A Choral Christmas Sacred Music at Christmas


A Choral Christmas

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She brought forth her first-born son

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and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger

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because there was no room for them in the inn.

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# Gloria in excelsis Deo

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# Et in terra pax hominibus

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# Bonae voluntatis... #

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Welcome to the parish church of St Augustine in north London,

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for a programme of sacred music associated with Christmas,

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half an hour of some of the most sublime choral music from the last thousand years,

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performed by Harry Christophers and his choir, the Sixteen.

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# Adoramus te

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# Glorificamus te... #

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We have Renaissance polyphony from Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Tomas Luis de Victoria,

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anonymous medieval carols and great Christmas music from composers as diverse as JS Bach,

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Felix Mendelssohn, Gustav Holst and William Walton.

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Some of these pieces were written to be performed as part of a church service,

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others are the more familiar carols sung outside the church

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and sometimes disapproved of by the authorities.

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What they all have in common is that sense of Christmas as a profoundly special time of year.

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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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# O lux beata Trinitas!

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# He lay between an ox and ass

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# Beside his mother-maiden free

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# Gloria tibi Domine!

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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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The Medieval carol, Make We Joy.

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Italy is very much the cradle of scared music

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and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was the church's first great composer.

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He took his name from the hilltop town of Palestrina,

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

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In his 50-year career, he wrote hundreds of polyphonic masses and motets for use in church worship,

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especially for the beautiful Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome,

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where he sang as a boy and later served as choir master.

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His Christmas motet, Hodie Christus Natus Est, is a simple expression of seasonal joy for double choir,

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one with sopranos and one without. "Today, Christ is born. Today, angels sing on earth."

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# Hodie Christus natus est

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# Nowell! Nowell! Nowell!

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# Hodie Christus natus est

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# Nowell! Nowell! Nowell!

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# Hodie salvator apparuit

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# Nowell! Nowell! Nowell!

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# Hodie in terra

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# Canunt angeli

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# Canunt angeli

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# Nowell! Nowell! Nowell!

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# Hodie exultant justi dicentes

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# Gloria in excelsis Deo

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# Nowell! Nowell!

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# Nowell! Nowell!

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# Nowell! Nowell!

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# Nowell! Nowell!

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# Nowell! Nowell!

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# Nowell! Nowell!

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# Nowell! Nowell!

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# Nowell! #

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While Palestrina's motet is direct and joyfully expressive

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his contemporary, Victoria, embraces a more mystical vision of the Nativity.

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His motet, O Magnum Mysterium, O Great Mystery, is a meditation on the Virgin birth,

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inspired by St Francis of Assisi's vision of Christmas.

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# O magnum mysterium

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# Et admirabile sacramentum

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# O magnum mysterium

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# Et admirabile sacramentum

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# Et admirabile sacramentum

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# Ut animalia

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# Ut animalia

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# Viderent Dominum natum

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# Viderent Dominum natum

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# Jacentem in praesepio

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# O beata Virgo

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# Cujus viscera meruerunt

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# Portare Dominum

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# Jesu Christum

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# Alleluia, alleluia

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# Alleluia, alleluia

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# Alleluia, alleluia

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# Alleluia

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# Alleluia

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# Alleluia, alleluia. #

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The Latin text, O Magnum Mysterium, set as a motet

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by the Renaissance priest and composer, Tomas Luis de Victoria.

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Outside the church, a different tradition of Christmas music had established itself

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during the Middle Ages, the carol.

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The feast of Christmas must have come as a blessed relief during the long, harsh, Medieval winters.

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But although carols have all the joy and merry making of the season,

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they still frequently contained fragments of church Latin,

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like our next song, In Dulci Jubilo. Now sing with hearts aglow.

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# In dulci jubilo

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# Now sing with hearts aglow

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# Our delight and pleasure

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# Lies in praesepio

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# Like sunshine is our treasure

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# Matris in gremio

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# Alpha es et O

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# Alpha es et O

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# O Jesu parvule

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# For Thee I long always

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# Comfort my heart's blindness

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# O puer optime

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# With all thy loving kindness

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# O Princeps gloriae

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# Trahe me post te

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# Trahe me post te. #

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Now sing and be glad.

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In Dulci Jubilo inspired a massive body of music across Europe.

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JS Bach's Chorale Prelude on the subject, and performed here at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig,

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is a traditional postlude to Christmas services.

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# Ubi sunt gaudia

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# If that they be not there

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# There are angels singing

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# Nova cantica

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# And there the bells are ringing

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# In regis curia

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# O that we were there

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# O that we were there. #

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The rose is one of those medieval symbols, the significance of which is partly lost to us,

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but the rose appears in countless carols from the middle ages.

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There is no rose of such virtue as is the rose that bear Jesu,

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for in this rose, contained was heaven and earth, in little space.

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# There is no rose of such virtue

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# As is the rose that bare Jesu

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# There is no rose of such virtue

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# As is the rose that bare Jesu

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# Alleluia

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# There is no rose of such virtue

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# As is the rose that bare Jesu. #

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There Is No Rose, an anonymous medieval carol comparing the Virgin Mary to a rose.

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In the 20th century, many British composers returned to the middle ages for inspiration,

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leading William Walton to write his slightly quirky modernist update of the medieval carol,

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mixing two languages.

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Make we joy now in this fest, in quo Christus natus est.

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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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# A Patre Unigenitus

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# Is through a maiden come to us

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# Sing we of Him and say, "Welcome"

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# Veni, Redemptor gencium

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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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# Maria ventre concepit

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# The Holy Ghost was ay her with

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# Of her in Bethlem born He is

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# Consors paterni luminis

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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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# O lux beata Trinitas

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# He lay between an ox and ass

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# Beside His mother maiden tree

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# Gloria tibi, Domine

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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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# Eya. #

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Our next song is the Victorian classic, Hark! the Herald Angels sing.

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The tune was composed in 1840 by Felix Mendelssohn to commemorate the invention of printing.

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The words had been written 100 years earlier as a Methodist hymn,

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Hark! How All The Welkin Rings.

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In 1855, ten years after Mendelssohn's death,

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an enterprising organist called William Hayman Cummings brought the words -

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now modified to the more familiar Hark! The Herald Angels Sing -

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together with Mendelssohn's tune, to create a classic.

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# Hark the herald angels sing

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# Glory to the newborn King!

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# Peace on earth and mercy mild

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# God and sinners reconciled

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# Joyful, all ye nations rise

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# Join the triumph of the skies

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# With the angelic host proclaim

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# Christ is born in Bethlehem

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# Hark! The herald angels sing

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# Glory to the newborn King!

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# Hail the heav'n-born Prince of Peace

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# Hail the Son of Righteousness

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# Light and life to all He brings

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# Ris'n with healing in His wings

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# Mild He lays His glory by

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# Born that man no more may die

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# Born to raise the sons of earth

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# Born to give them second birth

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# Hark! The herald angels sing

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# Glory to the newborn King! #

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One of my personal favourites is a carol set to music by the English composer, Herbert Howells

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A spotless rose is blowing, sprung from a tender root,

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of ancient seers' foreshowing, of Jesse's promised fruit.

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Its fairest bud unfolds to light amid the cold, cold winter

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and in the dark midnight.

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# A spotless rose is blowing

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# Sprung from a tender root

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# Of ancient seers' foreshowing

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# Of Jesse promised fruit

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# Its fairest bud unfolds to light

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# And in the cold of winter

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# And in the dark midnight

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# The rose which I am singing

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# Whereof Isaiah said

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# Is from its sweet root springing

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# In Mary, purest maid

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# For, through our God's great love and might

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# The blessed babe she bare us

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# In our cold

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# Cold winter's night. #

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Ben Davis singing the solo line of Herbet Howells' 1919 setting of A Spotless Rose.

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Howells grew up singing in the choir at Gloucester Cathedral.

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But a decade earlier, it was another Gloucestershire composer, Gustav Holst,

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who was to set Christina Rossetti's poem, In The Bleak Midwinter,

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to one of the most sweetly melancholic of all carol melodies,

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which he named Cranham after the remote Cotswold village where his mother grew up

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and where she played the harmonium in the local church.

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# In the bleak midwinter

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# Frosty wind made moan

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# Earth stood hard as iron

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# Water like a stone

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# Snow had fallen, snow on snow

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# Snow on snow

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# In the bleak midwinter

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# Long ago

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# What can I give him

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# Poor as I am?

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# If I were a shepherd

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# I would bring a lamb

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# If I were a wise man

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# I would do my part

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# Yet what I can I give him

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# Give my heart. #

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Gustav Holst's In The Bleak Midwinter,

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bringing a taste of the snowy British weather to the traditional nativity scene.

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But whatever the setting,

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the core of the Adoration in the stable remains consistent.

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Shepherds and their flocks, wise men bearing gifts, all focussed on the holy mother and child.

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Even the beasts of the field looking on.

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In the early 1960s, Peter Maxwell Davies chose to set the Latin text O Magnum Mysterium.

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Oh great mystery and wonderful sacrament,

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that beasts should see the new-born Lord lying in a manger.

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# O magnum mysterium

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# Et admirabile sacramentum

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# Ut animalia viderent

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# Dominum natum

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# Jacentem in praesepio... #

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Peter Maxwell Davies' setting, made in the early 1960s,

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of O Magnum Mysterium.

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HE PLAYS SILENT NIGHT

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On Christmas Eve in 1818 in Obendorf, a small village in the mountains north of Salzburg,

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a Christmas legend was created.

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The story is that the church organ was broken

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the priest, Josef Mohr had written a nativity poem, Stille Nacht,

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and the local school teacher, Franz Gruber, was so inspired, that he set it to a simple guitar melody

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that was finished in time for a performance at the midnight mass.

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A suitable ending for this special Christmas episode of Sacred Music.

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# Stille Nacht

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# Heilige nacht

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# Alles schlaft

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# Einsam wacht

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# Nur das traute

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# Hochheilige paar

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# Holder knabe im lockigen haar

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# Schlaf in himmlischer ruh

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# Schlaf in himmlischer ruh. #

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E-mail [email protected]

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Simon Russell Beale introduces a programme of choral music for Christmas from across the centuries, featuring full performances of some of the works featured in the accompanying documentary. Harry Christophers and his choir, The Sixteen, perform music including JS Bach's harmonisation of the medieval carol In dulci jubilo, A Spotless Rose by Herbert Howells and the Christmas text O magnum mysterium, set as a motet by Tomas Luis de Victoria.


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