnificat for the Second Vespers of the Nativity. However, rather than sounding like a stately motet, it is instead in madrigal style, with angelic voices entwining, and thrilling alleluias.
Around 1694, Marc-Antoine Charpentier composed his Messe de Minuit pour Noel (Midnight Mass for Christmas), which used popular tunes as themes for the movements of the Mass. The first Kyrie is based on the tune of Joseph est bien marié, which, unlike some of the other tunes Charpentier borrowed, at least was originally a Christmas song to begin with! Our arrangement is based on harmonizations in the Messe de Minuit. One lovely French Christmas song that did not make it into Charpentier’s Mass—probably because it wasn’t yet composed—is Quelle est cette odeur agréable? It appeared around 1700; by 1728, it had been hijacked by John Gay as the melody for the drinking song “Fill every glass” from his ballad-based Beggar’s Opera. Tous les bourgeois de Châtre is also from the Messe de Minuit, appearing in a modified form in the Gloria. Charpentier also did more straightforward arrangements of it as a “noel”—a Christmas work for organ solo or for an ensemble of instruments—and those have formed the basis of our harmonization.
Jakob Handl (also known as “Gallus”) was born in Slovenia and worked mainly in Austria before spending his last few years in Prague. His Canite tuba in Sion, based on an Office antiphon for the 4th Sunday of Advent, features an unusual scoring for low voices in close counterpoint. It was published in 1586 in the first volume of Handl’s monumental four-volume edition of his own motets.
The next four works were published in the 1582 Latin collection,Piæ Cantiones (there was also a Finnish version published in 1616, reflecting the apparent origin of the collection). Personent hodie, which is monophonic in the original print, appears in the Oxford Book of Carols in an arrangement by Gustav Holst (which is what I grew up with), but the 4-voice harmonization for this recording’s performance is my own, based on Medieval and Renaissance contrapuntal procedures. An earlier version of the piece, entitled Intonent hodie, survives in the 14th-century Moosburger Graduale.
Puer natus in Bethlehem is a strophic hymn based on the Introit for Christmas Day, but set in Piæ Cantiones as an unusual duo. I expanded the texture to include a four-voice arrangement, using an array of textures in the many stanzas, with solos, duos, and quartets for women and men and for both together. Verbum caro is another hymn based on a famous Christmas chant. This charming, lilting work is also monophonic in the original source; I harmonized it using period contrapuntal techniques. The vigorous Gaudete appears in Piæ Cantiones only as a four-voice refrain. Lyrics for the stanzas are printed in the source but there is no music for them at all, so I have created a monophonic verse and harmonized it for the last stanza to match the refrain.
In 2011, Quire Cleveland held a competition for members of the Cleveland Composers’ Guild to compose a work for performance on our annual Christmas program. Quiet Promise by Jennifer Conner was the winner. The composer explains:
"Each year at Christmas, I usually make my own cards with the message that speaks to me most that year. Being a composer, my cards have often been short compositions. Thus, several years ago I wrote a short poem entitled Quiet Promise, which I then set as a solo for piano and voice. The idea I wanted to communicate that year was the incredible simplicity, humility, and lack of fanfare behind the birth narrative, in light of the insatiable need for the spotlight that permeates our present culture. This past summer  I decided to expand this poem, adding several more verses to the narrative—but still with the same thematic intent. I then set this work as a carol specifically for Quire’s Christmas concerts. This new a cappella setting retains the melodic theme in all of the verses, but with different counterpoints and textures with each new occurrence. The work gradually builds, reaching a climax of divisi voices in the penultimate verse, where the Magi mistakenly search for the new King at the center of power. Following this build, the work closes with a simple restatement of the original verse and tune."
The final three selections are from 20th-century England. The touching In the bleak midwinter by Gustav Holst is a 1906 setting of a Christmas poem by Christina Rossetti (sister of the artist/poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti), originally published in Scribner’s Monthly magazine in January 1872. A setting of the same poem by Harold Darke (my grandfather’s long-time choral director) was voted the most beloved Christmas work by choral directors in the United States and United Kingdom in 2008, but Holst’s setting is the one I remember most fondly from my youth, and Darke clearly took the rhythm of his setting directly from Holst’s of five years earlier. H. Walford Davies’s memorable 1913 carol The holly and the ivy captivates with its solo-duo verse opening. Finally, Herbert Howells’s 1919 carol A spotless rose sets an 1869 translation of Praetorius’s Es ist ein Ros entsprungen by the English hymnwriter Catherine Winkworth (1827–78). (The Praetorius setting can be heard on our first Carols for Quire CD.) With its soaring baritone solo verse in the middle, A spotless rose is quite simply one of the most exquisite carols for choir ever written.
—Ross W. Duffin, artistic director, Quire Cleveland