Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Nowell

From Corymbus:
One of the most attractive features of medieval Christmas carols is how often and how enthusiastically they celebrate the act of singing. Their refrains frequently contain exhortations to sing – ‘sing we now!’, or similar phrases – and many carols explore the part which song plays in the traditional Christmas story, from the rejoicing of the angels to the piping of the shepherds and Mary singing lullabies to the baby Christ. Medieval carols give space to all these different voices, and in the process remind the listener of the pleasures of making music, alone and with others, and of the important part music plays for most of us in the enjoyment of the Christmas season. 
A good example is this lovely fifteenth-century carol, which is short enough to quote in full (in modernised form): 
Nowell sing we now all and some,
For Rex pacificus is come.
In Bethlehem, in that fair city,
A child was born of a maiden free,
That shall a lord and prince be,
A solis ortus cardine. 
Children were slain in full great plenty,
Jesu, for the love of thee;
Wherefore their souls saved be,
Hostis Herodis impie
As the sun shineth through the glass,
So Jesu in his mother was;
Thee to serve now grant us grace,
O lux beata Trinitas
Now God is come to worship us;
Now of Mary is born Jesus;
Make we merry amongst us;
Exultet caelum laudibus. 
Nowell sing we now all and some,For Rex pacificus is come. 
‘All and some’ is a Middle English idiom meaning ‘everyone’ (like our phrase ‘one and all’) or ‘all together’, so this refrain enjoins everyone to sing in consort: ‘let us all now sing ‘Nowell!’ Like many medieval carols, this one is macaronic, ingeniously interweaving English and Latin, and there’s something particularly clever about the use of two languages in carols like this one: the last line of each verse quotes a different Latin hymn used in the Office, especially at Christmas and the Epiphany. Even the phrase ‘Rex pacificus’ (‘King of peace’) comes from the antiphon used on Christmas Eve. So this is in part a song about singing, making reference to familiar liturgical music as it encourages everyone to sing. In the final verse, the singers and audience are urged ‘make we merry’, to join in the celestial song as ‘the heavens rejoice’. (Read more.)
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