Alright, I am going to tear myself reluctantly out of the baroque era and leap forward into the middle of the 20th century, where we find the French composer, Francis Poulenc bringing a more mysterious and spooky flair to the whole shepherds-abiding-in-the-fields situation.
I mean, we’ve just had two settings of ‘Behold, I bring you glad tidings’, neither of which started with the all-important ‘Fear not!’ part. Listening to this, one gets the impression that Poulenc thought that the fear part of this was quite important – or at least worth recognising.
Rather than quoting the gospel directly, Poulenc has chosen to make this piece about a conversation between the shepherds and someone who met them shortly after everything happened. The lyrics in English are:
Whom did you see, shepherds; speak, tell us: who has appeared on earth? The newborn child we saw, and choirs of angels praising the Lord. Tell of what you saw, and announce Christ’s birth.
OK, I’m up so late that it is officially tomorrow, and time for another Advent window!
This window is purely serendipitous. When I was wandering all over YouTube, trying to find someone – anyone! – who had recorded Byrd’s O Magnum Mysterium, I quite accidentally happened upon a version by Poulenc.
I’ve only sung one or two pieces by Poulenc, and that was a very long time ago, but I do like him. He really has a way with harmony – I’m sure I’ve described other composers as lush, but Poulenc takes lush to a whole new level. And I have a certain fondness for Poulenc also because twice in my life I have got myself completely lost in Paris and ended up in front of the house in which he was born (I think – though it may have been the one he lived in as an adult. Or perhaps both – I’m not sure I got lost in the same place both times). So stumbling across Poulenc purely by chance is something of a Catherine tradition.
Poulenc was a 20th century composer (a phrase that fills me with foreboding) and apparently “embraced the Dada movement’s techniques, creating melodies that would have been appropriate for Parisian music halls”. I honestly have no idea what they are talking about when they say that, but perhaps this is because I have only encountered his religious music.
(Hmm… according to the article I’m looking at, “A master of artificial simplicity, [Poulenc] pleases even sophisticated listeners by his bland triadic tonalities, spiced with quickly passing diaphonous discords.” Is it just me, or is that statement really pretentious?)
You can tell I know nothing about this piece by the way I am resorting to other people’s remarks about Poulenc to justify its inclusion. But I’m not going to justify it any further, because it’s just plain gorgeous and just a little bit spooky and entirely worth listening to even by unsophisticated listeners such as myself.
And while we’re having serendipitous Poulenc, here he is being all Christmassy with shepherds and such