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Mirabile Mysterium - Christmas Music through the ages
Various composers

Netherlands Chamber Choir

Mirabile Mysterium - Christmas Music through the ages

Price: € 12.95
Format: CD
Label: Challenge Classics
UPC: 0608917213522
Catnr: CC 72135
Release date: 01 January 2004
1 CD
✓ in stock
€ 12.95
Challenge Classics
Catalogue number
CC 72135
Release date
01 January 2004

About the album

Through the ages, the Christmas story has served as an important source of musical inspiration. Since the early Middle Ages, elements of the Christmas story have been depicted musically in both liturgical and lay settings. Besides the Christmas carols, which usually relate to a particular episode of the Christmas story, there are, of course, the Nativity plays, which present a more concrete plot. Christmas music has always been closely interwoven with the musical traditions of the country in which it arose, more so than music associated with other Christian holidays, as Christmas has always been a time of celebration in which everyone – not only churchgoers, but also those who stayed behind in the village square and sang their songs – could take part. The boundary between sacred and secular is thus blurred in Christmas music.

On this CD recording, Christmas music from many eras can be heard. The more modern compositions hark back to Renaissance music, and the early medieval motets sound surprisingly contemporary. The music on this CD focuses on the Magi’s journey as they follow the star to Bethlehem. In the texts, the Three Kings are often held up as an example for listeners: we must also follow that star, and if we have no gold, frankincense or myrrh to give, we must give our hearts to the newborn Christ Child.

In Spain, Christmas was, and still is, a time of joyous celebration. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, innumerable Christmas carols – or villancicos de navidad – were written in Spanish. These were also sung in church and were frequently danced to. It was the only time of year that songs set to Spanish lyrics were allowed in the church. From the beginning of the sixteenth century, the villancico constituted the most important form of song in Spain. It was originally a simple song comprising several stanzas set to a short, recurring melody that everyone could sing along with. Triple metre and dotted rhythm are quite characteristic of the Christmas villancico. This genre was well loved up through the eighteenth century in Spain and South America alike. In the four Spanish works presented on this CD recording, the development of the villancico de navidad can be heard clearly. The anonymous Señores el qu’es nascido is from the Spanish manuscript Cancionero de Uppsala. Swedish soldiers were ordered by Queen Christina of Sweden to steal it from the Spanish court library. The good men had no idea what exactly they had taken with them (naturally, they could not read music). The manuscript is still housed in the university library of Uppsala. This is a villancico in its purest form, comprising short stanzas and a simple, catchy melody. In Sebastian Alfonso’s Unidos tres reyes, the melody is much more elaborate. Here, the stanzas are performed in two different settings – one vocal, the other vocal and instrumental. Geronimo Luca’s Este Niño que es sol del aurora is also a typical Christmas villancico, in which the dotted rhythm is clearly evocative of the Child being rocked back and forth. In Francisco Losada’s A Penas nace este Niño, we hear how other compositional styles exerted ever more influence on the villancico. No longer is the melody so easy to sing along with, but the marked rhythm remains.

Balaam de quo vaticinans and Vincti presepio/Stelle presagio, both anonymous, were written in the Ars Antiqua style at the end of the thirteenth century. We can hear how quickly music in fourteenth-century France developed if we compare these works, which still have a rather simple rhythmic structure, with the motet Hodie puer nascitur (1390), also anonymous. This is an isorhythmic motet, whereby various texts are sung simultaneously in different rhythms. One of the texts is about man’s mortality, while the other is about the birth of Christ. Equally daring is the use of chromaticism in Jacobus Gallus’s motet Mirabile mysterium and Giaches de Wert’s Vox in Rama. Gallus’s use of chromaticism at the beginning of his motet is practically reminiscent of Carlo Gesualdo’s. At the words ‘mirabile mysterium’, we also hear a miraculous event in the music. De Wert lets the voice from Rama be heard from the depths of the choir with distinct ascending lines. Jacobus Clemens non Papa’s motet Ab oriente is a short song of rejoicing in which many ascending motives can also be heard.

The nineteenth century saw something of a renewed interest in older church music. Robert Schumann, for instance, led a small choir that performed Renaissance music. Other composers in Germany began writing a cappella choral music again. A perfect example of this fascination is Peter Cornelius’s song Drei Kön’ge wandern aus Morgenland, which he composed as a countermelody to the chorale Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, thereby making a direct reference to Pretorius and Bach, who used that chorale several times. The anonymous four-voice chorale Quae stella sole pulchrior is from a Parisian breviary of 1736. It is an evening hymn for Epiphany written in a somewhat naive style and based on a monophonic melody of medieval origin preserved in Directorium chori (1582).

In the twentieth century, early music served as an even greater source of inspiration for composers, especially in England. This is not that surprising, considering that, because of the English choral tradition in the church, the music of Byrd and Tallis, for instance, had never faded. One can, in fact, speak of a truly continuous tradition. This is made all the more apparent by the performance here of Harold Darke’s In the bleak mid-winter, accompanied by Renaissance instruments. Christina Rossetti wrote the poem In the bleak mid-winter in 1872 and entered it in a Christmas-poem contest held by a magazine. A number of composers have set the poem, Gustav Holst’s version being the most famous. This Christmas carol embodies the same general idea as Peter Cornelius’s song of the Three Kings – one of a typically romantic Christmas spirit. To an even greater extent than Darke’s work Bertram Luard-Selby’s A Voice From Ramah is based on English Renaissance polyphony. In this manner, Christmas music both old and new coalesces on this CD recording to form a single entity.
Marcel Bijlo, July 2004

Volg met dit album de ster naar Bethlehem: de luisteraar als Wijze
Al sinds de middeleeuwen worden elementen uit het kerstverhaal gebruikt op muzikale wijze, in zowel instrumentale composities als in liederen. Kerstmuziek is altijd al deel geweest van de (muziek)cultuur waarin deze muziek tot uiting kwam, meer dan muziek die kan worden geassocieerd met andere katholieke feestdagen. Een verklaring hiervoor kan zijn dat Kerstmis altijd een feest is geweest waaraan iedereen deel kon nemen — of je nu een kerkganger bent of niet. De grens tussen religie en seculariteit wordt hierdoor vervaagd.

Dit album bevat kerstmuziek uit alle tijden. Moderne composities klinken als muziek uit de Renaissance; motetten uit de middeleeuwen klinken verrassend hedendaags. De opnames op dit album richten zich op de reis van de drie Wijzen uit het Oosten, terwijl zij de ster naar Bethlehem volgen. In de teksten worden de Drie Koningen vaak neergezet als de luisteraar: wij als luisteraars moeten de ster ook volgen, en als wij geen goud, wierook of mirre bezitten moeten wij ons hart aan het kindje Jezus toevertrouwen.

Het Nederlands Kamerkoor werd in 1937 opgericht door Felix de Nobel onder naam van Chorus Pro Musica om Bachs cantates uit te voeren voor de Nederlandse radio. Nu wordt het al een aantal decennia beschouwd als één van ’s werelds beste koren. Vernieuwende stijlen en onverwachte samenwerkingen resulteren in concerten die niet alleen als prachtig worden ervaren, maar ook alle zintuigen prikkelen. Zo hoopt het Kamerkoor koormuziek als kunstvorm staande te houden.
Het Koor doet verder ook aan coaching en er worden workshops door gegeven. Ook biedt het Koor een plek aan verschillende van de amateurkoren die Nederland rijk is door deze een plek te bieden als ondersteunende act voor zijn eigen concerten.
Buiten zijn eigen projecten werkt het Nederlands Kamerkoor vaak samen met andere bekende ensembles als het Koninklijk Concertgebouworkest, La Fenice en Concert Lorrain. Het Koor heeft meer dan 75 albums opgenomen, waaronder vele prijswinnaars.

Sinds 1 augustus 2015 wordt het Koor geleid door Peter Dijkstra. Uwe Gronostay, Tõnu Kaljuste, Stephen Layton en Risto Joost gingen hem voor: ieder van hen stimuleerde het Nederlands Kamerkoor, en hierbij ook koormuziek in het algemeen, op nieuwe en ingrijpende manieren.


Bart Coen (recorder)

Netherlands Chamber Choir

The Netherlands Chamber Choir exists since 1937, and has been one of the world’s top choirs for decades. The Netherlands Chamber Choir has been internationally praised by critics for its homogeneous sound and for the soloist quality of the singers. One of the choir’s missions is to keep choral music very much alive as an art form, by looking for new formats, by innovative commissions and exciting collaborations. It results in concerts that are not only perceived as beautiful, but that appeal to all senses.  Education and participation are a vital part of the choir’s mission. The Netherlands Chamber Choir provides coaching, workshops, and ‘adopts’ choirs as supporting act for their own concerts.  Besides their own concert series, the choir often collaborates with renowned ensembles such as the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, ASKO|Schönberg, La...

The Netherlands Chamber Choir exists since 1937, and has been one of the world’s top choirs for decades. The Netherlands Chamber Choir has been internationally praised by critics for its homogeneous sound and for the soloist quality of the singers. One of the choir’s missions is to keep choral music very much alive as an art form, by looking for new formats, by innovative commissions and exciting collaborations. It results in concerts that are not only perceived as beautiful, but that appeal to all senses.

Education and participation are a vital part of the choir’s mission. The Netherlands Chamber Choir provides coaching, workshops, and ‘adopts’ choirs as supporting act for their own concerts.

Besides their own concert series, the choir often collaborates with renowned ensembles such as the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, ASKO|Schönberg, La Fenice and Concert Lorrain.

From August 1, 2015 Peter Dijkstra watches over the unique sound of the Netherlands Chamber Choir The Netherlands Chamber Choir had Felix de Nobel as its first chief conductor. Uwe Gronostay, Tõnu Kaljuste, Stephen Layton and Risto Joost were his respective successors. Each of them gave the Netherlands Chamber Choir, and choral music in general, new, major impulses.


Paul van Nevel (conductor)



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Often bought together with..

Nieuw Vocaal Amsterdam / Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra / Ton Koopman
Various composers
A Very English Christmas

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