Advent Calendar Day 9 – See, the Word is Incarnate (Orlando Gibbons)

I think we all know by now that, left to myself and with a little more co-operation from YouTube, I could happily compose an entire playlist of Orlando Gibbons, with the occasional pause for some Purcell (and believe me, there’s plenty of that in the days ahead). Sadly, nobody seems to record much Gibbons, possibly because he requires a lot of his choirs and more of his soloists (his accompaniments never, ever help out the soloists even by accident). Worse still, when people do record Gibbons, they never use a female alto for the solo, which is something I am resisting the urge to rant about at great length.

Anyway, this next piece may not, technically be an Advent Carol. It does, in fact, start with Advent, but within twenty bars it has passed Christmas and is heading for Epiphany, after which it rampages gleefully through a collection of miracles, dwells mournfully on the cross and the wounds, and then ends with a glorious ascension (and really, this is Gibbons – glorious is, if anything, an understatement). Hello, seven-minute sung Gospel! However, since a tendency to race through large swathes of the Bible in a handful of verses is definitely feature of many Advent Carols, I’m calling this one, and ignoring the fact that traditionally these swathes are from the Old Testament.

Besides, this is Gibbons. Do I even need to make excuses for including more of him? And this is not just any Gibbons, but Gibbons at his very best. This piece is another verse anthem, with verses sung by soloists alternating with choral sections, but the verses are all sung by different combinations of voices; building from an alto solo at the start through an alto-soprano duet (which swaps altos mid-stream) and an alto-tenor-bass trio to a completely swoonworthy, spine-tingling quartet of two altos and two tenors, before the final verse, which is the alto soloist again, getting to show off her coloratura, before returning to the final choral section.

In short, it’s wonderful, wonderful writing, with Gibbons’s usual talent for making his melodies mimic inflections of speech combined with his glorious voicing and harmonisation. And did I mention that once again, the alto gets all the fun – including the fun of standing between the other alto soloist and the tenor soloist during that wonderful trio?

My sole quibble is that there are only three recordings of this on YouTube that I can find, and, while all of them are good recordings with good soloists, I am immodestly certain that I can sing that alto solo better than they do! Especially with the marvellous Ursula P on the Alto 1 solo. And *why* does nobody ever record this piece with female altos…?

Edited in December 2017 to note that I have not changed my opinion in any way.  Especially about female altos.

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