Advent Calendar Day 20 – A Musicological Journey through the Twelve Days of Christmas (Courtney)

It’s Friday again, and that means it is time to take off our rose-tinted spectacles (it’s possible that you are relieved to hear this by now), and indulge in some Friday Frivolity.

I love this piece of music SO MUCH.  Love, love, love, love, love it!  I’ve been saving it for the last Friday in Advent, because I think we all need to take a deep breath now that Christmas is only a week away, and let it out in a big giggle.  Also, after nearly three weeks of Advent Carols, I feel we are all likely to have a greater appreciation of the musical genre games being played here than we might have had before.

Seriously, how fun is that?  The more church music you’ve done, the cleverer it is (there is some definite Palestrina in there, and Vivaldi and Handel both get a turn, but then there is Wagner, and the Carnival of the Animals for Seven Swans a Singing, and it is so, so clever, and one day, I will find a way to teach this to my work choir, and it will be *glorious*.

Enjoy, and I hope your weekend is as stress-free as is possible at this time of year!


Advent Calendar Day 19 – Legend “The Crown of Roses” Tchaikovsky

By now, we are all clear, I think, that there are no roses without thorns, and it falls to Tchaikovsky to lead us into one of the darker rose bowers for this week.  This carol actually gets sung quite a bit in Lent and around Easter, but, while this is not something I’ve highlighted this year, Advent does actually share a fair bit of common ground with Lent, as the shared liturgical colour hints.  Both are times of waiting and (in some traditions) of fasting, and both share a common theme of preparation and repentance.  While the repentance theme is generally underlined more strongly in Lent than in Advent, Advent is also when we get a lot of the apocalyptic readings in the Common Lectionary, so the theme is there to be had.

And, after all, while Christmas is when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we do so knowing that the end of his story is his death at the hands of the people he tried to help.

All of which is to say that this is not a cheerful carol.  Not in the slightest.

I do not speak Russian, but the words in English are as follows:

When Jesus Christ was yet a child
He had a garden small and wild
Wherein he cherished roses fair
And bound them into garlands there.

Now once as summertime drew nigh
There came a troop of children by
And seeing roses on the tree
With shouts they plucked them eagerly.

“Do you bind roses in your hair?”
They cried in scorn to Jesus there.
The boy said humbly “Take, I pray
All but the naked thorns away.”

Then of the thorns they made a crown
And with rough fingers pressed it down
Til on his forehead, fair and young,
Red drops of blood, like roses, sprung.

I’m not even going to try to commentate on that.  There is plenty to say, but I suspect you can find what you need yourself.  I was going to find you a recording in English, but then I came across this rendition by a Russian choir.

Interestingly, the choir in question is the USSR Ministry of Culture Chamber Choir, and this recording was made in 1988.  And that’s something else I don’t even know where to start unpacking.  1988 was a year before the Wall came down, an event that I remember principally as marking the end of my fear that we were all going to die at any minute in a nuclear holocaust, and also as requiring my German teacher to buy lots of new maps.  My understanding was that Communist Russia definitely frowned on Christianity (and indeed, on religion in general).

But this beautiful carol is sung with great feeling and evidently with official approval, and my brief foray into internet research suggests that they in fact sang quite a bit of religious music.  I wasn’t able to find out much about this choir, and I cannot stress enough how little I know about internal USSR politics, but I find the idea of a state-sponsored choir singing this beautiful, mystical religious music in Russian in the USSR in the 1980s fascinating.


Advent Calendar Day 18: Maria durch ein Dornwald ging (Maria walks amid the thorn)

For our third day in our Advent Rose week, we return to Germany with another traditional carol, this time featuring roses neither as symbols or Mary or of Jesus, but as a miraculous response to Mary walking through a field of thorns while pregnant with Jesus.  This carol dates from the 15th century or earlier, and I haven’t been able to discern whether this is just the text or the melody too.  I suspect it is both, because it does have a bit of an Early Music sound to it.

The lyrics are definitely medieval – you can see them if you click through to the recording by the Short Tailed Snails below, and I’ve put my (probably dubious, but better than some I’ve found online) translation below.

I really like the simplicity of this version of the carol, with its open fifths that add to the medieval effect, but if you’d like a more fully-realised choral version, the Thomanerchor (a boy’s choir founded in 1212, who may well have been singing this music since the day it was first composed) have a rather lovely recording of it from 1980.

Mary walked through a forest of thorns
Kyrie eleison
Mary walked through a forest of thorns
That for seven years had borne no leaf
Jesus and Mary

What did Mary carry under her heart?
Kyrie eleison.
A tiny little child without pain
That is what Mary carried under her heart.
Jesus and Mary

The thorns bore roses there,
Kyrie eleison.
Where the little child was carried through the forest,
There the thorns bore roses.
Jesus and Mary

The original carol goes on for an extra three verses after the three which are sung in these recordings, and indeed, in most recent recordings, and these verses cover John the Baptist, and a brief catechism about who Jesus is and how he sets us free from sin.  Given how thematically different they are from the first three verses, I strongly suspect someone else added them on later, to make the song sound a bit more holy.  Personally, I think the carol is better without them.

Advent Calendar Day 17 – There is no rose of such virtue (Chanticleer)

Are you ready for more roses?  Today’s rose is a 15th century English rose, and is a text that has been sung to many different arrangements.  Interestingly, it seems to have become a big thing in the last century or so – I’ve found melodies and arrangements by artists who I know – Britten, the Mediaeval Baebes, Joubert, and, regrettably, Sting – and ones who are new to me – Young, Koppin, McDonald, Memley (my favourite of this lot), and, honestly, each YouTube video leads to another new version of this piece.  I’m beginning to feel I could fill an Advent Calendar just with this text.

(It’s a lovely text, but really?)

Anyway, I’m feeling a bit traditional this week, so we are going to eschew all this 20th and 21st century madness for a proper, old-fashioned version, which goes to what I understand to be the original tune, as sung by Chanticleer.  After all those lush dissonances, it’s a pleasure to hear a nice open fifth or two, and a melody that makes sense on its own…

… and that, apparently, is all I want to say about it.  I’m exhausted after listening to fifteen different 20th-century arrangements of this song*…

… oh, I will add that I rather like the slideshow on this one.  Nicely put together.

*Andrew is now mocking me because I told him that after a while all the 20th century arrangements start blurring together into one lush yet spoooooky dissonance.  He says that they aren’t that alike, really**.  He wasn’t in here listening to them.  (They aren’t that alike, really.  But there is a definite trend in the direction of being slow, atmospheric and just a little bit atonal, and I’m afraid my palate is just not refined enough to care.  I’m too busy looking for my next cheap Baroque fix.)

**Andrew now claims that I am misrepresenting him.  This is what a surfeit of 20th century music does to me.  It completely destroys my moral compass.  Or, alternatively, it leads me to make what I maintain was a perfectly reasonable paraphrase of what was actually said.  But apparently, Andrew does not agree with me.  Unfortunately for Andrew, this is my blog, so I get to write whatever I like.  He will have to start his own blog.

Advent Calendar Day 16 – Es ist ein Ros Entsprungen (Lo, how a rose up-springing) (Praetorius and Vulpius)

In honour of the rose-coloured vestments for Gaudete Sunday, I have decided that we are going to view this entire week through rose-themed glasses.  It helps that everyone, regardless of language, seems to have hit on the idea of associating Mary, and sometimes Jesus, with roses, so there is quite an astonishing range of rose-themed carols to choose from.

For today, we will start with a very famous German carol from the 16th century, with harmonies from the 17th century, so it’s nicely aged.  The complete lyrics (in both English and German) can be found by clicking through to the video I’ve attached below, but in this particular carol, it is Jesus who is depicted as a rose coming into bloom at midwinter from the branch of Jesse, and dispersing sweetness everywhere.

I was going to give you a straight choral version, à la Praetorius, and indeed, I thought that was what I had found here, but after the first verse it went unexpectedly fugal before returning to its original tune.  Surprise!  But one can never really have too much polyphony, so I’m all for it.

If this isn’t weird enough for you, Jan Sandström has had a turn at making it 20th century and atmospheric, which is pretty cool.  And if on the other hand, you are a traditionalist at heart, here’s a really lovely recording with Kathleen Battle and the Boys’ Choir of Harlem, which is beautifully sung and very peaceful.

Advent Calendar Day 15 – Rejoice Greatly (Handel)

This is the third Sunday in Advent, also known as Gaudete Sunday.  If you go to the sort of church that takes its liturgy seriously, you will find your Advent purple has been brightened up with a swathe of bright pink, and you probably have a pink candle among the purple candles in your Advent wreath.  If you go to the sort of church that takes its liturgy REALLY seriously and has the money to back it up, the priests’ vestments will be pink, too (I was informed that the colour is rose, thank you, not pink.  Rose is evidently a more serious colour than pink.).

To my abiding disappointment, I never seem to manage to get to sing in a church on Gaudete Sunday, and so I mostly have to make do with the pink aftermath when I go in to practice for the inevitable carol service on Advent 4.  One of these years, I’ll have to take myself along to a cathedral and soak up the pinkness, but for now, let’s get back to the music.

Gaudete means ‘rejoice’, so it’s pretty clear where one has to go with this, musically speaking.  There are a lot of options around if you want some rejoiceworthy church music.  I’m a bit partial to this medieval carol, and of course, Purcell’s Bell Anthem (Rejoice in the Lord alway) is gorgeous.  But today, I’m going to share with you a little bit of Handel’s Messiah, because you can’t actually have Christmas without that, it seems.  The thing with the Messiah is that Handel had barely finished writing it before he started messing with it and rearranging it for different choirs that he conducted.  He transposed solos and gave them to different voice parts, he turned solos into duets and duets into solos, and sometimes, he took a piece written in 4/4 timing (think a march rhythm) and turned it into 12/8 (still sort of a march, but a much bouncier one).

For some reason, the 12/8 version of Rejoice Greatly doesn’t get a lot of air time.  I’m not sure why; it’s actually a bit easier to sing than the 4/4, but it still gives the soprano plenty of room to show off her coloratura.  And it is honestly gorgeous to listen to.

I’m afraid I don’t know the name of the soloist in this recording, which is a shame, because she is gorgeous – her voice has just the right lightness and flexibility for the piece, and she is a delight to listen to.  If you do know, please let me know in the comments, and I’ll edit this post accordingly.

Advent Calendar Day 14 – O Little One Sweet (J.S. Bach)

Did I mention that I’m really, really into Bach at the moment?  The fact that this is the second bit of Bach you are getting in this Advent Calendar might be a clue (and it’s not the last, either – I’m not going to let you get to Christmas without at least a little peek at the Christmas Oratorio).

I loved this carol well before I knew it was Bach’s arrangement because of the utterly gorgeous – and in places totally counterintuitive – alto line.  As an alto, I am always delighted when a composer gives me something more interesting than a row of Fs (which is one reason I am all over both polyphony and Baroque music). Actually, the weirdness of the opening bar should have alerted me to its composer, now I think about it.  No other 17th century composer would do that to their alto section (20th century composers have no mercy on anyone, of course, but the results are rarely so beautiful). This is such a beautiful thing to sing, and I love the way the harmonies cross over.

I listened to a few versions of this, but eventually had to choose this performance by The King’s Singers.  One of the reasons Bach can be difficult to sing (aside from his counterintuitive key changes) is that he didn’t really write for the human voice as an instrument – he wrote music that happened to use voices as a medium.  (This is not hyperbole on my part – unlike composers such as Handel or Purcell, Bach didn’t really care what voices could or couldn’t do, he cared about what the music was supposed to do, and his singers just had to put up with that.  Later in life, he wrote several pieces for no instrument at all – just pure music.)

So it seems fitting to reflect the purity of Bach’s musical vision with The King’s Singers, who sing everything with a clear tone that is as close to pure music as anything I’ve heard.

(And really, make sure you listen to that alto line.  It’s being sung by the second chap from the left and he is really enjoying it, as well he should.  You should, too.)