A Christmas History Sacred Music at Christmas


A Christmas History

Simon Russell Beale visits Italy, Britain, Germany and Austria to see how the sound of Christmas has evolved in response to changing ideas about the Nativity.


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Christmas - the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ

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is a central part of the Christian calendar,

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it's one of our richest and most cherished rituals.

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But in this programme, we're going to go beyond the familiar carols

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and festive songs to explore two millennia of music and texts

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from across Europe, performed by Harry Christophers and his choir, The Sixteen.

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This is a Christmas history,

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a journey back through the music, people and beliefs

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that have given shape to our modern idea of Christmas.

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My story starts in Italy, here in Rome.

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The Romans ruled the world into which Jesus was born

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and for centuries, their language, Latin, dominated church worship.

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And it's here that the celebration of Christmas

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has produced some of choral music's greatest and most evocative works

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for some of the world's most beautiful churches.

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Founded in the early 5th century,

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Santa Maria Maggiore houses underneath its high altar

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an extremely important relic.

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A fragment of the crib, the manger in which the Baby Jesus was laid.

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Brought here from the Holy Land by the Pope in the 7th century,

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it was traditionally carried in procession when the Christmas mass was celebrated here.

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The pious could earn special indulgences by attendance.

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There are five little planks of wood, probably from a sycamore tree,

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native to Palestine. It's quite hard to see in this richly ornamented case the reliquary

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but if you were to assemble these fragments,

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they're supposed to form two X shapes, basically,

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the frame support of the manger.

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"And it came to pass in those days

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"that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus

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"that all the world should be taxed.

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"And Joseph also went up from Galilee,

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"unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem,

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"to be taxed with Mary, his espoused wife,

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"being great with child.

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"And she brought forth her first-born son

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"and wrapped him in swaddling clothes

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"and laid him in a manger,

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"because there was no room for them in the inn."

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Christianity begins to acquire shape and definition

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under the Roman empire. In the 3rd century AD,

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200 years after the event,

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Origen of Alexandria, one of the first great Christian theologians,

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wrote that he considered it God's plan that Jesus had been born in the reign of the Emperor Augustus,

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now the whole world was united under one monarch,

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making conditions perfect for spreading the gospel.

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Christmas is not a major feast during the first two centuries

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because, as Origen argued,

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the celebration of a god's birthday was pagan behaviour.

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The variety of creeds, rites and liturgies was huge,

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and locally based.

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"The Greeks speak Greek," Origen says,

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"the Romans Latin and everyone prays and sings praises to God

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"as best he can in his mother tongue."

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Singing, as ever, was common to Christians everywhere.

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CHORAL MUSIC: "The Oxyrhynchus Hymn"

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This beautiful, haunting song is the earliest piece of Christian music that we know of.

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CHORAL SINGING CONTINUES

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Discovered in Egypt at the beginning of the 20th century,

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and dating from the time of Origen,

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it's known as the Oxyrhynchus Hymn.

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In the Sackler Library in Oxford is the only known copy,

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preserved on a scrap of papyrus.

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CHORAL SINGING

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Well, this is extraordinary.

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Can you explain precisely what this is and what the writing is?

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So, this is the oldest Christian hymn

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which is written in ancient Greek.

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It's contemporary with some of the earliest New Testament papyri.

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It's written by a very professional Greek scribe,

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who wrote the words, the lyrics of the hymn.

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Then another scribe came along and in the blank space he left between the two lines

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annotated it with musical notation of the melody.

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It's a tiny fragment, isn't it? Can you work out what the hymn was for?

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It's a hymn to the Trinity.

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It invokes a chorus of worshippers, us,

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the faithful, to sing a hymn in honour of the Trinity,

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the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost,

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and asks the cosmos, the streams, the rushing winds,

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and the mountains to stay silent while the hymn is sung.

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We have no real clue as to how or where the hymn was originally sung

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but by transcribing the ancient Greek notation,

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Harry Christophers has reconstructed a performance.

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It comes from the Oxyrhynchus Papyri collection

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which were papyri which were brought back to England

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by two Oxford undergraduates,

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BP Grenfell and AS Hunt,

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who went to Egypt specifically to look for papyrus.

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They went to Oxyrhynchus. Oxyrhynchus is right in the middle of Egypt.

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As soon as they stuck their shovel into one of the ancient rubbish mounds that ringed the city

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around the desert edge, there were hundreds of them.

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The first thing they pulled out was a papyrus, the famous Logia Fragment

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of the Sayings of Jesus, the Greek version of the Gospel of Thomas.

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-It's marvellous...

-After that, it was just a torrent of papyrus.

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One piece after the next.

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So many that they couldn't package them all up.

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We've published, so far, over 5,000 pieces.

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But we reckon that's about 1%.

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There's at least another 500,000 to go.

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We expect there to be more of this hymn.

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We just haven't found it yet.

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It was a very special occasion up in Oxford,

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and looking at the Oxyrhynchus Papyrus,

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it had a wonderful melody, albeit, not necessarily what we'd call

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a totally classical melody,

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but there's something very beautiful about the single line

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and it's a tune that can be sung by the congregation.

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The story is hazy after the time of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri.

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The Greek musical notation it preserves was lost.

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Now nothing musical would be written down for 600 years.

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BELL TOLLS

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CHORAL SINGING

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In the 5th century, under Pope Gregory,

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a body of liturgical chants was established,

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the Gregorian chant.

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With no notation,

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these chants had to be learned by heart and for hundreds of years,

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they were passed down from generation to generation.

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Christmas in the Dark Ages was a dignified, solemn affair.

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This is the chant for Christmas Eve,

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the simplest line of melodies sung in unison, precious little more than the words unadorned.

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CHORAL SINGING

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It's showed its staying power. You've still got composers

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using plainchant themes today

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as the inspiration and basis for their pieces.

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Many of the melodies are hugely inventive,

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extremely beautiful and very evocative, as well.

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This body of chants would serve the church well for almost 1,000 years.

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But in the middle of the 13th century,

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a new sense of how to celebrate Christmas emerged.

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This is the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi

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and inside are some extraordinary frescoes by Giotto,

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revolutionary, naturalistic depictions of the human form

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from the very early Renaissance.

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The story is simple.

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We have the Holy Family, the Virgin Mother,

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the child laid in an animal feeding trough, the ever-patient Joseph.

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The shepherds come from the neighbouring fields and then, of course, there are the angels.

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Heaven and earth, gathered together in joyful celebration

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around the Christ child.

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It was St Francis of Assisi who, on Christmas Day 1223,

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gave the world its first nativity tableau,

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a living scene which allowed worshippers to contemplate the birth of the Christ child

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in a uniquely direct way.

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All the local villagers were invited into this cave

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where a magical surprise had been prepared.

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The straw-filled manger, feeding trough, in which the Baby Jesus

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was lying was surrounded by real, living farm animals.

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St Francis felt it was important that we should make use of all the human senses.

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According to contemporary reports, it was beautiful in its simplicity.

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The manger was later used as the altar for the Christmas mass.

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Afterwards, St Francis is said to have taken the doll which represented the Christ child,

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and cradled it so tenderly that the congregation was reminded forcibly

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that his virginity mirrored that of the Virgin Mary herself.

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The popularity of these nativity tableaux was immediate,

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boosted by musical settings of the traditional Christmas text,

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O Magnum Mysterium.

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This version is by the Spanish priest and composer,

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Tomas Luis de Victoria.

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There's this incredible feeling of time standing still at the beginning of O Magnum Mysterium.

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A real sense of awe and wonder. I always feel it's that feeling

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you get when you're looking at a newborn child.

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Then he creates this wonderful sense of atmosphere so that you almost see

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the animals looking at the child.

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Most brilliantly of all is the way he colours the word presepio, for manger.

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This extraordinary thing that the Son of God is lying in a manger.

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He gives this wonderful colour to the word presepio,

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which I think helps reflect his idea of the divine brought to earth,

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to this extremely simple level.

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# ..presepio... #

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"O magnum mysterium et admirabile sacramentum, ut animalia viderent

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"Dominum natum, jacentem in presepio."

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"Dominum natum, jacentem in presepio."

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Oh, great mystery and wonderful sacrament that the beasts

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should see the newborn Lord lying in a manger.

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Blessed is the virgin whose womb is worthy to bear Christ the Lord.

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Alleluia.

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Curiously, there is no mention of the beasts in the Gospel versions of the nativity.

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But their presence in the story is far older than St Francis' time.

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In the Book of Isaiah, one of the prophetic books of the Old Testament,

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is this phrase which predicts the recognition of the Messiah.

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"The ox knoweth his owner

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"and the ass his master's crib."

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Music was now at the heart of people's Christmas worship.

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The great musical development of the Middle Ages

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was the addition of elaborate choral singing to the traditional chants.

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The Catholic mass was, for many centuries, sung in Latin

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and successive popes have always determined the style of singing the congregation will hear.

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During the Christmas season, the Vatican allowed the mass for the 25th of December

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to be more florid, more ornamented, but within a strict formula.

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This is the Christmas mass composed by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina,

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who took his name from the hill-top town of Palestrina

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just outside Rome where he was born in the early 16th century.

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Details of his childhood are vague but tradition has it

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that a young Pierluigi sang in the streets

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while offering for sale the products of his father's farm,

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and that he was heard on such an occasion by the choirmaster of Santa Maria Maggiore.

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What is documented is that as a teenager, he came to Rome

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and joined the Santa Maria choir.

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It was for his choir here that Palestrina, known as the Prince of Music,

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composed his finest Christmas church music.

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Before Palestrina was all kinds of Christian song and sung liturgy.

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After Palestrina, a discipline emerged and the master was in place.

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This meant, above all, that there were rules.

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Rules governing harmony and the intelligibility of the text.

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One of the arguments going on the 1550s and '60s

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was how important

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the audibility of the words was.

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CHORAL SINGING

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Of course, if everyone's singing a different word at the same time,

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then it's hard to catch exactly which words they are singing.

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Palestrina's music was considered by the Catholic church

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to epitomise the perfect liturgical music, full of joy and vigour,

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but you can hear the words very clearly.

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He's taken the Christmas season to have an ethereal, rather celestial, angelic choir.

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It's a sort of extension of plainsong,

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finding a beautiful tune and then developing on it in all sorts of ways.

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It's jubilant. The end is incredibly evocative of Christmas.

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This is sacred church music rather than just festive music.

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Spiritual, rather than just celebratory.

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This liturgical music of the High Renaissance

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seeks to express a new sense of Christmas,

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Christmas post-St Francis, as it were.

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CHORAL SINGING

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Until relatively recently in Europe, the bleak midwinter months

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were a season of food scarcity and famine.

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In the Middle Ages,

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the celebration of Christmas became the last great feast

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before the dark, hungry days of the fast of Lent.

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Welcome to the Restaurant Macaroni.

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Macaroni, a food to which I am particularly partial,

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is, of course, made up of long tubes of pasta,

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cut into shorter pieces.

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The word macaroni is from the Latin macerare, meaning to break into pieces.

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And macerare is also the root of the word macaroon,

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which happens to be not only a rather delicious cake,

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but also a kind of song

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which uses fragments of different languages.

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"Make we joy now in this fest.

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"In quo Christus natus est."

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The first medieval carols were macaroons,

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fragments of familiar church Latin mixed in with the everyday language of the people.

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# Make we joy now in this fest

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# In quo Christus natus est

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# Eya

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# Make we joy now in this fest

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# In quo Christus natus est

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# Eya. #

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No-one really knows whether carols were sung inside the church or not.

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They must have been written by monks because they were the only people

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who would have had the learning to have written texts down

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in Latin and English and yet they probably couldn't have sung more jolly ones, at least,

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in the context of church services.

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The medieval church didn't seem to like too much letting go at Christmas,

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dancing was discouraged and indeed was thought to be the work of Satan.

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In Dulci Jubilo has a gentle, dancing character to it

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and the story goes that it was sung by the angels one Christmas Eve

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to the German mystic Heinrich Seuse, who lived in the 14th century.

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And it's rather nice to think that perhaps the bits sung by the angels

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were the bits in Latin and the bits in the vernacular would have been sung by Heinrich Seuse.

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The story of his spiritual journey, the Life Of The Blessed Heinrich Seuse, written by himself,

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is a handbook of self-mortification techniques that he used to induce religious visions.

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He starved himself, beat himself until he bled,

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but in return, he experienced a series of vivid hallucinations.

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The Virgin Mary appeared before him as a rose

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and then in 1326, after chastising his body with a leather strap,

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before him appeared a troupe of dancing angels.

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"And the angels said that they were sent from God to bring to me joy in the midst of my sufferings,

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"that I must dance with them in heavenly fashion

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"and thus they took me by the hand and drew me into their dance."

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In his autobiography, Heinrich also describes how he liked to mark Christmas,

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standing in his bare feet on the cold stone in front of an altar,

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exposing his hands to the cold until they were black and swollen,

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denying himself water or any other drink until his tongue cracked.

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He must have been a difficult man to buy Christmas presents for.

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My journey now takes me to Saxony in Germany.

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It was here in the 16th century that the Reformation first caught hold

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and Martin Luther's break with the Church of Rome

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would produce something completely new -

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Christmas music for the Protestant Church.

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This is the first purpose-built Lutheran church,

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the chapel at Hartenfels Castle.

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Designed by Luther himself, it was consecrated in 1544

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and the architecture embodies the Lutheran message.

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As he himself said, "nothing should happen here

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"except that the dear Lord talks to us through his holy word

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"and we in turn talk to him through prayer and songs of praise."

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The pulpit is bang in the middle of the church

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and the organ is deliberately placed above the very simple altar

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representative of the fact that music plays such a central role in Lutheran worship.

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The chapel was inaugurated with the music of Johann Walter,

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choirmaster, composer and musical adviser to Luther.

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The two men worked together to create a new Protestant sung liturgy.

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The evocation and re-enactment of the Nativity story as part of the celebration of the Christmas feast

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signifies the Christian faith that Jesus is the Messiah promised by the Old Testament

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and the incarnation of the Word -

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Verbum Caro Factum Est.

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Composed for the Christmas Eve service, and rooted in the ancient plain chant,

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Verbum Caro is one of Walter's earliest compositions.

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He's basically known for his hymns and the association with Luther,

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so to find a Latin chant is a bit of a rarity in his output.

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Are you implying that because he was a very early Protestant,

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that he's still using Catholic techniques?

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He's using the techniques that were used before,

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but he's written it in a simple way.

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He opens this with the chant,

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In All Voices.

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# Verbum... #

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That's the same with the tenor part.

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Then he goes up a fourth into the alto and bass.

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# Verbum... #

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# Verbum... #

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Very simple. Each voice opens with that little statement.

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# Verbum... #

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# Verbum... #

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# Verbum... #

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THEY SING IN LATIN

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Walter and Luther were seeking a new, simpler relationship

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between the faithful and the Word of God.

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When the Reformation reached Tudor England,

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it would lead to a century of turmoil.

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Between the time of Henry VIII's break with the Church of Rome and

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the restoration of King Charles II the following century,

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religious change became, for the British people, almost a national way of life.

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The country flipped from being Catholic to Protestant

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and then Catholic and then Protestant again.

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People were understandably confused.

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Thomas Tallis, who was organist here at Waltham Abbey at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries,

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was typical of his generation.

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THEY SING IN LATIN

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Tallis's Christmas Mass Puer Natus -

0:25:120:25:15

The Boy Is Born - was a glorious pinnacle of Catholic choral writing.

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It's both solemn and festive,

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heavenly and human.

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THEY SING IN LATIN

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The 16th century was a fascinating period for the celebration of Christmas.

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When the Reformation really took hold, there was a suspicion

0:25:470:25:51

that too much singing was a relic of Papistry.

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Puer Natus Mass is a glorious outpouring of the sense of joy

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and wonder that accompanies Christmas.

0:26:060:26:09

That kind of marking Christmas in the church,

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I think rather died out because of the Reformers wanting

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to suppress anything too florid.

0:26:280:26:31

It was quite a stern period.

0:26:310:26:33

In the complex and ever-changing world of Tudor England,

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Christmas was often a time of particular anxiety.

0:26:440:26:48

Would your celebrations during this period be the wrong type of celebrations?

0:26:480:26:54

And is there a hint of irony in Shakespeare's play Hamlet

0:26:540:26:58

when he has one of the characters talking about the Christmas period?

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"The nights are wholesome,

0:27:020:27:04

"then no planets strike.

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"No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,

0:27:050:27:09

"so hallow'd and so gracious is the time."

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# Lullaby

0:27:140:27:17

# Lullaby

0:27:170:27:20

# Lullaby... #

0:27:200:27:23

William Byrd was a staunch Catholic,

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but was also the favourite composer of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth.

0:27:270:27:30

He refused to give up his faith

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even when the penalty for celebrating the Mass was imprisonment or even execution

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and retired to an obscure corner of Essex to worship in secret.

0:27:360:27:41

His Christmas Lullaby was written for a private domestic observation of Christmas.

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# Be still, my blessed babe

0:27:550:28:00

# Though cause thou hast to mourn

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# Whose blood most innocent to shed... #

0:28:090:28:14

I think he felt he was persecuted and driven underground a little bit.

0:28:140:28:18

It's a beautiful carol,

0:28:180:28:20

but it's quite dark as well

0:28:200:28:22

because it draws on the theme of Herod

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slaying innocent children

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and that was something that they perhaps focussed on a bit more than we do in modern times.

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# ..What slaughter he doth make

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# Shedding the blood of infants all

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# Sweet Saviour... #

0:28:440:28:46

So you had the mother just singing to her child, rocking him to sleep,

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and in the background, a king going off and committing genocide, essentially.

0:28:500:28:55

Perhaps this felt like a reflection of his situation.

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# ..Which King this king would kill

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# Oh woe and woeful heavy day... #

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This century of religious upheaval climaxed in 1649

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when the execution of the king ended the Civil War as a victory for the Puritans.

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Christmas was effectively banned.

0:29:210:29:23

There's no Christmas music from the Parliamentary period.

0:29:260:29:29

Messiah, Handel's great 18th-century masterpiece,

0:29:330:29:36

is still synonymous with Christmas choral music for many of us today

0:29:360:29:41

and represents the next great leap forward for sacred music.

0:29:410:29:45

# For unto us a child is born

0:29:450:29:48

# Unto us

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# A son is given

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# Unto us

0:29:530:29:56

# A son is given

0:29:560:29:58

# For unto us a child is born

0:29:580:30:01

# Unto us a child is born

0:30:010:30:04

# Unto us... #

0:30:040:30:06

The 18th century was obsessed by opera

0:30:060:30:08

and Messiah is an oratorio,

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a halfway house between the church and the theatre -

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sacred stories arranged for singers with an orchestra, but without dramatic action, scenery or costume.

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# Unto us

0:30:190:30:21

# A son is given

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# Unto us... #

0:30:240:30:25

Intended by the composer for performance in the run-up to Easter,

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it tells the story of Jesus from his birth through to the Resurrection and beyond.

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# ..And the government shall be upon His shoulder

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# And the government shall be... #

0:30:380:30:40

The early section soon became the basis for special Christmas concerts

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where professional singers sang alongside amateurs.

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# ..And His name shall be called

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# Wonderful

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# Counsellor

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# The mighty God The everlasting Father

0:30:560:31:01

# The prince of peace

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# To us a child is born... #

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It laid the foundation for the great British tradition of amateur choral singing,

0:31:050:31:10

but it was a movement nourished by the strength of our congregational singing in church.

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From the 16th century on through to the 18th,

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sung liturgy was increasingly discarded

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and the choir tended to lead congregational singing.

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# Hark, how all the welkin rings

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# Alleluia

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# Glory to the King of Kings

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# Alleluia... #

0:31:400:31:42

In England, 300 years ago, the Wesley brothers

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founded the Methodist movement.

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They were firm believers in the importance of congregational singing.

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Charles Wesley wrote over 6,500 hymns.

0:31:520:31:56

# ..God and sinners reconciled... #

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This is his Christmas hymn, Hark, How All The Welkin Rings.

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Stirring stuff.

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But over the course of the next 100 years,

0:32:090:32:12

it would evolve into an almost completely different song,

0:32:120:32:15

one of our best-loved and most-sung Christmas carols.

0:32:150:32:18

# ..Alleluia... #

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The first change would be a little tweak to the words

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from a Methodist preacher with a rather dodgy past.

0:32:250:32:29

This is George Whitefield,

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born in a pub here in Gloucester around Christmas-time in 1714, the youngest child of seven.

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His father died when he was two and George grew up to be a bit of a rogue.

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He stole money, he shoplifted, he played cards,

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he even had ambitions to be an actor.

0:32:500:32:53

He was handsome and charismatic,

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despite, or perhaps because of, his squint.

0:32:560:33:00

But one day he turned a corner, he met the Wesley brothers

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and all the talents and skills of the potential actor

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were transformed into the oratorical power of the greatest preacher of the 18th century.

0:33:070:33:12

When he was still in his early twenties he preached, from this pulpit, his first sermon,

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one of many thousand he was to preach to hundreds of thousands of people over the next half-century.

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"The celebration of the birth of Christ

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"hath been esteemed a duty by most who profess Christianity.

0:33:290:33:33

"You do not celebrate this aright when you spend most of your time in cards,

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"dice or gaming of any sort.

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"Those of you who have made this your practice in times past,

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"let me beseech you in the bowels of mercy not to do so any more."

0:33:460:33:51

# Hark, how all the welkin rings

0:33:510:33:57

# Alleluia... #

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The genius of George Whitefield was to replace Charles Wesley's plain English

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with these first two dramatic lines.

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# Hark! The herald angels sing

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# Hark! The herald angels sing

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# Glory to the new-born King

0:34:120:34:16

# Glory to the new-born... #

0:34:160:34:18

It was now a lyric in search of a tune

0:34:180:34:20

and many were tried.

0:34:200:34:22

One enterprising soul even managed to glue The Herald Angels onto George Frideric Handel's

0:34:220:34:27

See The Conquering Hero Comes.

0:34:270:34:29

# Hark! The herald angels sing

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# Glory to the new-born King... #

0:34:390:34:48

But it didn't stick.

0:34:480:34:50

Handel's contribution to Christmas music is, of course, the Messiah.

0:34:500:34:53

The melody that brought these words to life

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was to come from another place entirely.

0:34:560:34:59

# Vaterland, in deinen Gauen... #

0:34:590:35:03

In June 1840,

0:35:030:35:05

the citizens of Leipzig gathered in the town square.

0:35:050:35:09

They'd come to hear a new composition by local composer Felix Mendelssohn.

0:35:110:35:16

With a massive male-voice choir of 200 and a vastly expanded orchestra,

0:35:160:35:21

he performed his lengthy Festgesang, his festive songs,

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written for the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg's invention of the printing press.

0:35:250:35:29

His family described it as "market music" and it was never revived.

0:35:290:35:34

It wasn't even deemed worthy of an opus number and was destined to sink without trace.

0:35:340:35:39

# Hark! The herald angels sing

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# Glory to the new-born King... #

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My story leads me back here, for it was

0:35:510:35:54

another organist at Waltham Abbey,

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300 years after Thomas Tallis was here,

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who was to join this obscure piece of music by a great composer

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to the words that fit it so perfectly.

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# ..Nations rise

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# Join the triumph of the... #

0:36:080:36:12

In 1855, this Victorian hero, William H Cummings,

0:36:120:36:18

set George Whitefield's theatrically sharpened-up version of Charles Wesley's original words

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to Mendelssohn's music.

0:36:230:36:25

# ..Hark! The herald angels sing

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# Glory to the new-born King. #

0:36:310:36:40

From the 19th century onwards,

0:36:400:36:41

the overwhelming focus of the season becomes Christmas Day, the birth of Christ.

0:36:410:36:46

TRAIN WHISTLE BLASTS

0:36:460:36:48

As the western world became more industrialised, perhaps more rationalised,

0:36:480:36:53

then it was easier for Protestant Christians to celebrate the birth of a baby boy

0:36:530:36:57

rather than the more problematic, miraculous aspects of the Gospel story, such as the Virgin birth.

0:36:570:37:03

A new age of popular Christmas music was born.

0:37:030:37:07

MUSIC: "Silent Night"

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Silent Night is perhaps the world's most popular Christmas song.

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It exists in over 50 languages and there are hundreds of recordings.

0:37:180:37:22

But its origins lie in the opening decades of the 19th century

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and the tiny Austrian village of Oberndorf.

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The original German lyrics are by the Austrian Priest

0:37:340:37:37

Father Joseph Mohr. In his youth,

0:37:370:37:40

he had a reputation for neglecting his priestly duties,

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frequenting the drinking houses,

0:37:430:37:45

sharing jokes with persons of the opposite sex

0:37:450:37:48

and singing songs that do not edify.

0:37:480:37:51

I find the words that he wrote a little more unsettling

0:37:510:37:54

than the English ones that we're accustomed to sing today.

0:37:540:37:57

Silent night

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Holy night

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All are a-bed

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Awake and afraid.

0:38:020:38:04

# Heilige Nacht

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# Alles schlaft

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# Einsam wacht

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# Nur das traute heilige Paar

0:38:150:38:24

# Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar

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# Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh'... #

0:38:320:38:41

The carol was first sung on 24th December, 1818,

0:38:410:38:47

here in the poor village of Oberndorf

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in the church of Saint Nicholas. It is like a miracle.

0:38:500:38:54

Two stars met here -

0:38:540:38:57

Joseph Mohr, a very poor priest,

0:38:570:39:01

and the teacher Franz Xaver Gruber,

0:39:010:39:03

who came to play the organ in here,

0:39:030:39:07

but there was a problem with the organ

0:39:070:39:10

because Oberndorf always had high-water floods

0:39:100:39:13

and so the church was wet, the organ was wet

0:39:130:39:16

and the legend said the poor mice in the church nipped at the bellows

0:39:160:39:23

-and it was impossible to play the organ.

-Though you don't think that's true about the mice?

0:39:230:39:28

No, it is a legend, but our visitors like to hear it.

0:39:280:39:34

So what did they do?

0:39:340:39:35

They had only the guitar of Joseph Mohr.

0:39:350:39:39

He said, "I wrote a poem for Christmas.

0:39:390:39:45

"Perhaps you can go and make the music."

0:39:450:39:49

# Silent night... #

0:39:490:39:54

They came together and stood before the crib

0:39:540:39:57

and sang this melody.

0:39:570:40:00

Just like a melody for a baby.

0:40:040:40:07

# ..Hark, the wondrous angel throng... #

0:40:090:40:16

Silent Night's one of my favourites, definitely.

0:40:160:40:20

The text is so powerful

0:40:200:40:22

and it conjures up such images of Christmas.

0:40:220:40:25

It sounds like it's existed for ever

0:40:250:40:29

and everyone's known it for ever.

0:40:290:40:31

# ..Saviour is born

0:40:310:40:38

# Christ the Saviour is born. #

0:40:380:40:45

It's a curious thing. We've been making this film in July and it's been a pretty hot European summer,

0:40:450:40:51

but for me, that doesn't feel so incongruous.

0:40:510:40:55

When I was a child my family spent some time in the Far East and in North Africa

0:40:550:40:59

and so heat and fierce sunshine on December 25th is not so extraordinary.

0:40:590:41:04

Of course, in the Holy Land, there wouldn't have been the snow and the frost

0:41:040:41:08

and all the winter images that are so synonymous with the Nativity in the European mind.

0:41:080:41:12

# In the bleak midwinter

0:41:120:41:19

# Frosty wind made moan... #

0:41:190:41:24

The power of this story, of course,

0:41:240:41:27

lies in its marvel, its mystery and its drama

0:41:270:41:30

and part of our story is how the setting, the scenery

0:41:300:41:34

can be changed to suit the requirements and the expectations of its audience.

0:41:340:41:39

# ..Snow had fallen

0:41:390:41:42

# Snow on snow

0:41:420:41:45

# Snow on snow

0:41:450:41:51

# In the bleak midwinter

0:41:510:41:59

# Long ago. #

0:41:590:42:05

The text is by Christina Rossetti.

0:42:050:42:08

She wrote it towards the end of a long life,

0:42:080:42:11

but extraordinarily enough,

0:42:110:42:13

here in the Tate Britain is a painting by her elder brother -

0:42:130:42:16

Gabriel Dante Rossetti, one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood -

0:42:160:42:21

of the teenage Christina.

0:42:210:42:22

She is the model for this sensational painting.

0:42:220:42:27

I mean sensational.

0:42:270:42:28

When it was first shown in 1850, it drew such hostility from the critics and the press

0:42:280:42:32

the he never exhibited it again.

0:42:320:42:34

It shows the Virgin Mary at the moment of the Annunciation.

0:42:340:42:38

Apparently it's a very good likeness of Christina,

0:42:380:42:43

although the hair is different, she didn't have this colour hair.

0:42:430:42:47

She looks like a young girl who's just woken up

0:42:470:42:50

and I'm not quite sure whether it's fear or puzzlement.

0:42:500:42:53

It's a complex look.

0:42:530:42:56

When she was in her mid-teens

0:42:560:42:58

Christina suffered some kind of breakdown

0:42:580:43:01

and for several years was obsessed with religion

0:43:010:43:03

and distressed by her own inability to match the high standards her faith seemed to demand of her.

0:43:030:43:08

She emerged from this with deeply held convictions.

0:43:080:43:12

She could never bring herself to marry,

0:43:120:43:14

so she devoted all the considerable energies of a Victorian spinster

0:43:140:43:17

to a narrow range of activities.

0:43:170:43:19

She was her widowed mother's companion, always worried about her brother.

0:43:190:43:23

Gabriel Dante was always teetering on the edge of scandal with his controversial paintings

0:43:230:43:28

and his indecorous relationships with several beautiful models.

0:43:280:43:31

There was the church. She was High Anglican -

0:43:310:43:34

about as Catholic as you can get without actually being Catholic.

0:43:340:43:37

Then there was the poetry -

0:43:370:43:39

sad, simple lyrics concerned with death and loss.

0:43:390:43:44

Christmas hath a darkness

0:43:470:43:50

Brighter than the blazing noon

0:43:500:43:52

Christmas hath a chillness

0:43:520:43:53

Warmer than the heat of June

0:43:530:43:55

Earth, put on your whitest bridal robe of spotless snow

0:43:550:44:00

For Christmas bringeth Jesus

0:44:000:44:03

Brought for us so low.

0:44:030:44:05

And here she is,

0:44:050:44:08

in a grave with her father, mother.

0:44:080:44:11

Ten years after her death, in 1904, her collected poems were published,

0:44:110:44:15

including In The Bleak Midwinter.

0:44:150:44:18

Gustav Theodore Holst was an unknown young composer

0:44:280:44:32

when he first encountered Christina Rossetti's poem.

0:44:320:44:35

# ..When He comes to reign

0:44:350:44:42

# In the bleak midwinter

0:44:420:44:47

# A stable... #

0:44:470:44:48

Almost immediately, he set it to a tune which he called Cranham

0:44:480:44:52

after the Gloucestershire village where his mother had grown up and which he visited in 1905,

0:44:520:44:57

a quarter of a century after her death.

0:44:570:44:59

He's supposed to have stayed in this cottage,

0:45:010:45:04

which was, for many years, a bed and breakfast.

0:45:040:45:07

We're in your beautiful garden of Midwinter Cottage,

0:45:070:45:10

where you live.

0:45:100:45:11

We're here in the height of midsummer, so this Midwinter Cottage isn't looking remotely midwinter.

0:45:110:45:18

Now we've got some pictures from last Christmas.

0:45:180:45:21

-Shall we look at these?

-We had snow before Christmas and after.

0:45:210:45:24

Oh, look at that!

0:45:240:45:26

-That's an In The Bleak Midwinter shot, isn't it?

-Yes.

0:45:260:45:30

-Holst's mother died when he was seven, Laura, that's right?

-Yes.

0:45:300:45:33

So why would he come back?

0:45:330:45:35

I think he was probably searching for his roots.

0:45:350:45:38

He felt the loss of his mother profoundly

0:45:380:45:41

and when he came to write the tune for In The Bleak Midwinter,

0:45:410:45:45

wanted something that was personal to him.

0:45:450:45:48

But she was a great musician as well, herself.

0:45:480:45:50

She played harmonium in the church here in Cranham,

0:45:500:45:53

she sang, she also had played piano.

0:45:530:45:56

That must have been a profound influence on Holst

0:45:560:46:00

and he did feel very alone, I think, as a young child.

0:46:000:46:03

Here in the drawing room of Midwinter Cottage, they have a piano

0:46:050:46:08

and on the music stand is a copy of Carols For Children,

0:46:080:46:11

including In The Bleak Midwinter,

0:46:110:46:13

so I couldn't really resist.

0:46:130:46:16

HE PLAYS "In The Bleak Midwinter"

0:46:180:46:22

When Holst visited Cranham,

0:46:270:46:29

I wonder if he imagined the congregation in the village church singing his carol.

0:46:290:46:33

His setting of Christina Rossetti's simple words is suffused with a personal nostalgia,

0:46:390:46:44

but it also created a picture of an idealised Christmas,

0:46:440:46:48

one we all know and share.

0:46:480:46:50

The trend in 20th-century British Christmas music

0:46:570:46:59

was to turn away from the modern world and embrace a medieval aesthetic.

0:46:590:47:05

# Make we joy now in this fest

0:47:050:47:09

# In quo Christus natus est

0:47:090:47:12

# Eya... #

0:47:120:47:15

Born in Oldham and self-taught as a composer,

0:47:150:47:17

William Walton rediscovered long-forgotten musical styles

0:47:170:47:20

and reshaped them for contemporary audiences.

0:47:200:47:23

# A Patre Unigenitus

0:47:230:47:27

# Is through a maiden... #

0:47:270:47:29

He uses a medieval set of words -

0:47:290:47:31

that macaronic idea, Latin and English together -

0:47:310:47:34

but he puts his own 20th-century take on it

0:47:340:47:37

and by jangling the chords together, makes it, you know, slightly wacky,

0:47:370:47:42

but it's still... it's still earthy and exciting.

0:47:420:47:44

# In quo Christus natus est

0:47:440:47:49

# Eya... #

0:47:490:47:52

It's an up-beat, celebratory Christmas carol.

0:47:520:47:55

He sets it in this wonderful,

0:47:550:47:57

lilting triple time, which gives it

0:47:570:47:59

this sort of rumbustious holiday-season feel.

0:47:590:48:02

# ..Maria ventre concepit

0:48:020:48:05

# The Holy Ghost was aye her with... #

0:48:050:48:09

In the refrain of the "Eya, eya, eya,"

0:48:090:48:11

he suddenly slips into this lovely sort of faux-Renaissance polyphony

0:48:110:48:15

to give it a nice, gentle contrast with the upbeat verses.

0:48:150:48:19

So he's nodding to two different traditions, the early-medieval and...

0:48:190:48:23

And something a little bit later. The two are very complementary.

0:48:230:48:26

# ..Eya

0:48:260:48:31

# Eya. #

0:48:310:48:37

30 years later,

0:48:370:48:41

an idealistic young composer called Peter Maxwell Davies

0:48:410:48:44

was running the music department at Cirencester Grammar School.

0:48:440:48:47

# Alleluia, Vergine Maria... #

0:48:470:48:52

I don't want to be pompous about it,

0:48:520:48:54

but I have got enough confidence to know that

0:48:540:48:59

I AM at the beginning of something.

0:48:590:49:02

Max, probably the most unusual music teacher in history,

0:49:020:49:08

wanted his pupils to experience the most cutting-edge post-war music experiments.

0:49:080:49:13

ORCHESTRA PLAYS AVANT-GARDE MUSIC

0:49:130:49:17

For the local church's pre-Christmas concert,

0:49:170:49:21

he composed a special cycle of carols

0:49:210:49:23

for them to perform.

0:49:230:49:24

Apparently it left the audience of parents and interested locals baffled -

0:49:260:49:30

a collage of medieval English poetry and ecclesiastical Latin texts,

0:49:300:49:34

whose setting served as an uncompromising introduction to the avant-garde.

0:49:340:49:39

I felt that this was very important then,

0:49:410:49:44

in the late '50s particularly,

0:49:440:49:46

because the whole question of the composition techniques

0:49:460:49:52

that a composer employs

0:49:520:49:53

had gone into some kind of melting-pot. Tonality,

0:49:540:49:59

rhythmic structure, had disintegrated into something,

0:49:590:50:03

which had to be rethought.

0:50:030:50:05

# O magnum

0:50:050:50:12

# Mysterium

0:50:120:50:20

# Et admirabile

0:50:200:50:30

# Sacramentum... #

0:50:300:50:35

Peter Maxwell Davies has been inspired by

0:50:350:50:38

those lovely medieval texts.

0:50:380:50:40

They're very settable to music.

0:50:400:50:42

The lines are usually short, simple

0:50:420:50:45

and memorable.

0:50:450:50:47

The idea, I think, in the Middle Ages

0:50:520:50:54

was that people who were not necessarily literate could pick them up

0:50:540:50:58

and one of the things you look for, as a composer, is simplicity in the texts that you set

0:50:580:51:04

and the best of those medieval lyrics,

0:51:040:51:08

just are so simple and so inspired.

0:51:080:51:11

THEY SING IN LATIN

0:51:170:51:21

John Rutter is probably the most prolific, successful and genuinely popular

0:51:280:51:33

of all modern church-music composers

0:51:330:51:35

and songs celebrating Christmas, either written or arranged by him,

0:51:350:51:39

have become a seasonal essential.

0:51:390:51:41

# And God himself

0:51:410:51:44

# Sowed with his hand

0:51:440:51:47

# In Nazareth... #

0:51:470:51:51

John's achievement is very much to do with that beauty of the vocal line.

0:51:510:51:56

First and foremost, he writes beautifully for voices.

0:51:560:51:59

# ..A maiden found... #

0:51:590:52:01

In the piece we're doing, he starts just with the men on the tune,

0:52:010:52:06

accompanied by humming by the choir

0:52:060:52:08

and then it just changes to the sopranos singing the tune.

0:52:080:52:11

Simple little ideas, but very, very effective.

0:52:110:52:14

# When Gabriel this maid did meet

0:52:140:52:20

# With Ave Maria he did her greet... #

0:52:200:52:27

Christmas is a time for congregational singing

0:52:270:52:30

and so you want the congregations to be able to achieve these pieces.

0:52:300:52:33

That's John Rutter's great strength -

0:52:330:52:35

he manages to combine great artistry

0:52:350:52:38

and technically very well-written pieces,

0:52:380:52:40

but they are approachable by choirs of all sorts of standards.

0:52:400:52:43

# ..On a day in Bethlehem... #

0:52:430:52:49

There Is A Flower is, I think, one of the loveliest texts I've ever come across.

0:52:490:52:54

It's by a blind

0:52:540:52:55

15th-century monk called John Audelay.

0:52:550:52:59

The original music doesn't survive,

0:52:590:53:01

but what, for me, makes it so moving

0:53:010:53:03

is the fact that John Audelay himself never saw a flower.

0:53:030:53:08

And so it was all in his imagination.

0:53:080:53:11

# ..Then rich and poor of ev'ry land... #

0:53:110:53:17

But it likes the Virgin Mary to a rose,

0:53:170:53:20

which is an image that, of course, runs through the whole of medieval Christian poetry.

0:53:200:53:26

# Till kinges three

0:53:260:53:29

# That blessed flower came to see... #

0:53:290:53:37

I looked at that text and I thought, "I want to set this to music."

0:53:370:53:40

# ..Alleluia

0:53:400:53:42

# Alleluia

0:53:420:53:44

# Alleluia

0:53:440:53:47

# Alleluia

0:53:470:53:49

# Alleluia... #

0:53:490:53:52

John's writing has been influenced by modern music -

0:53:520:53:56

Broadway musicals, even The Beatles -

0:53:560:53:58

but nevertheless, it never fails to evoke the feeling of a traditional Christmas.

0:53:580:54:03

# ..Alleluia... #

0:54:030:54:07

I wanted the idea of a single, innocent solo voice

0:54:070:54:10

just accompanied by gentle humming.

0:54:100:54:13

'There is a flower

0:54:130:54:15

'Sprung of a tree

0:54:150:54:16

'The root of it is called Jesse.'

0:54:160:54:18

# There is a flower

0:54:180:54:23

# Sprung of a tree

0:54:230:54:26

# The root thereof

0:54:260:54:30

# Is called Jesse... #

0:54:300:54:33

'The flower of Christ

0:54:330:54:35

'There is none such in Paradise.'

0:54:350:54:38

# There is none such

0:54:380:54:44

# In Paradise. #

0:54:440:54:57

He knows the nature of the human voice inside out,

0:54:590:55:03

so whatever he writes,

0:55:030:55:04

you know it will be wonderfully vocal.

0:55:040:55:06

# What sweeter music can we bring

0:55:060:55:13

# Than a carol... #

0:55:130:55:14

Since the end of the First World War

0:55:140:55:16

King's College, Cambridge, has held a Christmas Eve service,

0:55:160:55:19

that, thanks to broadcasting, has become an international institution

0:55:190:55:23

and in 1987, John Rutter made his own unique contribution.

0:55:230:55:27

It was a great day when the phone rang and Stephen Cleobury, the Director Of Music at King's College,

0:55:300:55:35

said, "We've got a vacant spot in this year's Festival Of Nine Lessons And Carols.

0:55:350:55:41

"Would you care to write a carol specially for us this year?"

0:55:410:55:44

# ..That sees December turned to May... #

0:55:470:55:52

John Rutter is one of

0:55:520:55:54

the supreme contemporary composers of choral music

0:55:540:55:58

and I knew that when I asked him,

0:55:580:56:00

he would produce a Rolls-Royce model,

0:56:000:56:03

which he absolutely did.

0:56:030:56:05

# ..Or smell like a meadow newly shorn

0:56:050:56:11

# Thus on the sudden Come and see... #

0:56:110:56:16

I've always loved that Festival Of Lessons And Carols.

0:56:160:56:19

It's one of my very first memories of Christmas, listening to it on the radio.

0:56:190:56:23

And then when I became a student at Cambridge,

0:56:230:56:27

I actually walked into King's College Chapel

0:56:270:56:29

and I thought, "This is the place where, each year, it all happens

0:56:290:56:33

"and people in their millions, all round the world, stop what they're doing

0:56:330:56:37

"to join in this moment of anticipation and celebration of Christmas."

0:56:370:56:43

For me, it was always magic

0:56:430:56:46

and magic is what it remains.

0:56:460:56:50

# ..With his sunshine and his showers

0:56:500:56:55

# Turns all the patient ground to flowers

0:56:550:57:01

# Turns all the patient ground... #

0:57:010:57:05

I think the amazing thing now is that we've come full circle really

0:57:050:57:09

and we're seeing this return to the great music of the past,

0:57:090:57:13

but set alongside the great music of the modern day.

0:57:130:57:16

# ..To this day

0:57:160:57:18

# That sees December... #

0:57:180:57:22

We've got 21st-century composers looking back to those medieval and renaissance ideals

0:57:220:57:27

and putting their own take on this wonderful music.

0:57:270:57:30

# ..Turn to May... #

0:57:300:57:35

The revival of interest, in my lifetime,

0:57:350:57:37

in the rich and sophisticated of sacred choral music

0:57:370:57:40

is a living alternative to the secular sound of Christmas.

0:57:400:57:44

Thanks to modern scholarship, modern technology,

0:57:440:57:47

many wonderful choirs,

0:57:470:57:48

it's never been easier to explore how the Nativity story has inspired composers,

0:57:480:57:54

from humble to great, from Anonymous to JS Bach.

0:57:540:57:56

Heaven and Earth filled with music celebrating the birth of Christ.

0:58:000:58:04

A sacred continuity of the Christmas story,

0:58:100:58:12

which is, perhaps, best expressed in music.

0:58:120:58:15

THEY SING JOYFULLY

0:58:150:58:20

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:58:330:58:36

E-mail [email protected]

0:58:360:58:39

Simon Russell Beale takes a journey through Italy, Britain, Germany and Austria as he explores how the sound of Christmas has evolved in response to changing ideas about the Nativity. His story takes us through two millennia of music, from a fragment of papyrus preserving the earliest known piece of Christian music to the stories behind Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Silent Night and In the Bleak Midwinter, and the work of popular Christmas composer, John Rutter. Music is performed by Harry Christophers and his choir, The Sixteen.


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