I know I link to this every year, but to me, this is where Advent starts. I’ve been singing this with the Wesley Choir for about twelve years now, most of that time as the alto soloist, though I have also dabbled with the first alto and soprano lines in this and other choirs. It is, I think, one of the most beautiful and evocative pieces of church music out there, and whenever we walk into choir on that day in late November and our conductor plays the opening bars, some part of me just settles into a place where all is well, and Advent is here, and it’s all just *right*.
Orlando Gibbons is one of my favourite composers, and his great talent, I think, is in writing music that captures the sound of spoken word. If you listen to the soloist’s line in this piece, you will hear it rise and fall, emphasising the words in a way that few composers can equal. It makes this a very easy piece to sing in some ways, because the expression and meaning are written into the very bones of the piece, and all you have to do is sing what’s on the page in front of you, and you will find that the music does the rest.
But really, I keep sharing and re-sharing this anthem for that amazing bit in the third verse where ‘he says: I am the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness’, that always sends a shiver through me, if I’m hearing it sung, or even more when I’m the one singing it. If I’m singing this, the music just lifts me up and carries me through to the end with a sense of conviction and presence that I really don’t know how to describe except to say that I think there are pieces of music that really do have in them a touch of the divine, and this is one of them. For a moment, when I sing this, I have no choice but to believe it – it is truth, pure and simple and I can nearly touch it. And I am so lucky to have the opportunity to sing it.
(I do wish I could find a recording with a female alto doing the solo, however. It’s a very different, and I think warmer, sound, and deserves appreciation too.)