A Medieval Christmas
Pro Cantione Antiqua · Medieval Wind Ensemble



Innovative Music Productions PCD 844
MCA Classics MACD 5901


1 - Ductia (English, 13th century)   [1:17]
shawm & bombarde
2 - Alle psallite (German, 13th century)   [1:07]
3 - Portugaler (French?, 14th/15th century)   [2:12]
3 recorders
4 - Angelus ad Virginem (English, 13th/14th century)   [2:46]
voices & tabor
5 - In seculum breve (French, 13th century)   [1:31]
3 recorders
6 - Orientis partibus (Song of the Ass) (French, 13th century)   [2:05]
7 - Ductia (English, 13th century)   [1:27]
2 recorders
8 - Verbum patris (French, 12th century)   [1:36]
9 - E semine rosa (French, 12th/13th century)   [2:25]
10 - Alleluia psallat (English, 13th/14th century)   [1:47]
11 - Thys Yol (English, 14th/15th century)   [1:34]
shawm & bombarde
12 - Edi beo thu (English, 13th century)   [1:45]
13 - Ecce quod natura (English, 15th century)   [2:39]
14 - Nova, nova (English, 15th century)   [1:47]
15 - Goday my Lord Syre Cristemasse (English, 15th century)   [2:27]
voices, bombarde & sackbut


1 - Danse real (French, 13th century)   [1:52]
bagpipe & timbrel
2 - PÉROTIN : Beata viscera (French, 12th/13th century)   [1:51]
3 - Virgo (French, 13th century)   [1:09]
3 recorders
4 - Beata viscera (English, 13th century)   [2:15]
5 - Quene note (English, 14th/15th century)   [1:17]
2 doucaines
6 - Gilles BINCHOIS : A Solis Ortus (French, 15th century)   [2:48]
7 - John HOTHBY : Tard il mio cor (English, 15th century)   [1:14
3 doucaines
8 - Ther ys no rose (English, 15th century)   [4:12]
9 - Nowel, synge we both al and som (English, 15th century)   [2:01]
voices & recorders
10 - Nowel, owt of your slepe (English, 15th century)   [2:11]
11 - Hayl Mary (English, 15th century)   [3:32]
12 - Synge we to this mery cumpane (English, 15th century)   [2:41]
voices & doucaines

Pro Cantione Antiqua
Mark Brown

Charles Brett · countertenor
Timothy Penrose · countertenor
James Griffett · tenor
Neil Jenkins · tenor
Ian Partridge · tenor
Brian Etheridge · bass
Michael George · bass

Medieval Wind Ensemble

Peter Davies · recorders, doucaine, bombarde, bagpipes
Jonathan Morgan · recorders, doucaine, shawm
Andrew van der Beek · recorders, doucaine, shawm, sackbut
Mark Brown · tabor, timbrel

A Medieval Christmas

The Christmas music heard here is drawn from one of the most interesting periods in Western musical history, the development of polyphony to the edge of the Renaissance. The oral monophonic tradition, that persisted in Eastern cultures, was revolutionised in Europe by the invention of notation, so that hitherto accidental harmonies and rhythms could be reproduced again and again. Organum, the earliest type of polyphony, was a liturgical plainsong tenor (from tenere - to hold out) with one or more contrapuntal parts added, at the 4th, 5th or octave. These intervals were regarded as consonant, not only to medieval taste but to medieval acoustic order, and always came on strong beats; the so-called dissonances, 3rd, 6th, 2nd and 7th, falling between where they might. A hangover from the apparent harshness of free organum can be heard in the jovial Verbum patris (A/8) and Orientis partibus (A/6). The robust cheerfulness of the latter is further enlivened by the singers' portamento imitating the ass's bray in its refrain.

Both these pieces are French, and the French predilection for line and rhythm can also be heard in the Franconian 3 part motet Alle psallite (A/2). By the 13th century, however, English church composers were developing a richer harmonic language by using 3rds and 6ths, and paying more attention than their French counterparts to melody, for example in the bouncing Alleluia psallat (A/10) and the beautiful Edi beo thu (A/l2) - 'blessed be thou, heaven's queen.'

Edi beo thu is a two part conductus, one of the two most important genre of the 13th century, the other being the motet. Conducti differed from organa in doing away with the liturgical chant and using original texts, and one of the early exponents of the style was Pérotin (c 1160-1220). Pérotin was perhaps the greatest composer of his time, active, like his equally celebrated predecessor Léonin, at the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. He is represented on this recording by his setting of Beata viscera (B/2), a poem by the French theologian and poet Philippe the Chancellor (not, incidentally, the same words as the conductus B/4), and he may also have been the composer of the motet E semine rosa (A/9). Indeed, the difficulty of attribution is shown by the fact that only three composers are named on the record; Pérotin himself, the English theorist and Carmelite monk John Hothby (c 1410-1487), whose Tard il mio cor (B/7) is one of only nine surviving works, and the Franco-Flemish Gilles Binchois (c 1400-1460), composer of the English-influenced A Solis Ortus (B/6). The music of both Binchois and his great contemporary Dufay (c 1400-1474) represents a turning-point between Medieval and Renaissance music. The Portugaler (A/3), a typical and popular festive dance, appears in a Dufay collection and might conceivably be by him. But while we may not always know who wrote the music, there is no doubting the powerful secular influence present.

Pagan celebrations of the winter solstice, the festival of the Sun-God and the feast of Yule, all pre-date Christianity, and very early the Church attempted to suppress 'filthy plays' and 'dissolute songs and dances.' However, in the manner of intelligent establishments everywhere, what could not be crushed had to be assimilated. Pagan customs became Christian customs, pagan symbols were incorporated into Christian buildings and pagan temples became churches - Pérotin's Notre Dame, for instance, was built on a church to a river goddess, whose altar was in its foundation. Long before William Booth the Franciscans had asked themselves why the devil should have all the best tunes and slowly, and not without difficulty, the Church accommodated popular urges into its higher aspirations. The resulting vigour and vitality are the most characteristic aspects of medieval Christmas music, epitomised in the carol.

The medieval carol is a form almost unique to England, and it is the form, not the substance, that marks it out. It consists of several stanzas preceded by and interspersed with a refrain or burden. The generally accepted derivation of the word from Old French 'carole' meaning ring-dance, points clearly to its dancing, rhythmic antecedents. The musical variety possible within the structure is shown by the eight examples on this recording (A/13, 14 and 15 and B/8, 9, 10, 11, 12), the texts of which are to be found in Richard Greene's comprehensive survey, The Early English Carols. They are sung in as near a reproduction of Medieval English as possible to provide a flavour of the period. The original singers would all have been ordained priests and deacons of the cathedral, royal chapels and universities and were highly skilled, and not always above the more lascivious features of the festival. The burden of one carol which has survived the efforts of superior clergy to impose on it more pious sentiments, runs:

'sing dillum, dillum, dillum, dill
I can tell you, and I will
Of my ladyes water-mill'.

An earthy folk element has often enriched English music and Ezra Pound's assertion that 'music rots when it is too far removed from the dance' was never more true than of the carol. There is a similarly infectious dancing movement in the famous 14th century Advent hymn Angelus ad virginem (A/4) which was mentioned by Chaucer in 'The Miller's Tale', and also, naturally, in the instrumental music of the time.

Almost all medieval instrumental music is based on vocal models. For example, Ductia (A/1, 7) was a shorter form of estampie, a widely-known dance form closely related to song and sometimes so difficult to dance to that, as a 13th century theorist put it, 'it served to restrain the youths from wicked thoughts'. Moreover, the instruments themselves reflected vocal tastes. Thus, while droning (bagpipes) and percussive (drums, such as the double-headed tabor and the single-headed, jingly timbrel) accompaniment to singing was not unusual, doubling was almost certainly not general practice. Similarly, vocal and instrumental techniques were interchangeable, and the 'hoquets' (A/5 and B/3), the breaking up of a line between two voices in alternation, a sort of stop-go device, could equally well have been sung as played. The instruments on this recording are the double-reeded shawm, imported to Europe from the Saracen armies during the Crusades, and whose brilliant, penetrating tone make it particularly appropriate for outdoor use; the bombarde, a large shawm; the versatile and reliable sackbut, which resembles a trombone but is actually a development of the slide-trumpet; the 'sweet-toned' doucaine, cylindrical bore reed instrument; and, probably the best-known, the recorder, of which Praetorius lists eight sizes from great bass to sopranino.

Original LP notes by Peter Bamber


A Medieval Christmas

Carols were originally festive song-dances with which medieval Europe celebrated all kinds of happy occasions, and Christmas, the most joyous season of the year, developed its own repertoire of them. The early Christmas carols on this disc were created in England, France and Germany at various times from the twelfth century to the fifteenth. It is no longer known, in most cases, who wrote the individual carols. They are generally songs with several stanzas of devotional but sometimes earthy text, each stanza sung to the same music, sometimes with varied interludes between them. The names of the poets and composers who wrote them are for the most part unknown. The carols are sung here in the manner that scholars believe was used when they were new, and they are played on replicas of ancient instruments.

No. 1. Ductia, a 13th-century English dance, played on the shawm and bombarde, distant antecedents of the modern oboe and bassoon. No. 2. Alle psallite, "Everyone Sing", a 13th-century German and Latin song. No. 3. Portugaler, a dance, probably from 14th or 15th-century France (despite its title), played by three recorders, end-blown, wooden whitle-flutes.

No. 4. Angelus ad virginem, "The Angel to the Virgin", a 13th or 14th-century English danced hymn for voices and tabor, a small drum. No. 5. In seculum breve, "In a Short Century", is a spirited, rhythmic piece from 13th-century France, for three recorders. No. 6. Orientis partibus, "In Eastern Parts", a cheerful piece, also known as "The Song of the Ass," which can be heard braying during the refrain. From 13th-century France.

No. 7. Ductia (like No. 1), for two recorders. No. 8. Verbum patris, "The Word of the Father", a joyous song from 12th-century France. No. 9. E semine rosa, "From the Seed, a Rose", a 12th or 13th-century French song about the flower that symbolizes annual rebirth.

No. 10. Alleluia psallat, "Alleluia Sings Out", a high-spirited song from England of the 13th or 14th century. No. 11. Thys Yol, or 'This Yule", a piece from 14th or 15th-century England, played on shawm and bombarde. No. 12. Edi beo thu, "Blessed Be Thou", for voices, English, 13th-century.

No. 13. Ecce quod natura, "Lo, What Nature" (or, perhaps "Birth"), and No. 14. Nova, nova "News, News!," English, 15th-century, for voices. No. 15. Today my Lord Syre Cristemasse, or "Good Day, My Lord Sir Christmas" is a lively piece in the manner of No. 5, from 15th-century England and in the English language of the time, for voices, bombarde and sackbut (an early trombone-like instrument).

No. 16. Danse real, "Royal Dance", 13th-century French, for bagpipe and timbrel, a percussion instrument like the modern tambourine. No. 17. Beata viscera, "Blessed Womb", a famous work of the 12th or 13th-century. The text is probably by the theologian known as Philippe the Chancellor, and the music by France's first great composer, Pérotin, who was associated with the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. No. 18. Virgo, "Virgin", French, 13th century, played by three recorders.

No. 19. Beata viscera, "Blessed Womb," from 13th-century England, a vocal setting on the same subject as No. 17, but with a different text. No. 20. Quene note. The instruments, which originated in France, are a pair of doucaines, whose name is supposed to suggest sweetness of sound. They were also popular in England when this music was written there in the 14th or 15th-century. No. 21. A solis ortus, "At the Rising of the Sun", is a famous early Christmas hymn with music by the Franco-Flemish composer Gilles Binchois (ca. 1400-1460) and a text by Sedulius, a Christian Latin poet of a thousand years earlier.

No. 22. Tard il mio cor, "Slowly My Heart", played by three doucaines, is a song of love of Mary, composed by John Hothby (ca. 1410-1487), an Oxford-educated Carmelite monk who spent years wandering about the European continent. No. 23. Ther ys no rose, "There is No Rose" a rose-song from 15th-century England (as are all the remaining pieces). No. 24. Nowel synge we, "Noel Sing We", for voices and recorders.

No. 25. Nowel, owt of your slepe, "Noel, Out of Your Sleep" and No. 26. Hayl Mary, "Hail Mary" are for voices alone. No. 27 Synge we to this mery cumpane, "Sing We to This Merry Company" is performed by voices and doucaines.

Notes by Leonard Burkat

Other releases:

Carlton Classics, 1991


Alto (ALC 1004), 2006

with additional Gregorian chants (# 5, 19, 22, 23, 26)
from CDs A Gregorian Advent and Christmas (1990) and Gregorian Feast (1990/91/92)