…and I am still therefore giving myself up to revelry and jollification till Twelfth Night, I hereby present you with an interesting and educational article on the history of Christmas music from the medieval period to Sufjan Stevens. Here’s a taste, but do click the link and read (and listen to) the rest:
Whether it’s music by the Sufjan Stevens or 12th-Century composers from Paris, the music of Christmas has always brought joy, awe, and festivity. Likewise, it is in celebrating the rich history of the music of Christmas that we can appreciate how traditions have changed but the meaning of the holiday has remained. Here is a short history of Christmas music from the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
Pre-Carolinginan Christmas Carols (aka, Music before Charlemagne)
The earliest Christmas music was likely written in the 4th Century by St. Ambrose of Milan, and it was actually a religious political statement. His piece, Veni redemptor gentium (“Come, Redeemer of the nations”), was actually written as an anti-Arianist statement. (Arianism being the early Christian theory of inequality in the Trinity, as opposed to mainstream churches.) The context of this song evokes a sense of St. Ambrose trying to convey the equality, and therefore divinity, of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Since it was written for the Advent season, it especially signifies the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth.
Early Medieval Polyphonic Christmas Music
The ‘Ars Antiqua’ age of polyphonic composition at the Cathedral de Notre Dame in Paris began in the 12th Century and is commonly attributed to a composer known as Léonin. Everything known about Léonin and his successor, Perotin, comes from a music history text written in Paris around 1280 A.D, simply known as “Anonymous 4.” One of the most beautiful musical works from this time is, perhaps, the Introït Tropé: Puer Natus Est from Léonin’s Christmas Mass. This is by far one of my favorite pieces of music of all time.
Here is the work by Leonin:
And here is a much older version of Puer Natus Est from the 6th Century:
15th Century English Carols
One of the most interesting characters of this repertoire is John “the blynde” Audelay. Audelay was a secular chaplain who retired to a chantry priesthood Haughmond Abbey in Shropshire, England. His music, prose, poetry and general writing display the oddness of Medieval authorship. Since writers during his time did not need to concern themselves with copyright laws or legal suits for authorship, their writings were a mixture of stolen, borrowed, new, and paraphrased works. This might seem odd, but it provides us with a better sense of not just what one person imagined, but rather, what they knew and derived from all they read. His largest musical contribution was likely his 25, “caroles of Cristemas” which were likely the first written English carols.
Unfortunately his works are difficult to find, but there are many similar carols and songs of Christmas, and contemporary composer John Rutter even set some of Audelay’s poetry as choral music.
More at the link.