Advent Calendar Day 15: Rejoice in the Lord Alway (Henry Purcell)

The third Sunday of Advent is also called ‘Gaudete Sunday’ (Gaudete meaning ‘rejoice’ in Latin).  After having candles, altar cloths and vestments of purple for weeks on end, suddenly we break out the pink – tastefully, via a single candle in the case of the more protestant churches, or with rose-coloured exuberance in the case of your more Catholic churches.  One of the churches I sing at used to drape their life-sized cross with purple satin throughout Advent, and then fling a bright swathe of fuchsia cloth of gold across the satin for what, it must be confessed, was our absolutely favourite time of the year to sing there.  The monks wear embroidered pink vestments, too.  Very fetching.

But I digress.

This being the Sunday for rejoicing, I naturally turn to Purcell, because there is nothing more joyous than singing one of his anthems, unless it is singing one of his arias.  He is truly a joy to sing.  And this anthem – also called the Bell Anthem, because of the bell-like accompaniment – is one which is frequently chosen for Gaudete Sunday, for reasons which are probably obvious.

There is so much to love in this piece of music.  I love the bell-like strings at the start and in between the choral sections, the dance-like rhythm of the main melody, and that absolutely thrilling part when the whole choir comes in like a heavenly host for the chorus.  And then the beautiful stillness of ‘the peace of God which passes all understanding’.  Such beautiful writing, and such a perfect piece of music, combining rejoicing and reflection – exactly right for this Sunday in Advent.

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Advent Calendar Day 12 – Rejoice in the Lord Alway (Purcell)

Today’s carol is a very special one, because not only is it Purcell (and you know how I feel about Purcell), but it is sung by my church choir!

Edited December 2017: No, it’s not. I’m very sorry, but that recording seems to have disappeared from the internet.  So instead you get Chanticleer, who really do it very well, even though they don’t have our rocket-powered soprano section to come in and wake everyone up after the soloists are done.

The piece is called ‘Rejoice in the Lord Alway’, which I understand is one of the texts for Advent 3, though I may have been misled, and it’s one of those pieces where the alto soloist has all the fun. Well, she shares it with the tenor and bass soloist, but you get the picture. This is because after the Restoration of King Charles II, there was a need for church music again, but after several years of having the Puritans in charge, there was a real dearth of trained boy sopranos (Puritans not being into church music). So Purcell wrote a number of pieces of music where all the sopranos have to do is come in loudly and high and sing the melody with enthusiasm, while the other parts do most of the work (remembering, of course, that this was in the days when male altos were more common – women, naturally, did not get to sing in church choirs at all).

Which is why I always say that Purcell writes the best show-off music for altos. Well, him and Gibbons. I’d hate to have to choose between them.

My favourite thing about this piece of music is the way the sopranos come in at the chorus like a bolt of lightning or a clap of thunder – you’ve been sitting there, listening to a lot of polite strings and a delicate alto-tenor-bass trio, and then, Wham! Here come the sopranos (well, and the rest of the choir, too, but it’s the sopranos that make it for me), and you are riveted to your seat, listening to them.

Sadly, Chanticleer are way too tasteful to do this with quite the terrifying enthusiasm of a church soprano section that has been sitting patiently through three minutes of everyone else having solos except them, with nothing to do except build up a head of operatic steam that is just waiting to explode all over the unsuspecting congregation.

The other thing I really love in this piece is basically the polar opposite of unleashed sopranos, and that is the gorgeous bit in the trio about the peace of God which passes understanding.  You can find it at 5:30 or so in this recording.  I won’t claim that we do anything else better than Chanticleer, but that bit?  That bit, I think John and Les and I can sing as well as anyone.