Advent Calendar Day 19: O Little One Sweet *and* Schlafe, mein Liebster – JS Bach

I knew I wanted some Bach in this bracket, but I couldn’t decide whether to go with O Little One Sweet, which is a standalone carol, or Schlafe, Mein Liebster, the lullaby from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.  But then I realised that it’s not actually possible to have too much Bach, and anyway, this is my Advent Calendar, so I can play by whatever rules I like.  So today you are getting two Bach lullabies for the price of one…

‘O Little One Sweet’, (O Jesulein Süß) is just a lovely carol with some scary harmonies in the alto line.  The scary harmonies are entirely Johann Sebastian’s fault, I might add – I gather this piece started off as a perfectly sensible chorale called ‘Komm, heilger Geist’ (come holy ghost) in a hymnbook, and then Bach got hold of it, with beautiful (if tricky) results.  It’s very much good hymnbook theology, though, not a medieval reimagining of the manger scene – you can find the full lyrics and translation here, though the English versions usually only do two verses.

This is another old favourite of mine, performed impeccably here by the King’s singers.

Schlafe, mein Liebster is from the second part of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, which was originally sung on Boxing Day (the Oratorio is in six parts, which were originally performed on the days between Christmas and Epiphany – their performance dates are, the 25th, 26th and 27th of December, and the 1st, 2nd and 6th of January).  This piece comes just after the bit in Luke where we are told that the shepherds will find the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, and the lyrics translate to:

Sleep, my dearest, enjoy thy rest, Awaken after this so that all may thrive! Comfort the breast, feel the pleasure where our hearts are made glad.

(And thank you to Google Translate for suggesting that the phrase I was looking for was ‘chew the breast, feel the desire’.  Dearie me.)

The singer in this performance is Anne Sofie von Otter, and I love the warmth of her voice, and her delicacy in the coloratura sections.  Also, I do enjoy trying to read Bach’s manuscript – though I probably wouldn’t enjoy doing so if I had to perform from it.


Advent Calendar Day 17: Lullay myn lyking – Lawson

Lullay myn lyking is a slightly more traditional form of the text from yesterday’s piece, but with a far more modern arrangement.  This particular text dates from a 15th-century manuscript (from which the lyrics to Adam Lay Y Bounden and I sing of a Maiden also derive), but there is no known tune for it.  Yesterday’s setting was a traditional Basque melody, but today’s is composed by Philip Lawson, of the King’s Singers.  I should probably give you the King’s Singers recording, but you are going to be getting them later this week for another piece, and while they are really peerless I just prefer the sound of a female voice for the ‘lullay’ solo after verse three. A boy-soprano sound, no matter how beautifully produced, doesn’t have the same richness to it, I think.

So instead, you are getting a recording by TENET vocal artists, which is perhaps not so technically perfect, but is nonetheless very beautiful.  I enjoy the interactions between the singers in this recording, too, and I do love the trio of female voices for the ‘mickle melody’ verse.

Advent Calendar Day 14 – O Little One Sweet (J.S. Bach)

Did I mention that I’m really, really into Bach at the moment?  The fact that this is the second bit of Bach you are getting in this Advent Calendar might be a clue (and it’s not the last, either – I’m not going to let you get to Christmas without at least a little peek at the Christmas Oratorio).

I loved this carol well before I knew it was Bach’s arrangement because of the utterly gorgeous – and in places totally counterintuitive – alto line.  As an alto, I am always delighted when a composer gives me something more interesting than a row of Fs (which is one reason I am all over both polyphony and Baroque music). Actually, the weirdness of the opening bar should have alerted me to its composer, now I think about it.  No other 17th century composer would do that to their alto section (20th century composers have no mercy on anyone, of course, but the results are rarely so beautiful). This is such a beautiful thing to sing, and I love the way the harmonies cross over.

I listened to a few versions of this, but eventually had to choose this performance by The King’s Singers.  One of the reasons Bach can be difficult to sing (aside from his counterintuitive key changes) is that he didn’t really write for the human voice as an instrument – he wrote music that happened to use voices as a medium.  (This is not hyperbole on my part – unlike composers such as Handel or Purcell, Bach didn’t really care what voices could or couldn’t do, he cared about what the music was supposed to do, and his singers just had to put up with that.  Later in life, he wrote several pieces for no instrument at all – just pure music.)

So it seems fitting to reflect the purity of Bach’s musical vision with The King’s Singers, who sing everything with a clear tone that is as close to pure music as anything I’ve heard.

(And really, make sure you listen to that alto line.  It’s being sung by the second chap from the left and he is really enjoying it, as well he should.  You should, too.)


Advent Calendar Day 3 – Angelus ad Virginem, Trad.

We’re still going with the whole Annunciation theme around here, and there’s more where that came from, I assure you…

Today’s piece is a traditional medieval carol, performed by the King’s Singers, of whom I am very fond, due to their habit of singing the most preposterous pieces of music absolutely sweetly and perfectly.  This carol feels like a dance to me – it’s the hollowness of the drum and the 6/8 time signature, I think.  I’d dance to it, anyway.

Medieval people had not studied Grade 4 music theory, and therefore they didn’t know you aren’t supposed to put parallel fourths and fifths anywhere (they probably also didn’t know that the tenor and alto lines are supposed to be boring.  No, I still haven’t forgiven my theory textbook for stating this so blithely).  So this piece has open fourths and fifths (these are the ones that sound like a chord with the middle missing out of it – you can’t tell if its major or minor) all over the place, which sounds funky and bare and, as it happens, very quintessentially medieval to the modern ear.

I love it – I love its liveliness, and those bare, unfinished-sounding fifths and disconcerting harmonies, and I love the voices singing it.  You can read the lyrics here, if you’re interested.