Advent Calendar Day 14: There is No Rose of Such Virtue – Chanticleer

I bet you thought that Jesus was the only rose in this story.  Surprise!  Mary also gets to be a rose.  Obviously, this horticultural affinity runs in the family.

There is no rose of such virtue is a medieval text with literally dozens of settings available.  Everyone has done his or her own version, and it seems to have been especially popular in the 20th century (I feel like there was a bit of a medieval revival in the 20th century), with versions by Britten, Joubert and the Medieval Baebes, to name a few of my favourites.  (Or Sting, to name an amusing but unfortunate non-favourite.)

But the original tune is actually incredibly beautiful in its own right, and I especially love Chanticleer’s arrangement – have I mentioned recently that I’m a sucker for male voices singing in harmony?  This is, admittedly, quite a repetitive piece of music, but I rather like the meditative effect of listening to it while enjoying the gallery of Madonna and Child paintings.  I hope you do, too.


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 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.

Advent Calendar Day 7: There Is No Rose of Such Virtue

Given that I’m coming up with a post a day during Advent, I was going to put my Friday Fun on hiatus… but on reflection, that didn’t sound like much fun at all, so instead, I’m going to devote Fridays in Advent to interpretations of carols that are just plain weird.  And what could be weirder than Sting singing medieval Advent Carols?

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Advent Calendar Day 15 – Ave Maria (Josquin Des Prez)

I’d never sung or heard this piece prior to typing ‘Josquin Desprez Advent’ into YouTube and surfing around to see what came up. Yes, sometimes my choices really are as random as me thinking “Hmm, this composer is good, and I bet he wrote something appropriate, let’s see if I can find it.”. Shameful, I know.

This is an interesting one to listen to, especially when you compare it with some of the other polyphony adorning this calendar by Byrd, Gibbons or Hassler. Desprez was born over a century before that lot, and it shows. His music is sparer, starker, more medieval in its harmonics (or at least, I associate all those open fifths with medieval music – the Elizabethans don’t go in for them anywhere near as much). It feels as though a bunch of Gregorian chants got together to sing rounds. Only that implies a level of verve and cheeriness that Desprez does not seem to go for (in my extremely limited experience of his music – I believe I have sung one piece written by him). This feels much more monastic and reflective, even in faster recordings.

In my quest to find the perfect recording of this song, I learned that it was apparently considered an almost perfect composition, and that it was so popular that someone (Ludwig Daser) decided it would be even better in six parts. And then Ludwig Senfl, who clearly shared my view that this was quite an amusing thing to do to an allegedly perfect piece of music, wrote a parody of the whole thing. It is with profound regret that I report that I could not find a recording of the parody. I mean, it might not have been all that funny to a modern ear (Mozart wrote all these musical jokes that stopped being funny once the romantics, I think, got their paws all over the art of composition and broke all the rules), but enquiring minds still want to know.

I’ve put the translated lyrics below. I have to say, they are the least interesting thing about this piece of music. But even if you don’t like the lyrics, you can still let the music wash over you and be happy.

Hail Mary, full of grace,
The Lord is with thee, gentle Virgin.
Hail, thou whose Conception,
Full of solemn joy,
Fills heaven and earth
With new gladness.
Hail, thou whose Nativity
Became our great celebration,
As the light-bringing rising light
Coming before the true sun.
Hail, blessed humility,
Fertility without man,
Whose Annunciation
Was our salvation.
Hail, true virginity,
Immaculate chastity,
Whose Purification
Was our cleansing.
Hail, glorious one
In all angelic virtures,
Whose Assumption
Was our glorification.
O Mother of God,
Remember me.

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.