Chanticleer: An Orchestra of Voices Honoring Christmas
cunctae res difficiles non potest eas homo explicare sermone non saturatur oculus visu nec auris impletur auditu quid est quod fuit ipsum quod futurum est quid est quod factum est ipsum quod fiendum est nihil sub sole novum nec valet quisquam dicere ecce hoc recens est iam enim praecessit in saeculis quae fuerunt ante nos.
All things are hard: man cannot explain them by word. The eye is not filled with seeing, neither is the ear filled with hearing. What is it that hath been? the same thing that shall be. What is it that hath been done? the same that shall be done. Nothing under the sun is new, neither is any man able to say: Behold this is new: for it hath already gone before in the ages that were before us.
Ecclesiastes 1:8-10 (KJV)
Es ist ein Ros entsprungen...
Every year around November, seasonally-related recordings flood the marketplace. These offerings always include the latest Country Music Hat Act or Patsy- wanna-be. There are a variety of adult-oriented pop releases that are often combined with the Smooth Jazz class, all typically inoffensive but also boring. There are the hard jazz musicians, who more often than not, make musical statements more definitive than any of the previous examples. There are even novelty acts that are fun, at least for that single holiday season.
Perhaps the one thing these flavors of seasonal music have in common is that they recapitulate the same musical canon. With the exception of daring and often unsuccessful additions to this rather static collection of carols, hymns, and songs, the title lists from one recording to the next differ very little.
This is why I have a suggestion: Why not look backward toward where today's seasonal musical was born. This accomplishes two things: it educates us, the listeners, making us more than mere pedestrian participants in the enjoyment of this music, and offers us an almost unexhaustible source of music to draw from.
A superb resource of this older music is the San Francisco-based all-male a cappella vocal orchestra Chanticleer, who offers several recordings associated with the Christmas season, documenting vocal music from approximately 500 A.C.E. to present. Having established itself as America's premier vocal ensemble, specializing but not limiting themselves to the Early, Renaissance, and Baroque periods, Chanticleer appropriately derives its exceptional name from the clear singing rooster of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales:
A yeerd she hadde, enclosed al aboute
With stikkes, and a drye dych withoute,
In which she hadde a Cok, hight Chauntecleer,
In al the land of crowyng nas his peer.
His voys was murier than the murie orgon
On messe-dayes, that in the chirche gon.
Wel sikerer was his crowyng in his logge,
Than is a clokke, or an abbey orlogge.
By nature he crew eche ascencioun
A yard she had, enclosed all roundabout
With pales, and there was a dry ditch without,
And in the yard a cock called Chauntecleer.
In all the land, for crowing, he'd no peer.
His voice was merrier than the organ gay
On Mass days, which in church begins to play;
More regular was his crowing in his lodge
Than is a clock or abbey horologe.
By instinct he'd marked each ascension down
Chanticleer was founded in 1978 by tenor Louis Botto, who sang with the group until 1989 and served as artistic director until his death in 1997. Countertenor/composer Joseph Jennings took over as artistic director after Botto's death and has remained in that capacity since that time.
Chanticleer is touted as the only full-time classical vocal ensemble in the United States, a claim yet to be challenged. The group is composed of 12 voices: 1 Bass, 2 Baritones, 3 Tenors, 3 Altos, and 3 sopranos. They have earned a reputation for crystalline a cappella interpretations of everything from Early Chant to Renaissance Liturgical Music to jazz and standards. Specialists in Renaissance Polyphony, Chanticleer have recorded several notable works of early music, which include the music of Byrd, Brumel, and Palestrina. The group has also concentrated on music of the Mexican Baroque, as well as American spirituals and world folk music. But perhaps the most popular of their many releases are their Christmas collections, which number six or seven (depending on how one counts, and what music the listener considers Christmas Music).