OT: Gaudete!

[This is very personal, pretty intensely religious, takes a long linguistic and musicological detour, and is mostly tangential to Richard Armitage. I’ll be publishing on him again in a bit; the post is half-written. I didn’t intend to write 2,000 words on this topic, but there you are.]


I submit my grades tomorrow (G-d willing, my TA finishes her part on time, and the last outstanding papers I’m waiting on come in); then I make a long drive. This December has been nowhere near as bad as last, let alone two years ago, and in thinking over the upcoming yorzeit of my doctoral adviser (who was a UCC Congregationalist, admittedly), and the upcoming decisive anniversaries for Armitagemania, I feel relieved that I’m on the upswing overall, but still, I’m tireder than I was in September. December in the United States has a relentlessly cheery quality that often seems forced to me; though I’m not going to Germany this solstice I appreciate the greater willingness of Germans to acknowledge the growing darkness of the period before the Christian holiday and I miss that when I’m not there. Instead, I’m listening to a lot of the Sufjan Stevens Christmas album, which is shocking in its clarity and so painfully honest that it often brings me to tears (example: “That was the worst Christmas ever!” — warning: beautiful and / but painfully sad).

I write a lot of these posts in the St**b***s next to campus, which you might call my local, and the baristas tell me that the increasing aggravation in customer mood is noticeable even as business and sales pick up. Noting the speedup, I turn up the dial on my own niceness in dealing with the people I encounter, but it feels like it’s not enough. I feel insufficient daily, on bad days minute by minute, but it’s worse this time of year. In the struggle of modern America to make all of Advent and ever greater pieces of the secular year into Christmas, I campaigned as a Lutheran teenager (remember “Jesus is the reason for the season” buttons, anyone?) and still remain firmly for Advent, even as a Jewish adult. Advent accompanies the yearning for redemption, something I pray for every day as a Jew, !במהירה בימינו. Christmas was usually a difficult holiday for our family to get past. I’m sure it would pain my parents, who tried very hard, to read that. Scrooges, I’m on your side, although like Scrooge, I hope for redemption at the end of the story. Sometimes I wonder if it’s the persistence of hope that makes the holiday so bitter when that hope languishes, unrealized, and I don’t succeed in changing myself or affecting others. Scrooge couldn’t see the possibilities of love for others and for himself that lay right front of him, but his blindness had understandable sources, I think. Judaism does better with unrealized longing than Christianity; I’m less sad about life since I’ve been a Jew, and this effect is a blessing.

[At left: the first printed transcription of the melody Maddy Prior is singing in “Gaudete,” from Piae Cantiones (1582).]

We’ve already reached the third Sunday in Advent; would it help me to live with more contentment and believe my efforts to be kind if I hoped differently, for less, from the world? I was looking for some reassurance today and was reminded that the third Sunday of Advent is called “Gaudete” (rejoice!), after the introit for the day, and the third Advent candle is pink. This information reminded me of several songs for the season that command us to rejoice even if they do so with mournful melodies. This sort of sweet / sour contradiction is one reason that I got interested in studying the period of history I study — the recognition in the period’s culture, of necessity, that all happiness was streaked through with sorrow, but also that sorrow could be tinged with joy. In Armitageworld chat (upper right hand corner of that linked page; usually after 8 p.m. U.S. Central time) we were going on about our favorite Christmas music and I was saying that my favorite holiday tunes were all written before 1700. That’s not absolutely true, but close, and the happy / sad combination found in so much early music is one of the appeals.

Judi challenged me to write about a hymn every day all through Advent but I figured I’d lose all my readers. I know why you come here, and it’s not for my homiletics. Rest assured, I love you anyway. In my attempt to rejoice today, however, I thought I’d give you some introductions to a few of my favorite Advent and Christmas songs from before 1700. These songs, like much early music, which was written to conform to different conventions than those of the modern West, are harmonically, rhythmically and melodically complex, so they held my attention over the years — but because of that they also do extremely well in modern, New Age or indie music interpretations, I feel, and so I’ve included links to these.

First, as a child, I sort of lived to sing “Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel,” which was a standard on the first Sunday on Advent and often in midweek Advent services. It sounded eerie to me, even before our high school choir teacher insisted that we harmonize it in perfect fourths, which is actually anachronistic, as the tune we sing to this song probably wasn’t composed until the fifteenth century, by which time the fourth was considered a dissonance and had gone out of style as a harmonic practice. The words are a great deal older, of course, perhaps as old as the eighth century. Here’s a traditional recording, the way I heard it as a girl, sung at Clare College, Cambridge. I’m also enjoying the recent version by Tori Amos.

But here’s a pretty convincing metal version by August Burns Red with a drum track of the sort the monks never dreamt of, but which fascinates the ear. One of the advantages of a modern setting of music originally based on plainchant is that relatively strong rhythmic freedoms with the original can be taken with impunity.

Another childhood favorite, to which I got a lot more exposure after moving to Germany, where it is omnipresent at Christmastime, is “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” (in German: Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen). This song experienced a lot of different interpretations — it was published first in a Catholic hymnal, but became famous because of its theological renovation and chorale setting by a Protestant composer. In the nineteenth century it was so well liked that additional verses were written for it, and even the National Socialists took a shot at adding a verse (which has mercifully disappeared since 1945). Like much early music, it also has a somewhat what odd meter — it was written down in a rhythmic notation system we no longer use, and so you occasionally see time signatures like 4/4 + 6/4 in modern sheet music. Here’s the traditional choral setting in English. But I love the dancelike version included by June Tabor (a colleague of Maddy Prior, see below) on her spectacular album, Rosa Mundi (though her German pronunciation is dismal). I am also completely sold on the cello version of this piece on the recent Christmas album by Steven Nelson Sharp (although I bought the album for his amazingly edgy version of “Nearer, My G-d to Thee”), which is only not included because I couldn’t find it on youtube. And Sufjan Stevens does an amazing job of playing with the rhythm in a modern folk version, here:

Next, the song that started this reflection: “Gaudete / Christus est natus,” which is probably older but was printed for the first time in a Swedish / Finnish collection of 1582. In looking for a recording of the song on youtube, I learned that the song had actually been a Top 50 hit in the UK for Steeleye Span in the 1970s (I’m a big Maddy Prior fan, and have several of her religious recordings, but I didn’t know much about this particular piece of her career):

The Steeleye Span recording splits the difference on a vital question that I was reminded of while looking for recordings of this piece: Latin pronunciation. All of the various European regions developed distinct Latin pronunciations by the tenth century at the latest, and now we debate (and the selections on youtube reflect) this ongoing problem, which occurs any time one tries to sing music in a language that no one speaks any longer.

The really contentious question for performance practice of this particular song seems to be: what do we do with diphthongs that appear in modern vernacular vowels that would not have been present in Latin originally? (A diphthong is the coincidence of two vowels in a single syllable, created by a tongue movement during the pronunciation of the vowel, and explains my fascination with the long “o” vowel, which Armitage frequently pronounces as diphthong, especially when he’s not paying much attention to his pronunciation, as at the press conference for The Hobbit in February.) Here, for an example, is a version where the performers are suppressing their diphthongs:

Here, in contrast, we see one where they let those diphthongs hang out, and “gaudete” becomes “gow-day-tay,” a choice for which they get excoriated in the comments on the recording:

The pronunciation of diphthongs pretty much outs people as native speakers of English. What’s interesting is that you can also tell that none of these recordings were performed by Germans, because all of them use the soft “g” (“dj”) in “virgine.” If they were German, they’d be singing the hard “g” (“guh”).

The inclusion of “Gaudete” in Piae Cantiones made me think of another song printed first in that collection, Divinium mysterium, which entered English hymnody as “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” but pairs a tenth-century plainchant which had gradually been embellished with a fourth or fifth-century text, Corde natus ex parentis. This beautiful song appeared in my life with the momentous entry of the quasi-heretical (for us) “green” hymnal into our pews around 1980. It was originally labeled to be sung during the Eucharist and didn’t take on its current status as a Christmas carol until its second translation into English in the early twentieth century. None of the contemporary artists I’ve been listening to this December have re-interpreted this, so I’ll give you a nicely dance-like version of it broadcast by the BBC from Derby in 1997, where the congregation sings along:

Finally: I’ll end this discussion with “Ther is no ros of swych vertu,” which is an early fifteenth-century English piece. Your lesson on this one is that it’s macaronic — no, no noodles: it involves mixing Latin and English text in the same song (the root word for the noodle and the textual practice is the same). I heard it for the first time when I wrote a scholarly review of a German museum exhibit on St. Elisabeth (who was associated with rose miracles). Here’s a traditional recording of it. I haven’t been a huge fan of Sting’s recent turn to art music (I don’t think he really has the voice for John Dowland, for example, as much as I love Dowlands (Semper Dowland, semper dolens!), but he does this one really well:

OK, maybe just one more. Tori Amos singing the sixteenth-century “Bring a torch, Jeanette, Isabella“:

So I’m listening to this music tonight and rejoicing as the days are darkening, trying to be kind as the world seems to turn faster and faster in a crazy consumeristic dance. If you’re dizzy yourself at the moment from the pre-holiday furor, I hope it helps you too.

[And if you buy recordings of any of this music at amazon, please consider doing so through RichardArmitageNet.com. Just askin’.]


Number of homeless households in the UK is up 13% over the same time last year. [There’s a hyperlink there to a source for that claim. I don’t even want to think about what the figure might be in the U.S.]

Could you be someone’s redemption today?

It’s that time of year again: a point at which we think about the needs of others in the midst of gratitude for the gifts we have received. Here’s a link to Mr. Armitage’s recommended charities at JustGiving and a link to Act!onAid, a child sponsorship organization for which he recorded a voiceover in December 2010. In 2011, Mr. Armitage also participated in fundraising efforts for Christchurch Earthquake Appeal. You can also generate a donation by doing any amazon.co.uk or Book Depository shopping that you do for the holidays via RichardArmitageOnline.com, or amazon.com or amazon.co.uk shopping via RichardArmitageNet.com, as these fansites both donate earned commission to charities that Armitage has endorsed. Fans have also donated in honor of Armitage to Oxfam International.

~ by Servetus on December 12, 2011.

13 Responses to “OT: Gaudete!”

  1. O Come O Come Emmanuel must be one of my favourite hymns, the minor key and solemn bleakness of it capture the feel of early December for me. The perfect antidote to the commercialised cheer of Christmas that has nothing to do with any spiritual message.

    Steeleye Span’s Gaudate – that’s a blast from my youth. The British folk singing pronounciation may be accurate for medieval England but I’m sure nobody in the UK really spoke like that even in the 1970’s!

    Thanks once again for a stimulating post.


    • Pam, agree with you absolutely on both counts! And I am impressed how Maddy Prior’s voice is still holding up. (I have to admit at wincing at the pronunciation of ‘virgine’ but that’s because I’ve never been able to get the rather screechy voice of the choirmistress I had as a young teen in the 70s out of my head: she would never have let us say it like that …!) Thank you Servetus for reminding me of this lovely song.


      • Had to laugh at your description of your choir teacher, Gelis — our choir teacher was also constantly on us not to sound like “country bumpkins.” Where I grew up “are” and “our” sound the same, and then we said “Gahd” and not “G-d.” He had enough to do with English pronunciation. I didn’t have Latin till grad school, and then my German friends were always romping on my Latin pronunciation 🙂


    • I’m pretty sure that’s not medieval English pronunciation of Latin, either, although by the mid-sixteenth century humanists all over Europe commented that English pronunciation of Latin was almost incomprehensible 🙂

      Thanks for your kind words, and for reading all of it!


  2. Thank you Servetus for this great post.
    Christmas hymns are an essential part of my childhood memories, particularly so as I attended a prostestant school (although memories of those primary school years are anything but good). Nevertheless I love those hymns. When I learned Latin from 5th grade onwards (Yes I have the “Grosse Latinum” and I can still pronounce “virgine” correctly 😉 we sang “adeste fideles” before christmas. Here are some of my favourite hymns
    Adeste fideles

    Es kommt ein Schiff geladen

    Tochter Zion

    I love Gaudete by Steeleys Span – never mind the pronounciation 😉 As for German christmas – I think it is becoming “americanized” very much. You have to try very hard to find any silence nowadays…


    • Oops – Sorry! I didn’t know the YT-links would show up with pics in my commentary. Feel free to delete…


      • I think it’s nice to have them here.

        I love “Es kommt ein Schiff geladen.” Had only heard it a few times before moving to Germany but quickly fell in love.

        If people with the “Grosse Latinum” are reading here I’d better make sure my grammar is extra good 🙂


  3. […] able to write about these things with tears in my eyes, but mostly without rage, and be able say, "Gaudete!" Thanks, Richard Armitage; thanks, Armitagemania; thanks, Armitage […]


  4. […] Gaudete! I’ll be doing the Servetus family Christmas this year. This event is not easy for any of us, so I’d ask for your prayers for my parents as they struggle with their convictions and feelings. […]


  5. […] Happy beginning of the church year to all the Christians reading. Advent was a big deal in my life as a child and I still mark the days because of the theme of the human yearning for redemption. I have written a few posts about Advent music: one on a famous German advent hymn from the war years; and one about my favorite Advent hymns from childhood and their modern versions. […]


  6. […] Not Johnny Matthis (mom’s favorite). Not Sufjan Stevens (my usual, but now way too much). Most of the favorite hymns from my childhood and their modern versions seem too much. Suggestions for December listening gratefully […]


  7. […] counter-cultural household that practiced intense observance of Advent, I have mixed feelings. I love Advent, but I also don’t see the point in standing in the way of things that can’t be stopped, […]


  8. […] long-time readers know, I’ve always been more than a bit of a Scrooge. Christianity (ironically) does not show itself from its best side during December, and I’m […]


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