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?)


Advent Calendar Day 19: The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came (Trad. Basque)

Today’s carol is a very special one, because it is sung by a very dear friend of mine, Shakira Searle, with whom I used to sing regularly before she and her partner moved to Portland, Oregon.  After that, singing regularly became a bit more of a challenging.  But we still sing together in spirit, because she has a regular series of gigs at The Grotto, which is a Catholic shrine and sanctuary in Portland that sounds absolutely gorgeous, not least because of all the singing they have there during their Festival of Lights in December.  And meanwhile, I, too, am singing carols and Catholic music at every possible opportunity during December, so we may be singing at different times, but we are definitely singing from the same songbook!

Given that I’m doing a bit of an Annunciation series this week, it was irresistible to use Shakira’s recording of ‘Gabriel’s Message’ (also known as ‘The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came’), recorded at the Grotto last year.

Isn’t she gorgeous?  I really do miss singing with her.  I’ve always loved this carol, which I first encountered in primary school (where we invariably sang ‘most highly flavoured lady’, and thought this was *hilarious*), and there are some very lovely harmonised versions of it around too (this one, by All Angels, is another favourite of mine).  But I can’t help suspecting it would sound even better if one was listening to it in a candle-lit garden.  If you are anywhere near Portland, I would certainly recommend this festival to your attention.

On another note, I can’t express how strange it is to see someone I have carolled with regularly performing a Christmas carol all rugged up in a woolly jumper.  I know, of course, that everyone else in the world gets Christmas in winter (and it isn’t as though Melbourne Christmases are reliably hot, either), and I’m quite used to seeing other people carolling in heavy coats, but I feel a real sense of cognitive dissonance seeing Shakira carolling in what is obviously the middle of winter!