Advent Calendar Day 5 – The Record of John (Gibbons)

In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. We have to have The Record of John now.

Sorry, sudden attack of Pride and Prejudice there.  Put it down to severe lack of sleep and far, far, too much time spent making confectionery this weekend.

But the other thing I did this weekend was attend (and of course sing in) our Advent Service, which was this evening.  Every year, we do a service of readings and carols.  We always do some new pieces – this year, we did some lovely, medieval-sounding polyphony by Heinrich Isaacs and some truly demented Palestrina, as well as Es Ist Ein Rös Entsprungen – but there are some we do every year.  The Matin Responsory.  Adam Lay Y Bounden.  The Record of John, by Orlando Gibbons (also known as my big Elizabethan crush).

(Incidentally, the other highlight of the Advent service is sitting there during the readings and mentally singing along with the reader.  “For unto us a son is born,” says Isaiah, and I’m in Handel-land.  “Make straight in the desert a highway,” and there’s John’s tenor solo.  Actually, currently it all seems to be Handel, but I know there were other composers in my head too.)

I posted this in the Advent Calendar last year, but I feel no hesitation in posting it again now, because for me, Advent starts on a Thursday in late November when Geoff starts playing the accompaniment, generally without warning, and I come in on the alto solo: This is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites to Jerusalem, to Jerusalem, to ask him, “Who art thou?” And he confessed and denied not, and said plainly, I am not the Christ.

The specific part where Advent begins is on “And he confessed and denied not’.  There’s something about the way the accompaniment and the voice combine there that affects me on a visceral level.  Suddenly, everything is just right (until we get into the chorus and I screw up my section because I’ve forgotten what the other alto part is doing).  And then there’s the part: And he said, I am the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness “Make straight the way of the Lord,” which just sends shivers down my spine whenever I sing it.  It’s something in the writing, I think, because it’s on the same bar every time, and for just a few moments right there I can’t help believing absolutely in what I’m singing. Belief of this kind (of any kind, really) doesn’t come easily to me.

I do think this is down to Gibbons’ writing, and his exceptional way with setting lyrics.  I’ve mentioned before his habit of setting the lyrics so that they follow the inflections of speech, and this does something – I don’t know what, exactly – to enhance the emotion in the music.

Basically, it’s a perfect, perfect piece of music.  It’s in my head now, and will be all the way until Christmas.

It might as well be in yours, too.

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