Advent Calendar Day 10 – Gabriel’s Message (Joshua Shank)

I seem to have a bit of an accidental Basque theme going this week – yesterday’s carol was a contemporary setting of an old text by a Basque composer, and today’s carol is a traditional Basque carol.  I’ve always loved this piece of music, even in my primary school days when we used to giggle about the chorus (to this day, I have to work hard not to sing ‘most highly flavoured gravy’ instead of ‘most highly favoured lady’).  It’s such a lovely melody, and the harmonies are gorgeous – I love the way you have to wait for the dissonances to resolve. Also, I just like Mary songs.  (I should probably be Catholic.  Except that I would be a terrible Catholic.)

I’m teaching this to my work choir at present, and they are loving it too.  And doing a much better job than I am of singing the proper words.

I was going to give you a traditional arrangement of this piece, but then I got completely captured by this fascinating version by Joshua Shank, in which he tries to paint the scene of the annunciation with music.  It’s stunning – there is such a feeling of light and brightness in this piece, and somehow the way Gabriel’s words are set, with different voices and rhythms against each other, make me think of Madeleine L’Engle’s depiction of the cherubim as this unfathomable beast with so many eyes and wings that it almost seems plural even though it is only one creature.  Very otherworldly, and a bit intimidating and even overwhelming, as an angel should be.

Also, it’s rather lovely to hear a verse in the original Basque.  None of the other arrangements I’ve heard do that.

If you’ve never heard the piece before, my serving suggestion is to start by listening to either this version, sung by The Sixteen, or to this ethereal arrangement by All Angels, so that you can see where Shank’s arrangement is departing from.

And if you know this carol and hate it and want to see violence done to it, allow me to recommend to your attention this version, sung by Sting.  My husband claims that it isn’t so bad, but actually, he’s wrong about that.  It’s a shocker.  And yet, somehow, I can’t resist sharing it anyway…

(Oh my, and I just looked up the composer and he was born in 1980.  I feel ancient now.  Also inadequate.  How can anyone born in 1980 possibly be old enough to be writing music like that?)

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Advent Calendar Day 14 – The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came (Trad. Basque)

My little work choir had its first performance today (I’m so very proud of them!), so I’m beginning to feel as though Christmas can’t be far away… time to sneak in a Christmas carol or two, albeit a fairly Adventy one.

The school I went to for late primary had a daily assembly with hymns. If you had been good, you got to pick the hymn for the day. In retrospect, some of the choices were a little odd – one friend always picked ‘Glad that I live am I’, because it was really short. I liked ‘I Vow To Thee, My Country’, because I was really into Rosemary Sutcliff and then the English Civil War, and the whole romantic patriotism thing. We would have Christmas Carols in September or April, and Easter songs in November. We especially liked the one about Mary Magdalene washing the feet of the Lord with her hair. And another very popular choice at any time was Gabriel’s Message, also known as ‘The Angel Gabriel From Heaven Came’. Why? Because you could sing ‘most highly flavoured lady’ at the end of each verse and the teachers wouldn’t notice and we thought this was hilarious. It just got funnier with every verse, I tell you.

(in retrospect, it seems likely that the teachers did notice and just didn’t feel it was worth the argument. Given all the giggling going on, they must surely have known we were up to something.)

(in later years, we liked to sing ‘who knows the swell of the glamourous belle’ instead of the clamorous bell in our school song, because we thought this was terribly risqué. Trust me, the song had it coming.)

So this is a bit of a nostalgia piece for me, though now I’m not ten any more I actually like it because it has a pretty tune. The group performing are just lovely – I hadn’t heard them before, and I hadn’t heard this arrangement, but I am very fond of close harmonies, and they execute them perfectly. Also, they look like they are having fun, which is always a bonus.