Advent Calendar Day 10: The Record of John – Gibbons

I really had intended to leave The Record of John out of my Advent calendar this year, especially as I have more Gibbons planned for you later in December, but then I made the mistake of listening to it again, and I just couldn’t.  I really do think this is one of the most amazing pieces of Advent music ever written, and it just doesn’t feel like Advent to me until I’ve sung the part about the voice that crieth in the wilderness.

(Which is sad, because I haven’t actually had the opportunity to sing this piece for some years now, and I miss it quite desperately.)

Like the Michael Wise piece from last Thursday, this is a verse anthem, but where other composers use music to paint a picture of the words, Gibbons takes the approach of using the music to capture the natural inflections of speech, at least in the solo line.  It makes him very easy to sing with feeling, and I think also heightens the emotional impact of the music.

But really, you don’t need me to tell you why this is beautiful.  You would be far better off just listening to it, and finding out for yourself.

PS – So I just went and had a look at Gibbons’ biography, and he apparently died of an apoplexy aged only 41.  Spookily, this is the same age at which Michael Wise died (though he died while brawling with a night watchman).  The moral of the story: don’t write verse anthems, or you will die young.  And let’s not even get started on Purcell, who only made it to 36.  Come to think of it, he wrote verse anthems, too.  Really, don’t write verse anthems if you want to grow old…

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Advent Calendar Day 9: Prepare ye the way of the Lord – Godspell

In vain I have struggled.  It will not do.  My feelings will not be repressed.  I cannot possibly end this sequence without earworming you all with Godspell.

I was going to apologise, but unfortunately any apology would completely lack sincerity, because I have loved Godspell ever since I was little and we used to play it on tapes in the car.  And I’ve loved if even more since my awesome primary school music teacher (Greg Mason, if you are reading this, you really were an inspiration) made Godspell the school production for the Grade 4-6 classes.

Which, in retrospect, was probably ridiculously cute.  But we thought it was fantastic, and my fellow Grade 4s and I all liked to see how fast we could sing the ‘Some men are born to live at ease’ song without getting completely tongue tied, and I’m pretty sure that every single one of us can still sing the entire musical, word for word, from beginning to the end.  Except for the Turn Back, O Man song, which was considered too Adult and Racy for 10-12 year old girls.  (It’s an awesome song, so yes, I know that one by heart, too, but not because of school.)

I really do think Godspell is an extremely good musical, and there are some great songs in there – I would love to sing the Godspell version of ‘We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land’ at church sometime, or, for that matter, ‘O Bless the Lord My Soul’, which is just a fabulous gospel piece.

Incidentally, the sound you can hear at the start of this recording is a shofar, which is the ram’s horn instrument mentioned in the Bible, which gets blown at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  So this post is not just about sharing the 1970s music theatre love – it’s also educational!  (For my non-Jewish readers, anyway.  Though I imagine I don’t have a *lot* of Jewish readers seeking out musical advent calendars…)

PS – if you really can’t bring yourself to listen to Godspell, here, have the King’s Singers singing ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel‘.  This is very nearly on theme for today, and it’s a little more classical and restrained…

Advent Calendar Day 8: Vox Clamantis in Deserto

I won’t lie to you – I don’t actually hold an entire library of Advent-appropriate music in my head.  I mean, yes, I’ve certainly sung my fair share and more in this genre, but still.

What I’m saying here is that sometimes what I do is I type an Advent text into Google, get Google to translate it into Latin (or translate it myself into German or French), transcribe the results into YouTube and see what comes out.

And today, what came out was this.

It’s pretty wonderful, isn’t it?  I do love choirs of deeper voices doing gorgeous, lush harmonies, and I love the style – it’s late 15th or early 16th century, so very early in the Renaissance, and it feels as though its still harking back to its medieval roots.  The composer is Bartolomeo Tromboncino, who  was a composer, trombone player (not a zucchini), and, unfortunately, also a pretty unpleasant person.  I mean, murdering your wife and then going to work for Lucrezia Borgia is not what I’d call the hallmark of a stellar character.

Beautiful music, though.

(If you prefer your Renaissance settings of Vox Clamatis without murderers, then allow me to recommend to your attention this setting by Giaches de Wert, which is also very lovely, but feels less exciting to my ear.  Perhaps this is because de Wert was writing right in the middle of the Italian Renaissance, and I know that style of music pretty well?)

Advent Calendar Day 7: Comfort Ye / Ev’ry Valley – Handel

Well, now, I could hardly have a ‘prepare ye the way of the Lord / make His path straight’ theme and not include Handel, now could I?  I’m pretty sure there is a law about that sort of thing.

The trick with this piece is, of course, that so many people have sung it that it’s really difficult to pick a favourite recording of it.  And I really can’t have Ian Bostridge every year.  Well, I mean, I could, but it seems like cheating…

So this year, I’ve found a rather delightful recording by Kurt Streit.  There are some flaws in the recording (for some reason, it’s squished and compressed, and someone cut a bunch of the accompaniment – why would you DO that?), but there are really none in his performance.  I love the effortlessness with which he sings, and how much joy he brings to the performance – it’s absolutely contagious, and I’d basically follow him anywhere if he sang at me like that.

I hope you enjoy this as much as I do!

PS – OK, I simply cannot mention Handel’s Messiah without drawing your attention to this completely bonkers production, directed by Claus Guth.  It’s impeccably sung, but the staging is bizarre and includes interpretive dance, a sign language interpreter, and significantly more seductive intent than one usually finds in either ‘He Shall Feed his Flock’ or ‘How Beautiful Are the Feet’.  (And yes, it goes precisely where you think it does in the latter case.)

If you have a couple of hours to spare and have a taste for high-quality Baroque music made completely bizarre, I highly recommend this to your attention.

Advent Calendar Day 6: Prepare ye the way of the Lord – Wise

I think we’ve milked the Rorate theme as far as we possibly can, so it’s time to move on to our next Advent theme (which probably should have been my first theme, only I got my Advent texts mixed up…), which is all about preparing the way of the Lord.  Because let’s face it – you really can’t have Advent without some serious time spent on Isaiah 40:

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

There are several really obvious possibilities here, and I promise, you’ll be getting them all in good time, but I wanted to start with this slightly less-well-known anthem by Michael Wise, who was an English organist and composer born just after the English Civil War. He wrote several really gorgeous verse anthems, which are one of my favourite forms of music, because they combine choral sections, solos and duets or small ensemble pieces into one piece of music.

(I also like them because they usually feature the alto pretty heavily; the Puritans didn’t approve of church music, and it took a while after the Restoration for cathedrals to train up a new set of really good boy sopranos.  Verse anthems were a good solution, because you could give the tricky bits to the adult tenors, basses and counter tenors, and just bring the boys in for the chorus.  Having said that… Wise was clearly writing for boy sopranos who knew their stuff, so presumably he just liked the form.)

I have not been able to find what I view as a perfect recording, but this one is pretty lovely.  I love the way Wise mixes and matches his voices in this piece.  But I think my favourite part is the bass solo in the ‘every valley section’, with its brilliant low notes.  The duet about all flesh being grass, and the chorus which follows, is also pretty amazing, though I’m less keen on the boy sopranos’ voices than I am on that of the bass.

Advent Calendar Day 5: Rorate Caeli – Weir

Our last Rorate Caeli brings us into the 20th century, via the early Middle Ages.  This setting is by Judith Weir, and was written in 1983.  She uses the melody from the Gregorian chant as her base, then adds in harmonies that are very much 20th century, but give another nod to the Middle Ages with their open fifths.

I have to say, I absolutely love this – my only complaint is that it is far too short, and I want more…

… which is what sent me down the 20th century Rorate Caeli rabbit hole to this very modern Rorate by Leo Nestor, composed in 2011.  This is another composition that uses the plain chant as a starting point, but it has a completely different feel – one I associate with American close harmony singing.  There’s a little bit of jazz to the harmonies, and a fairly fabulous bottom D for the basses.  I don’t love it as much as the Weir, but it’s an interesting addition to the genre.

Advent Calendar Day 4: Rorate Caeli – Rheinberger

Our survey of Rorate Caeli settings now enters the swoonily romantic (not to say sentimental) territory of the 19th century, with this pensive and occasionally dramatic setting by Josef Rheinberger.  Rheinberger was born in Liechtenstein and spent most of his working life in Germany.  And it shows – you can see that he would have gotten along very well, musically speaking, with the likes of Brahms and Brückner.

To me, this particular setting has a pervasive sadness and wistfulness to it – there’s a real feeling of looking back toward a happier past, now irretrievably gone.  The sense of loss reminds me, on some emotional level, of the sort of music written by composers during and just after the Great War – in fact, I looked up Rheinberger’s biography to see if he had actually lived through to the war, but in fact he died in 1901.  I did learn, however, that Rheinberger wrote this piece in 1893, less than a year after the death of his wife, Fanny, a poet who had written the lyrics for many of his vocal compositions. A year later, ill health forced him to give up his post as Court Music Director due to poor health.

So perhaps the sadness isn’t just my imagination…