Advent Calendar – Christmas Day!

Merry Christmas!  Usually this is the point at which I go for all the big descants, but you have the entire internet for that.

Instead, I am going to be completely self-indulgent (and hopefully you-indulgent, too), because I was looking for a beautiful Christmas song by the King’s singers to end with and instead I found… an entire King’s Singers Christmas concert.  Merry Christmas indeed!

I wish you a day with the people you love, a day of delicious food and enjoyable conversation and a baby to hug, if that’s your sort of thing (or a cat to hug, if that is your preference), with no drama, no disasters, no politics and someone else doing the washing up.  And a nice book to read at the end of the day.

With love,


Advent Calendar Day 26: Oratorio de Noël (Saint Saens)

It’s Christmas Eve, which means that we are nearly at the end of our Advent journey.  I don’t know about you, but I’ll be spending the day cooking and baking for tomorrow, probably while listening to music.  Will it be Christmas music?  At the time of writing this post, Christmas is still a week and a half away, and I’m not tired of Christmas music yet, but there are four work choir concerts, one carol service, one carolling evening, carols at a nursing home, and numerous rehearsals for same standing between me and Christmas Eve, so it’s entirely possible that I’ll be a bit done with Christmas music by that point.  Then again, I have not yet completed my annual re-watch of Claus Guth’s gorgeously sung, but notably bonkers staging of Handel’s Messiah, and that really never gets old, so perhaps that’s how I’ll be spending some of my day.

This year will be the first Christmas Eve in over a decade that I haven’t been singing in a Catholic midnight mass somewhere.  Instead, I have the very great pleasure of joining the Toorak Uniting Church for their performance of Camille Saint Saens’ Oratorio de Noël, for which I am the alto soloist.  I’m very much looking forward to this – I haven’t sung this piece before, and it’s very lovely.  And the company will be excellent, too – I very much enjoy singing with this group.

So today, I’m going to share with you this lovely recording of the Oratorio, sung by the Mainz Bach Choir.  It’s a great recording – I love the soloists, and the choir and orchestra are excellent.  And Mainz holds a special place in my heart, as one of my dearest friends is from there.  I must find out whether this is the choir her mother sings in – alas, I’m fairly certain it isn’t the orchestra she plays with (and even if it were, this piece has a distinct lack of flute in it).  But it’s still a nice connection.

Saint Saens’ oratorio is not a long piece, as oratorios go – it will only entertain you for about half an hour of your Christmas Eve baking.  Nor is it a dramatic piece – it’s mostly very gentle and pastoral in tone.  I’ve copied an English translation of the lyrics below.  Wishing you a peaceful Christmas Eve!

1. Prelude for organ and strings
2. There were shepherds abiding in the fields etc (come on, you know this).      2a. Glory to God in the Highest
3. I waited with longing for the Lord, and he turned to me
4. Lord, I have believed that you are the Christ, the Son of the living God, who has come into this world.
5. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. God is the Lord and has given us light. You are my God, and I shall trust in you. You are my God, and I will exalt you.
6. Why do the heathen clamour?  Why do the people imagine vain and foolish things? Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit! As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen
7. With you the beginning on the day of your strength, with you the beginning in the splendors of the saints.
8. Alleluia. Praise god, ye heavens, rejoice on earth, for the Lord has poured his consolation upon his people, and he to the afflicted will be merciful.
9. Arise now, Daughter of Zion! Praise at night, at the beginning of the night watch. May the Righteous One go out from Zion in splendor, may its Savior shine like a lamp.
10. Bring offerings, and adore the Lord in his holy place. Rejoice, heaven, and exult, all the earth, before the Lord, for he comes. Alleluia

Advent Calendar Day 25 – Schlafe Mein Liebster (JS Bach)

Oh, you didn’t think we were going to get to Christmas with more Bach, now did you?  Of course we weren’t.  This is a rather gorgeous alto aria from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, which is basically a lullaby for the baby Jesus.  The words translate to ‘Sleep, my beloved, enjoy Your rest, and awaken after this so that all may thrive!  Comfort the breast, feel the joy with which we make glad our hearts.’  Because this is Bach, it takes quite a long time for the soloist to say all of this.  (Or perhaps the baby just doesn’t want to sleep?  Bach did have quite a lot of children, so he was probably familiar with the whole ‘hey you just stopped rocking me and singing to me, this is no good, I’m going to start screaming’ phenomenon.  Hmmm… the more I think about this theory, the more I am convinced by it…)

The Christmas Oratorio is actually an oratorio intended to be performed over six days during the Christmas season, and this particular aria, from the Adoration of the Shepherds, falls on the second day.  A sneak peek at the various arias over all the six days show me that the alto gets an aria on each of the first three days and a lot of recitative on the fifth day, but is conspicuously absent on New Years Day and the feast of the Epiphany, presumably because she was a party girl who had better things to do on these days (unlike the goody-two-shoes soprano who is present and accounted for on both these days).*

This particular recording is by Ingeborg Danz and the Bach-Collegium Stuttgart, and it’s just gorgeous, so I’m going to stop providing random commentary and leave you to enjoy it.

* This is probably not true.  Or at least, the bit about who was singing on which days is true, but I have no evidence to suggest that the alto soloist wasn’t perfectly well-behaved.  I just like to think that she got to go off duty and have a bit of fun on those traditional party days/nights.

Advent Calendar Day 24: Masters in this Hall

To contrast with the serenity of yesterday’s carol, I couldn’t resist sharing this cheerfully energetic carol, with its little social justice message in the chorus.  There are many, many versions of this carol out there, and I am decidedly partial to the Willcocks arrangement, which has a deliciously grandiose orchestral part and a totally ridiculous descant.  When I was in Germany last year, I heard a version of this in French that was definitely not a Christmas carol (the words I was able to discern suggested more of drinking song, though my vocabulary was not up to figuring out details, especially when sung in a German accent), and indeed the carol is supposedly French in origin, and a dance tune (as is clear from this particular version of the carol).

My survey of YouTube brought me to this gorgeous arrangement, sung by the Robert Shaw chorale, with entirely different words to the ones I know.  While I miss the medieval instruments, it definitely has the required level of jauntiness and cheer!  I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Advent Calendar Day 23 – Magnificat (Telemann)

This is not, perhaps, entirely an Advent, or even Christmas piece, but I can never resist including it despite that, because it is just so very lovely. I think this close to Christmas, it’s easy to get caught up in the stress of all the things you need to get done at the last minute and completely lose track of any sense of Christmas at all. I find that I feel very Christmassy for the first two weeks of December, and then pretty much get consumed by Christmas Admin until Christmas Eve, at which point, if I’m lucky, I get a good midnight Mass and it’s all OK again… (and if I’m particularly sleep-deprived and stressed and exhausted I start having mild sort of out of body experiences and hallucinating angelic choirs, which was certainly interesting that one time, and certainly in the correct Christmas spirit, but once was definitely enough for that experience).

All of which was a long way of saying that I’m including this peace largely for its peacefulness.  I love the illustrations from the Très Riches Heures du Duc du Berry, too, but one of the loveliest things about this music is the bell-like chimes made by one of the sopranos, which to me are the aural equivalent of drops of clear water – this piece is strangely cooling.

Speaking of hallucinations, I could have sworn that I read somewhere that I have now established that despite being called Magnificat (which is Mary’s song at the Annunciation, and thus very appropriate for Advent), this piece actually uses a text by Francis of Assisi called the Canticle of the Sun – or parts of it, anyway.  I have no idea where I found this, but when I went back and listened very closely, I was able to identify some (though not all) of the lyrics from this canticle.  This song praises God through all his creatures, and the verses I was definitely able to identify are as follows:

Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and You give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens You have made them bright, precious and beautiful.

Happy those who endure in peace,
for by You, Most High, they will be crowned.

Perhaps not Advent material, but not a bad choice for the summer solstice, or for a time of year when patience and peace are in short supply…

Advent Calendar Day 22 – Rorate Coeli

And here we are on the fourth Sunday of Advent, which, according to all the sources I’ve found, means that it is time for a bit of Rorate Coeli.  This is a very lovely and very old text, which started its musical life as Gregorian chant, before becoming super-trendy in the 16th century, when Palestrina, Handl, Byrd and Schütz all got into it.

(Those who have spent any time in the Australian intervarsity choral scene might also be entertained by this alleged arrangement by Christopher Tye, which bears a striking resemblance to the Australian intervarsity choral anthem, only with a bit less punching of the air when one’s part comes in.)

The text is lovely, and translates to ‘Let the heavens drop down dew, and let the clouds rain down justice. Let the earth open and bring forth the Saviour.  The word used for bring forth is ‘germinet’, which really means ‘grow’, in a similar sense to ‘germinate’ – I like the image of the rain of justice making the ground fertile for the germination of salvation.

Most years, I find myself sharing the Schütz yet again, because it is so gorgeous and lively and bouncy, but we have spent most of the last week in the middle ages and the Baroque era, musically speaking, and I think a little bit of 19th century German Romanticism would do us all some good.  So today, you are getting the very lush setting of Rorate Caeli by Josef Rheinberger, a composer born in Liechtenstein but who lived most of his life in Germany.  I know very little about Rheinberger, but Wikipedia went out of its way to tell me that he had a very happy marriage with his wife, Fanny, who was a poet and wrote a lot of his lyrics.  This is not really germane to the music, but I think it’s rather sweet, so I am mentioning it anyway.


Advent Calendar Day 21 – O Frondens Virga (Hildegard of Bingen)

Something a bit different today, because if your weekend is looking anything like mine (one choir rehearsal, two lots of carolling, and two family Christmas get-togethers), you probably need something soothing and restful to cope with the stress.  Also, as we get closer to Christmas, and those very stylised, traditional services on Christmas Eve with candles and the same readings and carols really in almost every church around the globe, year after year, I always find myself with an image in my head of reaching back to hold hands in a long chain of people throughout the centuries, who have sat through services very much like these, listening to these same readings (and even some of the same hymns) for nearly 2,000 years.

(One of the things I love most about candlelit services is that this is the only time one really gets a sense of what churches must have looked like in the days before electricity and gas lighting, with only natural light and candles to light the space.  Though in Australia, of course, very few of our churches pre-date some sort of artificial lighting…)

I don’t have any music from the first few centuries AD that I can share with you, alas.  While the text of Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence goes back to 275 CE or earlier, the best known tune is 17th century, and I can’t find an earlier version. The Latin version of Of the Father’s Love Begotten dates to 413 CE as plainchant, but nobody seems willing to record it without embellishment.

Which leads me, inevitably, to the 12th century, and Hildegard of Bingen.  I have a great fondness for Hildegard, who, in addition to being a composer of numerous musical works, was an accomplished herbalist, poet and playwright, and was not shy about writing letters to the Kings and Popes of her day telling them where they were going wrong.  (I suspect that it is no coincidence that a lot of rules were brought in after her death restricting the movement and activities of cloistered women.  Nobody was game to cross her while she was alive, but they weren’t going to stand for any more of that once she was gone, thank you.) Hildegard’s convent at Eibingen is also very close to the home of one of my dearest friends (who tells me that there were always a *lot* of Hildegards in her class at school).

O Frondens Virga is an antiphon to the Virgin Mary, and the lyrics translate as:

O branch, coming into leaf, standing upright in your nobility as dawn advances: rejoice now and be glad and deign to free us, helpless and weak, from the evil habits of our age; and stretch out your hand to lift us upright.

The leafy and fertile imagery is very Hildegard, and Kathelijne Van Laethem’s voice has a pure clarity that suits the music perfectly.