For about twenty-five years, one of my family’s favorite holiday recordings has been an odd record of carols by the Boston Camerata (yes, we’re a little weird). The repertoire includes Middle English carols (yes, Chaucerian English, and Latin as well) that span the 12th through 15th centuries, and a rich selection of 18th and 19th century carols from England and America. The performances were recorded during a crossroads in early music, when popular performance practice was still introducing primitive instrumental accompaniment (typically viols and rudimentary wind instruments) to choral music that originally would have been performed unaccompanied. But, as on the pivotal Music of the Gothic Era recording, the voices take center stage. Even without understanding Middle English (and the diction here is impeccable), the listener is carried away by the sheer energy and enthusiasm of the singing. And the early American tunes have the same propulsiveness; the shape-note carol “Sherburne” can ring your room and rattle your rafters if you’re not careful.
There are only a handful of carols that will be familiar to most listeners on this disc, including “Sunny Bank” (“I saw three ships”) and “The Coventry Carol,” but the performances are so compelling that you may want to learn Middle English or the Sacred Harp singing style to pick up some new favorites. My friends in the Suspicious Cheese Lords and I did just that with “Nowel, Owt of Your Slepe,” “Nova, nova: Aue fitt ex Eva,” and “Sherburne,” all of which we performed several times during my tenure with the group. A holiday essential that reaches back to earlier times and brings them vibrantly to life. That ever was thralle, now ys he fre; That ever was smalle, now grete is she; Now shall God deme bothe the and me Unto his blysse yf we do wel. Nowell!
(Originally published at Jarrett House North)