Low humour in high style: Once, Twice, Thrice I Julia Try’d (Purcell)

I have spent quite a lot of this weekend with a lurgy, and have thus been mooching around the internet looking for suitable fodder for the musical Advent Calendar that I plan to run during December.  Alas, this evening’s explorations led me quite by chance into the world of smutty and scatalogical Elizabethan catches or rounds.  It’s amazing how much is out there… and none of it is remotely suitable for Advent, strange to say!

I’m not even sure the following is suitable for this blog, which has until now stayed pretty clean.  And I have to say, the lyrics do make me raise my eyebrows a bit.  But in the end, there is just something irresistible about beautiful voices singing ‘so kiss my arse’ with perfect diction and tuning, with great emphasis and in the highest of style.

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Monday Music: My Beloved Spake (Henry Purcell)

It’s highly likely that Mondays are going to be church music days around here, quite simply because I spend most of my Sundays singing in church choirs, so that’s the sort of music that is in my head.  And of course, every day is Purcell day… and really, why wouldn’t it be?  He is a beautiful composer.

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Advent Calendar Day 21 – Thou Knowest Lord the Secrets of Our Hearts

I was going to give you Josquin Des Prez today (O Virgo Prudentissima), and I actually got as far as finding the recording and putting it in here, but then found that I had absolutely nothing to say about it except that it is pretty (which it is), and that you should certainly listen to it (which you should).

So instead we are having more funereal music today, but since I have it on excellent authority that Advent is also a time for contemplating our ends, I’m not going to feel guilty about this.  We can have Rorate Coeli tomorrow.  This fits my mood today.

We sang this for the first time right before the start of Advent this year, possibly because our choir director shares the views of Tree on this subject.  We rehearse most of our music twice before performing it, and at the second rehearsal we learned that a member of the congregation had died quite suddenly that day – one of those women who volunteers all over the place and organises readings and is on the tea roster and the flower roster and the church council and the English conversation group, and so forth.  Suddenly, the piece was very appropriate.

I’ve spent the evening figuring out sheet music and organising a time to tape an accompaniment for the songs I will be singing at Nonno’s funeral.  I won’t be singing this, but it’s what’s in my head right now.  And it is, I think, a beautiful piece of music.

Advent Calendar Day 2 – Magnificat (Purcell)

I was trying to find a version of Purcell’s ‘Thy Word is a Lantern’ for today, but given a choice of excessively mannered male alto * or pleasing but very quiet female alto with lots of background rustling, I was less than inspired (I’m not sure why this particular search string also brought me up the Alto’s Lament, but that is a question for another day).

Fortunately, it also brought up this gorgeous verse anthem by Purcell, which is ever so much more appropriate for Advent anyway, being as it is a Magnificat. This is Mary’s song early in the book of Luke, after the Angel tells her that she will conceive and bear a son and all that. I believe I’ve expressed the opinion before that Advent is All About Mary, and we might as well start early on this one. You’ll be seeing a lot more Magnificats around here before Advent is over.

I’ve never actually heard this piece before, but already I want to sing it – I have a weakness for verse anthems (anthems which alternate between a soloist or group of soloists and the full choir) and particularly love the way Purcell alternates between full choir and trios composed of lower and then upper voices. I strongly suspect that this is an all-male choir, and I do wish it wasn’t, but it is a very good one for all that.

And you really can’t ever go wrong with Purcell (despite the evidence beside the asterisk below).

No embedding for this video – hie thee to YouTube and watch it there!

Magnificat, composed by Henry Purcell, and sung by the choir of Christ College, Oxford

* seriously, I was waiting for him to start singing the No Kissing At All song. That’s how mannered he was. And yes, he was really that camp.

Edited to add: In fact, I did get to sing this at Christ Church Brunswick, a few years later, and I couldn’t figure out why it seemed so familiar – now I know.

Advent Calendar Day 19 – The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation (Purcell)

We’re getting frighteningly close to Christmas, given how much I still have to do. And today’s Advent Carol is like the Holy Roman Empire, really – not a carol, and not about advent (which is particularly cheeky, since I’ve got some perfectly good carols on my list that there won’t be time for). It isn’t a carol because don’t think it was ever intended to be sung in church, but was rather intended as chamber music. And it isn’t Adventy, because even though it’s all about Mary, the lyrics suggest that this is either the episode with Jesus (like sheep) going astray at the Temple, or more probably during the Flight into Egypt, with toddler-Jesus gone (like sheep) astray in the wilderness.

(sorry about the sheep)

The trouble is, though, that I was trying to find Advent music by Purcell, and one of the terms I used was ‘Purcell Virgin Mary’. And then I saw this piece of music and it had ‘Expostulation’ in the title, which I think you will agree made it something I really had to listen to. How many songs have ‘Expostulation’ in the title? What if it had ‘expostulation’ in the lyrics and I never knew about it?

You see my problem. And then I listened to it, and not only is it entirely and utterly beautiful, but Christine Brandes, the soprano who sings this version, is just about perfect. And… I’ve never heard a song before that is truly from the point of view of Mary as a person (the Magnificat is gorgeous, but doesn’t give you that much of a sense of her personality) (Edited in December 2017 – Oh, younger Catherine, what were you thinking?  It totally does.  But this is not a theology blog, so I’m not going to wax lyrical on the subject here today.). And even though the words were unseasonal, I really liked them.

Anyway, faced with a choice of this beautiful recording, and one of the various ‘I Sing of a Maiden’s, none of which were quite perfect enough for me, the decision was easy.

No embedding, because the site won’t allow it, but follow the link to find something gorgeous.

The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation – Henry Purcell

Lyrics below:
Tell me, tell me some, some pitying angel,
Tell quickly, quickly, quickly say,
Where, where does my soul’s sweet darling stray,
In tiger’s or more cruel, more cruel cruel Herod’s way?
Ah, ah rather, rather let his little, little footsteps press
Unregarded through the wilderness,
Where milder, milder, where milder savages resort,
The desert’s safer, the desert’s safer than a tyrant’s court.
Why, why, fairest object of my love,
Why, why dost thou from my longing eyes remove?
Was it, was it a waking dream that did fortell thy wondrous birth,
Thy wondrous, wondrous birth?
No vision, no, no vision from above?
Where’s Gabriel, where’s Gabriel now that visited my cell?
I call, I call, I call: Gabriel! Gabriel!
He comes not.
Flatt’ring, flatt’ring hopes, farewell flatt’ring hopes, farewell.
Me Judah’s daughters once caress’d,
Call’d me of mothers the most, the most bless’d.
Now fatal change, of mothers most distress’d.
How, how shall my soul its motions guide?
How, how shall I stem the various, various tide,
Whilst faith and doubt my lab’ring soul divide?
For whilst of thy dear, dear sight beguil’d,
I trust the God, but oh! I fear, but oh! I fear the child.

Admit it, you would have made the same decision.

Edited in December 2017: I’d forgotten I found this piece while looking for Advent Carols.  I actually wound up singing it myself for an exam a few years ago.  And that video, I am allowed to embed, so here it is.


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/77330100″>The Blessed Virgin's Expostulation</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/catherineheloise”>Catherine Heloise</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

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.