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Christmas in the Middle Ages

Música Antigua’s holiday concerts continue today in Santa Fe and Saturday in Albuquerque.

Música Antigua’s holiday concerts continue today in Santa Fe and Saturday in Albuquerque.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — An enchanting tour through the sounds of Christmas in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. That’s what is on offer this month from Albuquerque’s resident early music ensemble Música Antigua.

One can enjoy not only the music but some surprising medieval traditions from the program notes and translations provided. This year’s theme is “Marvel Not, Joseph,” taken from a 15th-century Middle English carol of the same name, “Mervele noght, Josep,” as it was then spelled and pronounced.

Players and singers both, the members of Música Antigua invariably find gems often buried for centuries in the manuscripts of the era, many of which were used as virtual scrap paper in the bindings of books from later centuries. One such piece is the motet “De supernis sedibus” from the Worcester Fragments of late-13th-century England, a superb example of three voices exchanging melodic phrases.

The music is performed in a variety of combinations of voices and instruments from the purely a capella “Mervele noght, Josep” to the entirely instrumental “De la virgin que pario” (By the Virgin who gave birth) from Spain of the 16th century. A selection of early woodwinds combine with viols (early stringed instruments), percussion and even a sackbut (trombone). Actor Phil Bock contributes spoken selections from period literature.

Most of the music on the program is of undetermined authorship. The concept of intellectual property as commercial enterprise only came into being with the rise of the bourgeois class in the 19th century. The anonymous “Res est admirabilis” (It is a wondrous thing), for example, with its arresting open harmonies comes from a 12th-century manuscript bearing only the coat of arms of Eleanor of Brittany.

A particular highlight of the evening’s first half is the Scottish Christmas song “Come, my children dere” sung by Colleen Sheinberg in sweet soprano voice. It seems to be a love song later changed to accommodate the story of the Annunciation. Most everyone will recognize the Spanish villancico “E la don don” (She is our lady), found frequently on contemporary choral programs. The beautiful French “Adest sponsus qui est Christus” from the 12th century likens Christ to a bridegroom arriving at the feast, a popular tradition of the time.

The few pieces by identified composers, such as Richard Smert’s boisterous “Nowell, nowell,” generally constitute the more well-known selections. Renaissance composer Michael Praetorius is today known mostly for his Christmas settings such as the two on the program, “Hosianna dem Sohne David” (Hosanna to the son of David) and “Joseph, lieber Joseph mein,” a popular German Christmas song, arranged for two voices.

The concert concludes with Tomas Luis de Victoria’s “Ecce, Dominus veniet” (Behold the Lord will come), a seasonally bright sound unlike Victoria’s often somber works.

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