I haven’t had much time recently to write blog entries and with a new job beginning in January, I may find myself with even less time to do so. With this in mind I thought it was high time I wrote something, and with Christmas less than a week away I thought I’d write a blog about the death of Elliott Carter. But then I changed my mind and decided to write something about the Medieval Carol Gaudete.
As a youngster I spent several Christmases obsessively listening to a resident Christmas CD that we had and I loved the vast majority of the songs on it (never did like Shakin’ Stevens or Boney M, but you get the picture). The wonderful 70s pub-rock of Slade and Wizzard, the soft pop magic of Paul McCartney and Elton John, the soulful modality of Chris de Burgh – I loved it all. Christmas wasn’t Christmas until these songs were aired, and who cared if the first time you heard them was on the 31 October?
Fast forward twenty years and I hate them all. Nothing makes my blood boil more than the dreadful Black Country wail that introduces Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody – ‘IT’S CHRISTMAS’!! Horrible. All those songs are terrible, hackneyed and kitsch. And what makes it worse is that there is such a wonderful amount of stunning Christmas music written (and still being written) by many of the world’s greatest composers that is overlooked in favour of this tosh. I worry that soon Noddy Holder (the singer from Slade, if you didn’t know) may ruin Christmas music for me in general, and who knows, perhaps even Christmas itself.
There is however, one piece on the CD that I would still listen to today, and that is the version of the Medieval Carol Gaudete by the 70s folk-rock band Steeleye Span. This isn’t because I have a particular fondness for folk music (there are plenty who can testify to that) or feel any sort of indigenous relationship with this music, it’s because it is a great tune, and in this version performed with particular sympathy and feeling.
Gaudete dates from the C16 (though don’t quote me on that) and can be found in the collection Piae Cantiones. A monophonic (only a melody line) hymn, in Latin, it is typical of songs of praise of the period: a uniform series of four-line stanzas, each preceded by a two-line refrain. It is the refrain ‘Gaudete, gaudete! Christus est natus ex Maria virgine, gaudete!’ (Rejoice, rejoice! Christ is born of the Virgin Mary, rejoice!) that is the most memorable passage of music: joyful, celebratory and with a wonderful rhythmic contrast between simple and compound time.
Although many fine recordings exist from period groups and established choirs, the Steeleye Span version rather tugs at my heart, the contrast between the bright solo soprano in the verses and the men’s voices in the refrain, with their sort of quasi-inebriated, ‘just back from the fields’ tone making this recording stand out. It is sort of timeless (even the 70s recording) and transcends the usual distinctions between ‘classical’ and ‘popular’ Christmas music (I am reliably informed by Wikipedia that it is one of only three pieces in Latin to make the UK top 40 and one of only a ‘handful’ of a cappella pieces to chart – it reached No. 14 in 1973) which is feat in itself.
So there you go. Family Cooke will be listening to Steeleye Span this Christmas. Or maybe Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols. We’ll see. Merry Christmas.
(To listen to Steeleye Span’s version of Gaudete click here.)