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Wondrous Birth: New York Polyphony

The carol has taken many forms over the course of its evolution from plainsong melodies, motets, and hymns to lullabies and devotional folk songs. In the Middle Ages, carols were composed to celebrate not only the birth of the Christ-child, but for feast days throughout the entire Christian year. The Protestant Reformation ushered in the further development of the vernacular congregational hymn-carol and, with it many of the carols in the modern canon. The carol tradition continues today in the works of many contemporary composers, from perennial favorites by John Rutter and David Willcocks to instant current hits of Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen.

In that vein of continuing the contemporary carol tradition, we open this sequence with a setting of the Advent Hymn Veni Redemptor Gentium (“Savior of the Nations Come”) composed for New York Polyphony by Andrew Smith. This tune became so influential in the Lutheran tradition that J.S. Bach based not one but two of his church cantatas on this hymn tune. In this setting, the hymn verses alternate between sung plainsong and polyphony with the tune shared by all the voices.

The Tudor period refers to composers who were active during the reign of the House of Tudor (1485-1603) in England, and to their general style of music, often referred to as Tudor polyphony. It embraces an epoch of change and development in English music, a gradual transition from various techniques used in medieval music to complex, many-voiced polyphony. Thomas Tallis captures the essence of this music: imitation, rhythmic variation, false relations (where the movement of two parts results in a simultaneous semitone clash, a typical feature of early English renaissance polyphony), unexpected harmonies, and a gift for expressing in music the essence of the text. Audivi vocem de caelo comes from the Sarum liturgy for All Saints’ Day and, in the four single voices, characterizes the wise virgins with their vessels awaiting the bridegroom, symbolizing the Advent of the Christ. This leads into another new setting by Andrew Smith of the beloved plainsong hymn Veni Emmanuel. The story of the fall of Adam has been set to music to accompany the liturgies of the Advent season particularly in the contemporary evolution of the carol service in churches, chapels, and cathedrals. Adam lay ybounden is a medieval carol text, which has been most famously set by Benjamin Britten and Boris Ord, and is recently composed here by Geoffrey Williams.

The Flemish or Flanders school, represented here by Philippe Verdelot and Jacob Clemens “non Papa,” is a broad category for composers hailing from the Low Countries of Northern France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. One of the greatest accomplishments of the composers of the High Renaissance was the development of the principles of imitation. Each phrase of text is given its own “point of imitation,” repeated in turn by each voice part before moving on to the next phrase in a continuously overlapping series. With this technique of imitation in place, the composers we feature used every opportunity to set text in far more rich and elaborate fashion than that of their medieval predecessors. Philippe Verdelot’s Gabriel Archangelus takes the rare opportunity to set to music the story of the Archangel Gabriel’s visit to Zechariah to announce the conception of John the Baptist, Christ’s standard bearer. Carrying on with Gabriel’s visits, we sing the well known plainsong antiphon Ave maris stella followed by the beloved Basque carol “The Angel Gabriel from Heaven came” (Gabriel’s Message).

English medieval carols from the Trinity Roll, Ritson, and Selden Manuscripts (There is no Rose; Lully, lullow: I saw a swete semly syght; and Nowell: Out of your sleep) exemplify the highly developed style of burden–verse–burden narrative form of the late Middle Ages—a form not unlike the modern pop song. The Christmas season gave those in religious orders the opportunity to marry the secular and the sacred in their music making and these medieval texts are again re-examined in new settings this year by British-born composers, John Scott and Andrew Smith.

The scene at the manger celebrates the beasts adoring the Christ child. The Feast of the Holy Innocents is very much a part of the Christmas season, even with its terrible story of the slaughter of the first-born of Bethlehem. The lament is set quite personally by Richard Pygott, a court composer to Henry VIII, paraphrasing the Virgin mother cooing her child. The Coventry Carol (“Lully, lulla”) is a modern name for a very old carol meant to accompany an even older medieval mystery play. .

This program closes with an intimate arrangement by New York Polyphony bass Craig Phillips under his nom-de-pleum, Alexander Craig. The darkest midnight in December takes its origin from an old Irish folk melody and has been a staple of the group’s repertoire since its inception.