So there’s this lovely piece by Byrd called O Magnum Mysterium, which is a perfectly good Advent text with, moreover, an excellent alto line, but it turns out that it’s incredibly difficult to find online, principally because everybody in the world has at some point composed a setting of this text, and apparently everyone else prefers to sing one of the other ones. And if you do find the Byrd version, it is being played on the viol or the recorder, which is not in the spirit of this advent calendar at all.
Byrd’s music is polyphonic which, for any non-musicians who are not skipping this entire sequence out of sheer frustration, means that instead of everyone singing the same rhythm in blocks of harmony, each part has its own line and melody and rhythm twining around the others. If you’ve ever sung a round, that’s a basic form of polyphony (actually, there are some rounds out there which are fiendishly complicated and not at all basic, but you get the idea). This means that you get beautiful interwoven melodies and harmonies, and that very often the listener is left with no clue what the lyrics are, because everyone is singing different words at the same time. Of course, the composer knows this, too, and this style of music, at least in the context of church music, is designed more to generally lift the spirit and promote meditative prayer than to actually convey meaning.
Anyway, I tried, I really did, to find a good recording of the Byrd. And I found one… sort of. It’s beautifully sung, if a trifle slow, the choristers show evidence of paying attention to the conductor (YouTube is teaching me that this is a rarity), and it’s accompanied by Arthur Rackham fairy illustrations. No, you didn’t misread that. Nor are you hallucinating the piano which comes meandering in after a couple of minutes and starts playing laid-back jazz behind the choir, before going into a piano solo interlude that Byrd never dreamed of.
It’s Byrd, Jim, but not as we know it.
Honestly, I was in two minds about including this. I still am, actually. It’s absolutely not what I was looking for… but for all its weirdness and my feeling that this is not proper Advent music, I feel as though it would be cheating in some way to leave it out.
Translation of the lyrics:
O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
Christ the Lord.