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Cappella Figuralis / The Netherlands Bach Society

Angels & Shepherds - a 17th Century Christmas

  • Type CD
  • Label Channel Classics
  • UPC 0723385151982
  • Catalog number CCS 15198
  • Release date 19 August 2002
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About the album

Both in Italy and Germany, there was a strong musical tradition during the 16th and 17th centuries associated with Christmas; however, each country made use of completely different musical genres. Whereas composers in southern Europe frequently chose a theatrical setting (in Latin) of the already inherently dramatic Christmas story, the extensive repertoire of Christmas carols and songs were the best beloved in countries north of the Alps. Many of the traditional German-language Christmas carols first appeared in the 16th century, or at least were given a new form at that time. Theologists and poets like Martin Luther and Paul Gerhardt had a strong belief in the power of music in the context of personal spirituality and the church service, and produced numerous texts suitable for song settings. Older melodies of pre-Reformation origin were often used for these settings; some were as old as the Middle Ages, and sometimes new melodies were composed. Many of the carols which were created in this way, such as 'In dulci Jubilo', 'O Jesulein s', and 'Es ist ein Ros entsprungen' have become famous in the intervening centuries and have been frequently used as material by later composers.

The tradition of 'Kindelwiegen' (rocking the baby) was widespread in Germany. On the evening of Christmas Day (usually during the Vespers), songs were sung in church in honor of the birth of Christ. Composers including Michael Praetorius and J.S. Bach wrote music for this special occasion. From the 16th century onward there are also records of similar Christmas traditions, frequently with special local variations, in England and the Netherlands. For example, a small doll representing the child Jesus was laid upon the altar, around which the children danced and sang. Sometimes a crche was built to the accompaniment of carol-singing. Or the children rocked their own individual little cradles while singing cradle songs. A rich treasury of Medieval Netherlands Christmas carols has survived, which of course also gave ample treatment to the numerous legends and stories which surrounded the Christmas ceremonies. In the carols, the trembling Christ Child is swaddled in Joseph's stockings, Mary is filled with motherly concern and tenderness, Joseph cooks gruel, and the helpless little child lies in a house without windows and doors, naked on the ground. A 16th century description by Walich Syvaerts is charming: "For you know how on Christmas day they were accustomed to set a little cradle with a Doll inside representing a little child lying in swaddling bands, on the high altar: and that the Parents led their children into the church with a little cradle and a bell: and as the Priest, during the Mass, began to rock the little child upon the altar and sing 'Eia, eia, eia'....and so the children then began each to rock his own little child and sing 'eia', making thereby a great noise and ringing their bells so that the whole church was filled thereby: while the organ, playing in a special fashion, helped to ornament their play". Particularly during the first 30 years of the 17th century, several specific episodes from the Christmas story were especially popular with Italian composers. For example, the Annunciation, the appearance of the angels of the shepherds, and the visit of the Magi in Bethlehem were among their favorites. And almost without exception, the dialogue was their favorite genre. Just like an opera, a musical dialogue has a cast of characters, and there is sometimes a narrator. 

More than 500 17th century dialogues have survived, most of them from Italy but also a respectable number from France, the Netherlands, Poland, Germany, and England. The texts which were used were generally not liturgical but could be inserted into the liturgy, for example as substitute texts for the Gradual or Offertory of the Mass, or one of the Vesper antiphons. Usually the dialogues were performed by small ensembles, varying from two to five singers and an equal number of instrumentalists. In addition to a few well- known names like Carissimi and Grandi, there are many otherwise unknown masters such as Fergusio, Grossi, and Cozzolani who composed dialogues. Strictly speaking, the scene of the apparition to the shepherds is a dialogue. After the angel's announcement of his joyful tidings and his departure, the shepherds speak with one another. Italian composers had no real trouble with this and treated the subject with considerable freedom. Characters and details were added or exchanged, the sequence of events was altered, and the characters showed their own emotions. These characteristics made the dialogues into very animated works, and explains the great popularity of the genre during the 17th century. Jos van Veldhoven Translation: David Shapero

  • 1
    Wie Schön Leuchtet Der Morgenstern
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    Es Ist Ein Ros Entsprungen
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    Gloria In Excelsis Deo
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    O Jesulein Süss
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    Angelus Ad Pastores Ait
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    Puer Nobis Nascitur - Ons Is Gheboren Een Kindekijn
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    Hoe Schoon Lichtet de Morghen Ster - Wie Schön Leuchtet Der Morgenstern
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    Gloria In Altissimis Deo
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    Fröhlich Soll Mein Herze Springen
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    Gloria In Altissimis Deo
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    In Dulce Jubilo, BuxWV 52
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    Currite Pastores
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    Vom Himmel Hoch Da Komm Ich Her
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    Ich Verkündige Euch Grosse Freude
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    Vom Himmel Hoch Da Komm' Ich Her, BWV 701 - Christum Wir Sollen Loben Schon, BWV 696 - Gelobet Seist Du, Jesu Christ, BWV 697
  • 1
    Ich Steh an Deiner Krippen Hier
  • 1
    O Anima Festina
  • 1
    Ehre Sei Gott In Der Höhe

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