Chanticleer: An Orchestra of Voices Honoring Christmas
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).
A number of years ago, I had the opportunity to hear Chanticleer present their annual Christmas program at their spiritual home in San Francisco at St. Ignatius Catholic Church. I had just purchased their most recent Christmas offering, We Sing Christmas and proceeded to wear my CD laser out playing it. My Early Music appetite had previously been properly whetted by the group and I purchased their entire extant catalog. Chanticleer's Christmas concert was the finest performance of any kind I had ever attended. The group made their a cappella way through six centuries of music, from English and French Plainsongs to American spirituals and modern choral music. The sonics in the standing-room- only St. Ignatius were perfect: crystalline, yet warm, enveloping. On my tortuous spiritual journey, the music performed revealed the hope and beauty of Christmas and clearly defined that music is the only truly divinely inspired word.
Presented here are Chanticleer releases that are of Christmas fare, and demand a spin by listeners of any musical persuasion.
Our Heart's Joy-A Chanticleer Christmas
Chanticleer Records 8803
For their first Christmas recording, Chanticleer drew from several musical traditions, providing a very intelligent and entertaining sampler of world Yuletide music. The group spans six centuries from Jean Mouton's "Ave Maria" from 16th Century French to Joseph Jennings brilliant arrangement of American spirituals. For those listeners who particularly like this latter section of the recording, let me recommend the groups collection of gospel and spirituals, Where The Sun Will Never Go Down (Teldec Classics 90878, 1994).
Psallite! A Renaissance Christmas
Chanticleer Records 8806
A year later, Chanticleer turned their attention to a theme recording that addressed Christmas Music of the Renaissance period. They again drew from several traditions. Represented are Germans Hieronymous and Michael Praetorius, Spaniards Josquin des Prez and Gerónimo Gonzáles, Englishmen William Byrd and John Taverner, and Italian Giovanni Maria Nanino. The most notable inclusion is "Benedicamus Domino" by 13th Century French composer Perotin, providing an early example of polyphonic departure from the Gregorian Chant.
We Sing Christmas
Teldec Classics 94563
To my ears, this is the most fully realized and executed of Chanticleer's Christmas discs. It opens with a breathtaking "Es ist ein Ros entsprungen," Michael Praetorius's treatment of the German Poem "Gebetbüchlein des Frater Conradus," published in that composer's collection Alte catholische geistliche Kirckengesänge. Also included are beautiful renderings of "O magnum mysterium" and four arrangements of "In dulci jubilo." Holst's "In The Bleak Midwinter" and Ives' "A Christmas Carol" are perfectly captured, as is the ubiquitous "Stille Nacht." If you can have only one, make it this one.
Teldec Classics 81829
While not strictly a seasonal musical piece, nevertheless Mary's "he Magnificat" has been one of the most popular texts for choral music for centuries. Based on St. Luke's account (Luke 1:46-55) of the Blessed Virgin's response to God upon learning of her divine pregnancy, "The Magnificat" joyfully begins, "My Soul Magnifies the Lord..." Chanticleer chooses a series of settings for this scripture that do not represent the beaten path of the Bachs. Instead, they deftly survey the works of the Gregorian composers, Cornysh, Taverner, Monteverdi, Titov, and Palestrina. The results are spiritual and inspiring. A perfect foil to the standard seasonal fare.
Christmas With Chanticleer
Teldec Classics 85555
Released in October, Christmas With Chanticleer picks up where We Sing Christmas left off. This time the solo voice of Dawn Upshaw is added to the mix with stunning results. Concentrating on the more contemporary carols, Chanticleer and Upshaw provide wonderful readings of Vaughan Williams's "This is the Truth Sent From Above," John Tavener's "A Christmas Round" and Hugo Distler's take on "Es ist ein Ros entsprungen." The earliest piece is "Huron Carol" by St. Jean de Brebeuf (1593-1649). Superb in every way.
Teldec Das Alte Werk 1193483
Gregorian Chant had a renaissance in the mid-1990s with the release of Chant by The Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos. At the time of its release, the music on Chant was already 20 years old. Allowing the dust to settle, Chanticleer released their chant collection, Mysteria, a year later. While these chants are not specifically associated with any Christmas services, they are devoted to the important parts of the Catholic Mass which is the celebration of the Christmas miracle. Recorded in churches and cathedrals throughout Germany, these ancient monophonic sonically capture the spirit of the Season.
Sound in Spirit
Warner Classics 6923256
Sound in Spirit represents a step forward for Chanticleer. The group opts to explore the potent relationship between sound (specifically music) and healing. The presented collection blends compositions ancient and contemporary, East and West, into a provocative solution so listeners experience familiar and unfamiliar sounds equally. The texts and music are inspired by several disparate cultures from the religious and musical traditions from Tibet, India, Japan, Africa, indigenous America and Byzantine Greece. This is a global celebration.
Christmas with ChanticleerAn Orchestra of Voices
Teldec Classics DVD 970271
If you're interested in seeing Chanticleer in action, then this DVD fits the bill. The repertoire is one the listener whould expect. Early Plainchant, with a heavy dose of Renaissance and Baroque fare, and sone American Spritual tinder. Special here is the group's rendition of Vince Guaraldi's ageless "Christmas Time is Here." Recorded in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Medieval Scupture Hall. Super sonics, super music. Happy Holidays!