Intoxication for the Ear: Christmas Music from the Past
It’s always at this time of year, when all the leaves are on the ground and the dark comes in close, that I start to re-read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The bright halls, glamourous clothes and high society are exquisitely described, and I picture the glowing figures moving to and fro against the stone walls or winter trees.
Years before, whilst hiding in my school library, I had found a tiny and yellowing 1950s Penguin edition of Middle English Lyrics. I opened it at random and read, transfixed, as hounds and lords, priests and ladies seemed to pass in front of me. The language felt vividly familiar and immediate, the direct tone seemed to lilt with assonance and move onwards with an innate rhythm.
One day around this time of year, and I heard Benjamin Britten’s setting of my beloved medieval lyrics. Here it all was, the roses, the cold frosts, the cAnnhild born at the end of the year, the precarious sense of joy and warmth in the middle of of winter.
Every year I listen to this music, often whilst reading Sir Gawain, and over the years I’ve added similar artists to the same collection. The bright and clear tones of the Anonymous 4, or the blended harmonies of The Sixteen all draw different qualities out of the lyrics. I am drawn to artists who have sensitivity and integrity to their arrangements. The Mediaeval Baebes are more modern and spectacular, their sumptuous arrangements and all-female harmonies are my favourites for lyrics about the Virgin Mary, or like the eerie Corpus Christi Carol (made more gothic and famous by Jeff Buckley than it’s 15th Century cleric scribe could have guessed), the warmth of the voices set off the lyric line to perfection.
It is easy to think of the stiff, robed dignitaries in paintings, the powerful and rigorous religious doctrines and think of the Middle Ages as a time of severity and structure and it was. The title of this article comes from a tirade by Pope John XXII about carol singing in church, which he had banned for being simply too delightful and too intoxicating. Incidentally, this is how carolling door-to-door came about — people took their carols to each other’s houses instead. So there is stricture but also rebellion; the churches we see as grey stone now were once painted; what the lyrics to these carols contain is a kaleidoscope of images — a hare, a tree of life, christ winning humanity in battle, an eagle bearing a lover away, a spotless rose. Listening to them, the winter glows with light and fantasy until the light comes back.
Madeline Baker is a trainee solicitor living in Bristol, England. She studied English Literature as her BA before moving into law. She spends much of her time trying to come to grips with legal research at work, drinking coffee and trying to cram music and poetry into the remaining hours in the day.