Wednesday 26 December 2018

The Medieval Tendency

Medieval carollers
It is during the run up to Christmas that choirs cast round for interesting and approachable contemporary pieces to go into seasonal programmes. So we get a rash of modern and 20th century pieces setting Medieval and 16th century words.

Medieval carollers
As choral singers, we have all been there, the first rehearsal where you have to parse the text, check the composer's notes for meanings or unfamiliar words, check for unfamiliar spellings of familiar words, and words with extra syllables.

Then there is the vexed question of pronunciation. With a period piece it is clear that using period pronunciation is a valid approach, if you are singing a 16th century song then using some sort of period way of pronouncing the words is a clear choice. But for a piece written yesterday, what do you do about the words?

This is particularly true of all those rhymes which work if you say the piece in period pronunciation but with don't work at all (rhyming 'day' with 'by' for instance) and can provide a series of annoying near misses in modern usage is used. With an early English text with a strong rhyming scheme, such false rhymes can rather stand out.

Take the anonymous 15th century text, 'Ther is no rose of swych virtu'. Most of the rhymes work in modern pronunciation without any alteration, which means that two verses rather stand out as not rhyming:

For in this rose conteyned was
Heven and erthe in lytle space.
Res miranda.

The aungelys sungyn the sheperdes to:
"Gloria in excelsis Deo."

With the best will in the world, rehearsal will be punctuated with discussions about pronunciation and meaning. So why do it, what is it about Christmas that makes composers reach for a Medieval text? Granted the words have a vigorous energy and communicativeness, but surely this can be achieved in Modern English too.

As a singer, I find the tendency puzzling and enervating, I want to concentrate on the music rather than struggling with the Medieval equivalent of 'faux amis'.

As a composer I am completely befuddled. These are texts, striking though they are, that never fail to put me off the idea of setting them.

And, in case you feel that I am the musical equivalent of the Grinch That Stole Christmas, I have written a number of carols treating subjects like the Shepherds and the Magi in modern language. My only lapse into the Medieval Tendency was Julian Merson's charming carol There is a Rose of such vertu, where the nicely direct language and the distinctive macaronic text engaged me so much that I did an arrangement of it for London Concord Singers.

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