Advent Calendar Day 3: Rorate Caeli – Handl

Another Renaissance Rorate Caeli, but the Renaissance in Eastern Europe was clearly a different beast to the Renaissance in Spain!  Jacob Handl (also known as Jacobus Gallus and Jacobus Handelius) was born in Montenegro in 1550, making him about 20 years younger than Guerrero, but definitely a contemporary, and he lived and worked in Germany and Austria, and eventually died in Prague, at the early age of 41.

Depending on which bits of the internet you believe, Handl may or may not have been a Cistercian monk, which is not an order known for its joyous nature (I’ll admit, I still bear a grudge against Bernard of Clairvaux for crimes committed in my undergraduate history studies… and perhaps the order changed after his death, though Handl’s early death suggests that it), but this Rorate is actually quite lively and pretty delightful. I especially like the rippling line that runs through all the parts – if Guerrero’s Rorate is a gentle rain, Handl’s feels like a rapidly running stream, or maybe a river…

Tomorrow, we will leave polyphony behind and move to more romantic heights, but I feel like it would be neglectful not to at least acknowledge what the Renaissance composers were getting up to in other parts of Europe.  So here, if you wish it, is Byrd’s lively English version of the Rorate, and Palestrina’s sweet and reflective Italian version.


Advent Calendar Day 2: Rorate Caeli – Guerrero

While I was looking for just the right Rorate Coeli/Caeli to share with you yesterday, I fell down a very deep internet rabbit hole where it turns out that pretty much every composer and his cat has written a setting of this text.  Some of them do very little for me, but others are absolutely lovely – lovely enough, in my opinion, to justify a sequence of Rorate Coeli posts for the first few days of this Advent.

Today’s Rorate, however, is in fact the one I was looking for when I stumbled on this rabbit hole in the first place.  It’s by Francisco Guerrero, a 16th century Spanish priest and composer.  It’s a setting I’ve sung a few times in different churches, and it’s very lovely and unexpectedly simple to sing – everyone gets a melody, and they all blend together very beautifully.  I like the word painting in this one – the all those lovely, waterfall-like runs in each voice part, matching the psalmist’s rainy metaphor.

Advent Calendar Day 1: Rorate Caeli – Zebrowski

The classic text for Advent 1 is Rorate Coeli Desuper – Let the heavens open and rain down righteousness. The oldest setting for this is this Gregorian chant, which still gets sung today (literally today, actually – I’ll be singing it this evening), but just about every church composer of note has had a crack at it. I’ve sung a fair number of versions, and cast envious eyes over more (shout out to the setting by Heinrich Schütz, which I passionately adore and annually badger my various choirmasters to let me sing, so far to no avail).

What these settings all have in common is that they tend to be reflective and a bit mysterious.  The Schütz is, admittedly, fairly chirpy, but the overall theme is one of sweetness and stillness.

And then we have this one.

Which is… not. Apparently, this is what happens when you give a Polish Baroque composer the Rorate text.  I’ve never encountered Marcin Zebrowski before, but apparently he was born in 1702 and died in 1770, which puts him in the later baroque period – he’s younger than Bach and Handel, but older than Mozart, and would have overlapped at least a little with all three.

I’m honestly not at all sure what I think of this as a setting for rorate coeli – it sounds almost military to me, which is an odd thing to do with those lyrics – but it certainly starts Advent off with a bang!

Advent Calendar – Christmas Day!

Merry Christmas!  Usually this is the point at which I go for all the big descants, but you have the entire internet for that.

Instead, I am going to be completely self-indulgent (and hopefully you-indulgent, too), because I was looking for a beautiful Christmas song by the King’s singers to end with and instead I found… an entire King’s Singers Christmas concert.  Merry Christmas indeed!

I wish you a day with the people you love, a day of delicious food and enjoyable conversation and a baby to hug, if that’s your sort of thing (or a cat to hug, if that is your preference), with no drama, no disasters, no politics and someone else doing the washing up.  And a nice book to read at the end of the day.

With love,


Advent Calendar Day 26: Oratorio de Noël (Saint Saens)

It’s Christmas Eve, which means that we are nearly at the end of our Advent journey.  I don’t know about you, but I’ll be spending the day cooking and baking for tomorrow, probably while listening to music.  Will it be Christmas music?  At the time of writing this post, Christmas is still a week and a half away, and I’m not tired of Christmas music yet, but there are four work choir concerts, one carol service, one carolling evening, carols at a nursing home, and numerous rehearsals for same standing between me and Christmas Eve, so it’s entirely possible that I’ll be a bit done with Christmas music by that point.  Then again, I have not yet completed my annual re-watch of Claus Guth’s gorgeously sung, but notably bonkers staging of Handel’s Messiah, and that really never gets old, so perhaps that’s how I’ll be spending some of my day.

This year will be the first Christmas Eve in over a decade that I haven’t been singing in a Catholic midnight mass somewhere.  Instead, I have the very great pleasure of joining the Toorak Uniting Church for their performance of Camille Saint Saens’ Oratorio de Noël, for which I am the alto soloist.  I’m very much looking forward to this – I haven’t sung this piece before, and it’s very lovely.  And the company will be excellent, too – I very much enjoy singing with this group.

So today, I’m going to share with you this lovely recording of the Oratorio, sung by the Mainz Bach Choir.  It’s a great recording – I love the soloists, and the choir and orchestra are excellent.  And Mainz holds a special place in my heart, as one of my dearest friends is from there.  I must find out whether this is the choir her mother sings in – alas, I’m fairly certain it isn’t the orchestra she plays with (and even if it were, this piece has a distinct lack of flute in it).  But it’s still a nice connection.

Saint Saens’ oratorio is not a long piece, as oratorios go – it will only entertain you for about half an hour of your Christmas Eve baking.  Nor is it a dramatic piece – it’s mostly very gentle and pastoral in tone.  I’ve copied an English translation of the lyrics below.  Wishing you a peaceful Christmas Eve!

1. Prelude for organ and strings
2. There were shepherds abiding in the fields etc (come on, you know this).      2a. Glory to God in the Highest
3. I waited with longing for the Lord, and he turned to me
4. Lord, I have believed that you are the Christ, the Son of the living God, who has come into this world.
5. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. God is the Lord and has given us light. You are my God, and I shall trust in you. You are my God, and I will exalt you.
6. Why do the heathen clamour?  Why do the people imagine vain and foolish things? Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit! As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen
7. With you the beginning on the day of your strength, with you the beginning in the splendors of the saints.
8. Alleluia. Praise god, ye heavens, rejoice on earth, for the Lord has poured his consolation upon his people, and he to the afflicted will be merciful.
9. Arise now, Daughter of Zion! Praise at night, at the beginning of the night watch. May the Righteous One go out from Zion in splendor, may its Savior shine like a lamp.
10. Bring offerings, and adore the Lord in his holy place. Rejoice, heaven, and exult, all the earth, before the Lord, for he comes. Alleluia

Advent Calendar Day 25 – Schlafe Mein Liebster (JS Bach)

Oh, you didn’t think we were going to get to Christmas with more Bach, now did you?  Of course we weren’t.  This is a rather gorgeous alto aria from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, which is basically a lullaby for the baby Jesus.  The words translate to ‘Sleep, my beloved, enjoy Your rest, and awaken after this so that all may thrive!  Comfort the breast, feel the joy with which we make glad our hearts.’  Because this is Bach, it takes quite a long time for the soloist to say all of this.  (Or perhaps the baby just doesn’t want to sleep?  Bach did have quite a lot of children, so he was probably familiar with the whole ‘hey you just stopped rocking me and singing to me, this is no good, I’m going to start screaming’ phenomenon.  Hmmm… the more I think about this theory, the more I am convinced by it…)

The Christmas Oratorio is actually an oratorio intended to be performed over six days during the Christmas season, and this particular aria, from the Adoration of the Shepherds, falls on the second day.  A sneak peek at the various arias over all the six days show me that the alto gets an aria on each of the first three days and a lot of recitative on the fifth day, but is conspicuously absent on New Years Day and the feast of the Epiphany, presumably because she was a party girl who had better things to do on these days (unlike the goody-two-shoes soprano who is present and accounted for on both these days).*

This particular recording is by Ingeborg Danz and the Bach-Collegium Stuttgart, and it’s just gorgeous, so I’m going to stop providing random commentary and leave you to enjoy it.

* This is probably not true.  Or at least, the bit about who was singing on which days is true, but I have no evidence to suggest that the alto soloist wasn’t perfectly well-behaved.  I just like to think that she got to go off duty and have a bit of fun on those traditional party days/nights.

Advent Calendar Day 24: Masters in this Hall

To contrast with the serenity of yesterday’s carol, I couldn’t resist sharing this cheerfully energetic carol, with its little social justice message in the chorus.  There are many, many versions of this carol out there, and I am decidedly partial to the Willcocks arrangement, which has a deliciously grandiose orchestral part and a totally ridiculous descant.  When I was in Germany last year, I heard a version of this in French that was definitely not a Christmas carol (the words I was able to discern suggested more of drinking song, though my vocabulary was not up to figuring out details, especially when sung in a German accent), and indeed the carol is supposedly French in origin, and a dance tune (as is clear from this particular version of the carol).

My survey of YouTube brought me to this gorgeous arrangement, sung by the Robert Shaw chorale, with entirely different words to the ones I know.  While I miss the medieval instruments, it definitely has the required level of jauntiness and cheer!  I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.