The King's Christmas - Barocktrompeten Ensemble Berlin

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The King’s Christmas
Christmas at the Court of English Kings

Festive Christmas Music for Trumpets, Timpani & Percussion, Trombones, Theorbas & Organ


A light in the darkest night of the year – an expression of hope during the bitterly cold and hostile winter. With the longer days and the return of the sun’s energy, for the people in earlier times the winter solstice represented an important event in the annual cycle. The days of darkness and cold were numbered and the at first timid outlook and the yearning  for new life in the green of the spring became more and more a certainty.

The importance of Christmas as the celebration of the birth of God’s Son took root only in the third century AD. At almost at the same time, the so-called Mithras cult, which came from Asia, spread quickly in Asia Minor and then throughout  the Roman Empire. This belief in the sun god – whose son Mithras, after many ordeals, even defeats his father, putting him in his place, and himself becoming  a god – existed until about the sixth century. Astonishing parallels exist between the Mithras cult and the Christian religion with Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Savior of mankind.

The idea of redemption is common to both, however the ancient-Indian  word “mitra” also means “promise” or “contract.” In connec- tion with the sun god, this could also have meant the promise or the contract for the next yearly cycle. Today, in our over-civilized world, we no longer have the elementary sensitivities of our early ancestors. Winter has lost its horror, and even the importance of the seasons for our life is not as great anymore.

And yet in many ways Christmas has a firm place in our lives: as marketing and sales event, a shopping orgy between last-minute presents and real thought about the wishes of friends and family – but also as a respite from the hustle and bustle, as a celebration of the family in which giving presents and reflection are in equilibrium and as a good time to get together with one’s friends.

Apart from his novels Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, the English author Charles Dickens is known above all for his A Christmas Carol. He made the Spirit of Christmas into a kind of angel. As the spirit of past, present, and fu- ture Christmases, the Spirit appears to the miserly businessman Scrooge and vividly shows him his previous life and his future death in drastic pictures.

Deeply impressed and terrified, Scrooge changes his life...

The Spirit of Christmas, especially that of Christmases past, shall accompany us on our journey to England of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Christmas at the court of the english Kings

The tradition  of courtly wind music in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England is brilliant and colorful. Trumpets and timpani, cornetts and trombones provided the sonic highlights in the musical framework of royal festivities. The courtly masques and morality plays of the Elizabethan period, a  combination of theater, dance, and music in staged form, supplied the basic idea for the reconstruction of a historical Christmas feast at the English royal court. Besides court politics and entertaining amusements, artistic and musical festivities were always also an expression of wealth and power.
Yet, in spite of all courtly splendor, Christmas remains the celebration of the birth of God’s Son. The antiphons that frame the program bear eloquent witness to the an- ticipation of and the yearning for this day.

With the music of the most important composers of the epoch, the Baroque Trumpet Ensemble Berlin shows the great ambivalence of the Christmas celebration:the radiant sounds, courtly festivity, and splendor in the works of Byrd, Dowland, and Purcell contrast with the antiphons and consort pieces of the early Elizabethan era – quiet contemplation  and  reflection,  anticipation and fulfillment!

England, which, owing  to its insular  location, played a special role in European history and in the development of music, was governed from 1485  to 1603 by the Tudor family. Under their reign, the power struggles within the country were ended, and national power and wealth  regained. The English Reformation (ca. 1532–1559), which also took place during this period, symbol- izes England’s greater independence from the European continent.  

Particularly during the reign  of Elizabeth I (1558 – 1603), the arts and culture  were ambitiously cultivated in England. This “Golden Age” of music and literature remained very influential until the beginning of the eighteenth century. The compositions of “The King’s Christmas” are almost exclusively from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Only a few works from earlier centuries have come down to us in their original forms.

William Byrd (1546? – 1623) was active in the decades around the turn of the sixteenth to the seventeenth century. Nothing is known about the early years of his life. It is assumed that he was the son of Thomas Byrd, a member of the Chapel  Royal. From  contemporary reports we know that he was a pupil of Thomas Tallis in London around 1575. After working  as organist of Lincoln Cathedral, Byrd returned to London. During hisLondon years – Byrd was a member of the Chapel Royal from 1570 – Byrd composed many presentation pieces for influential nobles of the Elizabethan court. William Byrd is considered the most important musician and composer of the Elizabethan era.

For a long time, John Dowland (1563 – 1626) sought artistic recognition from the English court, which he unfortunately  attained only toward  the end of his ca- reer with his appointment  as court  lutenist  in 1612. Dowland’s conversion to Catholicism while in the ser- vice of Sir Henry Cobham, the English envoy to Paris, may also be a reason for his two unsuccessful attempts to obtain the above-mentioned position. Since Dowland hardly composed after his appointment  to the English court, musical posterity should be thankful that he re- ceived this position at a rather  late date. How many compositions  would otherwise not have been written! During his travels through Europe, Dowland held positions at the courts of King Christian IV of Denmark, of the Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel,  and of Moritz  of Hessen in Kassel.John  Dowland  is famous  for his vocal compositions with lute accompaniment. “In darknesse let me dwell,” probably  his most  famous lute song, was published in 1610. Some one hundred of his works for lute solo have come down  to us. With  his polyphonic consort pieces, Dowland is considered a trailblazer for a discrete European instrumental music.

In the period after the English Civil War (1642 – 49), the Commonwealth, and the Interregnum, musical life blossomed again at the court of London with the return of King Charles II in 1660. Under King James II, the ensemble of “twenty-four violins,” established already under Charles II, was expanded to the thirty-five member “Private Music.”

Henry Purcell (1659 – 1695), who was undoubtedly the most important musician at the court during the last years of the Stuart reign, was harpsichordist of the “Private Music.” Aside from the compass and the extraordinary spectrum of his oeuvre, from intimate cham- ber music (vocal and instrumental) to large-scale choral and orchestral works, Purcell’s mastery can be seen also in his ability to translate images of nature into music. In “Now Winter comes slowly” from The Fairy Queen, and The Cold Genius’s aria “What power art thou” from King Arthur, one literally feels the cold of winter.

Purcell’s  most significant  music  for trumpet  comes largely from the last decade of the seventeenth century. On the one hand, it was certainly Italian influences that Purcell incorporated in his music. On the other hand, during this period he was a very close friend of Matthias Shore, the King’s Sergeant Trumpeter.

There is no verified information about the life of Thomas Robinson (ca. 1560 – after 1609) prior to 1589 and after 1609. He must have entered the service of the Danish royal court as music teacher to Princess Anna of Denmark before 1589.  It is not known whether he was also active there as a musician. Today, Robinson is known less as a composer, and more as a music pedagogue and as author of the School of Musicke, published in 1603, a method for lute, viola da gamba, and singing. It contains Robinson’s own compositions as well as arrangements of well-known pieces by Dowland and others.

Giles Farnaby (1562 – 1640) presumably trained in London, before studying in Oxford. In addition to vocal compositions, he wrote music for the virginal, a verypopular instrument at that time in aristocratic as well as middle-class domestic music making. His music for the virginal is preserved in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book and to the present day has been transcribed for many other instrumental formations.

Little is known about the early life of John Redford (? – 1547). In 1525 he was organist, and from 1534 choirmaster of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Aside from his liturgical works for organ, Redford also composed songs and music for the courtly masquing events at the English court, in which he participated together with his choir from St. Paul’s. One of his most frequently performed works at court was The Play of Wit and Science, a morality play of which the text and music are only incompletely preserved. John Redford’s piece Lucem tuam (“Emitte lucem tuam et veritatem tuam” / “Send me your light and your truth”) is a setting of a section of the Gradual and is preserved in the Mulliner Book.

Christmas Carols

Christmas carols, which today are so naturally linked to English Christmas customs, are a result of centuries-long cultural and musical development. In the course of history, the British Isles were settlement areas for very different cultures. With their cultures, the Celts, Scandinavians, Anglo-Saxons, and Normans left their marks on the land, including the commingling of populations. During the period of Christianization, the church was at times wise enough to adopt long-standing pagan customs and rituals, but filling them with Christian content.

The first Christian plainchants actually written for the Christmas season come from late-fourth-century Rome. The text and music of many of these liturgical plainchants, including “Veni redemptor gentium” (“Now come, Savior of the gentiles”), are by Saint Ambrose (the archbishop of Milan), the creator of Ambrosian chant, which was named after him.

The word “carol” derives from the Latin “carola” and then from the French “carole,” which means “circular motion” or “round dance.” The combination of dance and music was embedded in the customs of the pagan cultures long before the Christianization. It is not known whether Saint Francis of Assisi let himself be inspired by pre-Christian customs for his chants for the church service in the Advent and Christmas season. And of the Franciscan Christmas chants, only the texts, not the music, have come down to us. But according to contemporary reports, they were a combination of text, music, and dance within the Christmas church service, a tradition that spread throughout Europe and England.

In the ninth and tenth centuries, the tradition of the Christmas story in text and music found increasing dissemination in the monasteries of northern Europe. Frequently, popular melodies were selected, expediting the dissemination. Alongside Latin hymns, a great tradition  of vernacular Christmas songs developed in France and Germany in the thirteenth century.

The first Christmas carols transmitted in written form (twenty- five “caroles of Cristemas”) date from 1426 and were composed or notated by John Awdlay, a chaplain from Shropshire. These carols  were  most  probably  sung while “wassailing” or “yulesinging,” an old Anglo-Saxon custom in which the singers go from house to house.
(“Wassail” derives from the Anglo-Saxon toast Wæs þu hæl [“be thou hale”], i.e., “be in good health.”) Listening to the middle section of Henry Purcell’s Symphony from King Arthur, one can imagine the four trombonists being on a “wassailing” round...

It was only later that Christmas carols began to have a greater importance in the church service. The strict Protestant Oliver Cromwell (1599 – 1658) saw a danger for the true belief in this kind of adoration in the church service and placed a ban on it. With this ban and the as- sociated interruption of the tradition, many ancient texts and their melodies were lost. Only with the beginning of the so-called Victorian era was the tradition  of the Christmas carol revived in England.

The Coventry Carol comes from the early sixteenth cen- tury. It was a part of a popular mystery play performed in the town of Coventry. The play depicts the Christmas story from the Gospel according  to Matthew.  Aside from the carol, which describes the Massacre of the Innocents in Bethlehem ordered by Herod, nothing else has survived from this play. The text  and  melody of the Sussex Carol was published posthumously in the collection Small Garland of Pious and Godly Songs (1684)  by the Irish priest Luke Wadding (1588 – 1657). It is not known whether Wadding wrote the music himself or used an older melody. It is in any case one of the most popular Christmas carols in Great Britain.

Johann Plietzsch 2012

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