Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Steeleye Span: Gaudete

It is Traditional Tuesday and we’re going to hear from one of those great oldies bands from England, Steeleye Span performing their rendition that fabulous Christmas hit from the 80s – the 1580s that is. Today’s Christmas song, Gaudete (pronounced Gowl-day-tay), was actually a hit in the 70s (1970s that is) for our featured artist Steeleye Span.

I’ve been familiar with Steeleye Span’s original recording of Gaudete from purchasing the compilation album: “The Steeleye Span Story: Original Masters” in 1977.  The song originally appeared on their 1972 LP: “Below the Salt.”  It is obvious that the song is in Latin and a cappella; however, I didn’t know that Gaudete was a Christmas carol until a few months ago. Having studied Greek for three years and not Latin will have to constitute my defense - hey, it's all Latin to me.

The first publication of this carol was in 1582 and it did not contain musical notation; however, the tune that is associated with the song predates the 16th century. The inspiration for Steeleye Span’s recording of the tune came from former guitarist Bob Johnson who heard the song at folk-carol service in Cambridge, England. Released as a single in 1973, it charted in the U.K. at #14 – one of the few hits either in Latin or without instrumentation. This combined double strike of Latin lyrical content and an a cappella arrangement was probably enough to keep the U.S. release of the single off radio which was detrimental for its sales.

There have been a few foreign language hits in the U.S. Kyu Sakamoto's "Sukiyaki" and the Singing Nun's "Dominique" come to mind immediately. Several other hits were bilingual in lyrical content (mostly Spanish and English).  Even fewer a cappella songs charted in the Top 40. Bobby McFerrin's number one hit "Don't Worry Be Happy" is the most popular.  Prelude's version of Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush" was another and I am sure there were several more. In either case, "Gaudete" was not among these Top 40 anomalies in the U.S.

The live version included here was from Steeleye Span’s 35th Anniversary Tour in 2004. Three of the five band mates appeared on both versions and include vocalist Maddy Prior, multi-instrumentalist Peter Knight, and bassist Rick Kemp. They are joined by drummer Liam Genockey, who joined Steeleye Span in 1989 and guitarist Ken Nicol, the newest member who has been with the group only since 2002.

Like the original studio recording of the same, it contains a five part harmony; however, the song key is one whole step down from the original version. The live rendition is in Bm; however, the original is in C#m (or Dbm if you prefer). I tend to think that the proper notation of the original would be C#m and not Dbm, as the song contains both E and B chords – which would indicate a presence of sharps rather than flats.

The possible reason for the drop in pitch might be based on the band’s inability in 2004 to hit the same notes as that they recorded 32 years earlier. I can tell a difference in my own range getting lower over the years. Recently, I had been preparing for a Christmas cantata (canceled by this week’s nasty weather) where I have two solos. I performed these same solos in 2005 and am having difficulty hitting some of the higher notes. I don’t remember having this problem four years ago.

Most people would not even recognize the pitch change and I only did by listening to the live and studio cuts back to back. In either key, Steeleye Span sounds great on this Latin carol. I have provided the original Latin lyrics and their English translation below.

Gaudete, gaudete! Christus est natus
Ex Maria virgine, gaudete!
Tempus adest gratiæ
Hoc quod optabamus,
Carmina lætitiæ
Devote reddamus.

Deus homo factus est
Natura mirante,
Mundus renovatus est
A Christo regnante.

Ezechielis porta
Clausa pertransitur,
Unde lux est orta
Salus invenitur.

Ergo nostra contio
Psallat lam in lustro;
Benedicat Domino:
Salus Regi nostro.
Rejoice, rejoice! Christ is born
Of the Virgin Mary, rejoice!
The time of grace has come
That we have desired;
Let us devoutly return
Joyful verses.

God has become man,
And nature marvels;
The world has been renewed
By Christ who is King.

The closed gate of Ezekiel
Has been passed through;
Whence the light is born,
Salvation is found.

Therefore let our gathering
Now sing in brightness
Let it give praise to the Lord:
Greeting to our King.

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