“Drive the Cold Winter Away” Program Notes

December 27-29, 2013
Philadelphia, Chestnut Hill, and Wilmington

At the point of the darkest time of the year, when daylight hours give way quickly to night in northern climes, cultures from across the globe, both ancient and modern, pay tribute to this turning of the seasons with a myriad of customs and traditions. In ancient times, the months to follow were called the famine months, when survival was a major concern. Much of the livestock were slaughtered so that they would not have to be fed during that bleak period, thus an abundance of fresh meat was there for the taking.  The wine and beer made earlier in the season had finished its fermentation and was ready for consumption. It seemed therefore, to be not only a time for a final celebration before the period of darkness, but also a plea to the gods and the forces of nature to assure the return of the light. 

The traditions in those regions of the northern have much in common:  the use of evergreens, bright illumination, large, on-going fires, the physical exertions of dancing and singing, and of course feasting and drinking. So many songs, poems, dances, and rituals blend and adapt from one culture to another that it is not surprising to find such similar features, neither is it surprising to note that the religious holidays of both Christmas and Hannukah were assigned to this time of the year, both celebrating light and rebirth.

Piffaro’s program celebrates numerous aspects of the season, from dancing to feasting, from worshipping to merry-making. It includes music from France and England, as well as that of the Sephardim, those Jews expelled from Spain at the end of the 15th centuries whose wanderings took them across most of Europe in the following centuries. 

We begin our celebration with French noels and motets – the noels in popular settings arranged by Piffaro, and with vernacular, rustic texts; the motets in polyphonic renditions with Latin or French texts by French and Flemish composers Guillaume Costeley, Gerard Turnhout, Josquin des Pres and Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck. 

The French noel has an intriguing history. It seems to have sprung from whole cloth at the end of the 15th century with the appearance of numerous volumes of texts celebrating the Christmas season. Literally hundreds of these books were published or produced by hand over the course of a century or so, and the variety in format of these books indicate that they reached all levels of society. The noel is a parody genre, meaning that the text is based on a pre-existent verse, utilizing the rhyme and meter structure, and even some of the lines of the original poem. Though hardly great literature, they are charming and naïve, filled with rustic characters.  Some noels relate the whole Christmas story, others deal with a specific event such as the annunciation by the angel Gabriel.  Some are solemn prayers, others create miniature rustic dramas with comic dialogue.  Of the literally hundreds of volumes of noels, both manuscripts and prints, only a handful include music.  Yet it is clear that many of the poems were sung as well as recited because they frequently designate a melody to which the text could be set.  

While most of the repertoire in Piffaro’s program is rooted in a particular place and time, the set of Sephardic Hannukah songs that ends the first half represents an aural tradition carried by the Sephardic Jews after their expulsion from Spain in 1492, when they spread through Europe, North Africa and Turkey. The music they brought with them was frequently adapted to the various cultures in which they lived, and so in the melodic turns of these songs you can hear typical features of what we often think of as Turkish, or middle eastern. As these songs are from a strictly monophonic and unwritten tradition, they lend themselves readily to a variety of arrangements, using combinations of voices and instruments. 

In the second half of the program we turn to England for a secular celebration of the season, with dances, songs, and ballads, the majority of which express exuberance, hope and good cheer, while a few are tinged with a melancholy air suitable to the darkness of the turning of the year.

A stately pavan opening the half is followed by three lively masquing tunes by John Adson, himself a player of the cornetto and a member of the London Waits. These dances call on the tradition of the wind bands in England, known as waits, which have a long history going back to the Middle Ages. Their principal instruments, in harmony with the historical evolution of the word, were those of the loud band, including first shawms, but then adding slide trumpet and eventually sackbuts. In the late 15th century a five-part ensemble would have been comprised of three shawms and two sackbuts. By the 16th century, with the emergence of new instruments, the waits expanded their arsenals, as did the continental bands, with cornetti, dulcians, recorders, krumhorns, and even plucked and bowed strings. 

The next set features songs from the early days of Henry VIII’s reign, most of which are from a manuscript named for the king and containing some of his own compositions. Here we find examples of that seasonal melancholy strain, from the opening piece, Ah, Holy, gentil Holy, to the final Grene growith the holy. Both of these songs speak of the holly and the ivy, two plants associated with the winter season, that are referred to frequently in English poems and carol texts from the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Some of the texts describe a contest of sorts between these two strikingly pagan symbols, the masculine holly and the feminine ivy, as they strive against each other to win the crown signifying mastery of the winter season. In pagan folklore holly often symbolizes the winter deity who at the summer solstice was sacrificed to the summer oak king. Ivy had great significance in ancient times as the sacred plant of Dionysus. As evergreens, they are both well known symbols of fertility, the preservation and continuation of the nature/life spirit during the bleak winter months.

A suite of popular tunes is based on the familiar melody to I saw three ships come sailing in, which is similar to an old Shakespearean tune, There lived a man in Babylon, sung by Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night.  Drive the cold winter away is an old ballad, with both text and tune dating from the mid 16th century. These tunes were prevalent throughout the British Isles in the later 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries and their appearances in a variety of incarnations attest to their popularity.

The English penchant for penning verses for any and all public and private, social and political occasions and distributing them liberally throughout the land,  led to a vast number of texts in need of melodies.  A relative handful of popular tunes were pulled into service for these many occasions, some of them being set to no fewer than 100 different ballad verses!  The Greensleeves melody is one of the most familiar throughout the English-speaking world, and so it seems fitting to include a setting for lute, as well as for the ballad text, The old yeare now away is fled, which finishes off Piffaro’s seasonal celebration with an appropriate New Year’s sentiment. 

Joan Kimball