Have you recovered from yesterday’s post yet? I’m still giggling about it, to be honest. But moving along, here’s a somewhat more conventional setting of the same text.
Edward Bairstow was one of the great composers of English (Anglican) church music in the late 19th to early 20th century, and his work does feel very English – and Edwardian – to me. There is a sense of old-world restraint to it, though this certainly doesn’t stop it from being both lush in its harmonies and evocative in sound. That bass and tenor line at the very start (and end) of the piece sends shivers down the spine, and when the choir starts singing about the choirs of angels it’s one of the most beautiful vocal lines out there. And the Alleluia is – as it should be – like a shout of joy.
(I use the word shout advisedly. That is not what you are supposed to do with Bairstow… but most choirs can’t resist it in the forte sections. I’m not entirely sure, for instance, that this one did.)
It occurs to me that I’ve used this text twice in two days without actually saying why I think of it as an Advent piece, but I’ve sort of figured that the whole ‘Jesus Christ to earth descending’ is a bit of a hint.
There’s just something about these particular lyrics that bring out the best in composers. I’ve sung, I think, three versions of them (including the hymn), and they are all gorgeous. This one, by Bairstow, is very lush and an absolute joy to sing. It sits in all the very best parts of the voice, and the lyrics are set beautifully, though in a very different way to the way Gibbons does it. Bairstow doesn’t follow the inflections of speech, but he captures mood very effectively and gives you just the sort of notes and tempo you want to sing for those particular words. This is the Romantic style of classical music, which I don’t always care for (early music is much more fun for the alto, and I am very biased in that direction – though having said that, Bairstow does seem to appreciate us too). It’s all about emotion and mood and lots and lots of hairpins (or sausages, as another choir director I worked with liked to call them) – that is to say, phrases which crescendo and then decrescendo (get louder and then softer).
Also, who wouldn’t love a piece where you get to sing about ‘the cherubim with many eyes’. This always reminds me of Madeleine L’Engle, which is definitely a bonus.
I don’t remember if we’ve ever sung this piece in Advent, but to me the text seems to capture the mood of the season very well – let all mortal flesh keep silent… for the King of King and Lord of Lords cometh forth… with lots and lots of cherubim, WITH MANY EYES, hooray!
(why yes, that was a paraphrase)
(not the bit about the many eyes, though. That’s right there in the lyrics.)
But really, this sort of music needs no excuse.