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In 15th-century England a tradition grew up for the composition of polyphoniccarols. None of them is ascribed to a specific composer or poet, neither istheir function completely understood. The form is that of alternating verses andburdens (refrains), the language generally being a mixture of Latin and English.
The majority of the carols have sacred texts and it is possible that these weredesigned for liturgical use. Others are moralistic or celebratory and werepossibly used to enliven feasts and banquets in aristocratic households or forrecreational purposes at educational establishments.
The most common type of carol is that relating to Christmas. The examplesoffered here are 'What tidings bringest thou?', 'Now may we singen', and 'Nowellsing we'. Not so overtly joyful but equally optimistic is 'Alma redemptorismater' whose verses poetically paint the scenes of the Annunciation, Nativity,Crucifixion, and Resurrection respectively. After the Christmas carol the nextin order of popularity was the Marian carol as represented here by 'Ave Maria','There is no rose', and 'Hail Mary full of grace'. In these settings themelodies are fluid and the harmonies subtle in order to portray the Virgin Maryas tender and graceful. Additionally the lives of the saints were frequently thesubject of carols, none more robust than 'Eya mater Stephane' in honour of themartyrdom of St Stephen. By contrast the carol 'Be merry be merry' rejectsspecific subject matter altogether in favour of allusions to the many glories ofChristian life as a means to universal happiness. Most memorable of all is 'Deogracias Anglia' which recounts the defeat of the French by the English at thebattle of Agincourt. King Henry sails to Normandy, takes the town of Harfleur bysiege, wins the day at Agincourt, and drags the surviving French noblemen backto London; all this, of course, in the name of Almighty God. In a more popularstyle are the two Christmas carols 'Riu riuchiu' and 'Gaudete Christus est natus'.
Spanish and English respectively they are catchy traditional medieval melodieswhose refrains were harmonized in the early Renaissance.
Also included here are three monophonic songs. The simplest, 'PlanctusGuillelmus', is an anonymous strophic lament written upon the death of Williamthe Conqueror. The form of Peter Abelard's 'Planctus David' is more elaborate,divided as it is into six sections, each containing metrical and musicalrepeats. Abelard's poem is a reworking of David's lament upon the deaths of Sauland Jonathan from the Second Book of Samuel. More rhapsodic still is Hildegardof Bingen's 'Oviridissima virga' which portrays the Virgin Mary as the root ofbeauty and fertility. This beautifully-paced meditation is one of the fewsurviving examples of the musical work of this remarkable medieval femalemystic.
The Oxford Camerata was formed by Jeremy Summerly in order to meet thegrowing demand for choral groups specializing in music from the Renaissance era.
It has since expanded its repertoire to include music from the medieval periodto the present day using instrumentalists where necessary. The Camerata has madeseveral recordings for Naxos, and future plans include discs of music by Lassus,Tye, and Faure.
Jeremy Summerly was a choral scholar at New College, Oxford from where hegraduated with First Class Honours in 1982. For the next seven years he workedas a Studio Manager with BBC Radio and it was during this time that he foundedthe Oxford Camerata. In 1989 he left the BBC in order to join the Royal Academyof Music as a lecturer in the department of Academic Studies and in 1990 he wasappointed conductor of Schola Cantorum of Oxford. He has recently signed along-term contract with Naxos to record a variety of music with the OxfordCamerata and Schola Cantorum of Oxford.