Advent Calendar Day 3 – Adam Lay Y Bounden

It’s not advent without Adam Lay Y Bounden.  This has been a favourite carol of mine for a long time, particularly the version by Boris Ord, with that gorgeous soaring ‘Deo Gracias’ at the end of it.

Admittedly, my initial delight in the carol came from the delightful seeming-illogic of lyrics:

“Adam lay y bounden, bounden in a bond
Four thousand winter thought he not to long
And all for an apple, an apple that he took
As clerkes finden written in their book.

Ne had the apple taken been, the apple taken been
Ne had never Our Lady had been Heavene Queen
Blessed be the time that apple taken was
Therefore we moun singen “Deo Gracias”

Which, abridged, seems to mean “What a good thing that our forebears sinned, because without that, we would never have had Jesus.”  (I’ve seen a similar sentiment expressed rather more crudely in graffiti, but I’m not going to share that here.)

Anyway, giggling choristers aside, I’m informed that this isn’t just the kind of theology you get when the Bible is only available in Latin and your local non-Latin-reading peasantry decides to write songs about it anyway (but stay tuned for that sort of theology later in December), but is actually really explaining the idea that “Sin has separated us from God, but grace has brought us nearer to God than we ever were before sin divided us from him.” (From a sermon by Spurgeon, with thanks to my friend Virginia)

(A little part of me strongly suspects that Spurgeon was just trying to deal with the thoroughly ingrained terrible Adam Lay Y Bounden logic as best he could – and doing so really quite admirably – but that is probably just me being a wicked and frivolous person).

OK, that’s far more theology than anyone really needs at this hour of the morning, so to compensate, you are getting not one, but TWO settings of these lyrics!

I was looking for the Boris Ord played at a more decorous speed than that favoured by King’s College, when I found this lovely performance of both the Ord and the Ireland settings.  I didn’t even know that Ireland had written a setting of this, so that’s another delightful YouTube discovery.  I think I still prefer Ord, but I love having both of them to choose from.

If this is all way too serious and classical for you, you’ll be glad to know that several contemporary Medieval-themed bands have had a good play with this song too.  The Mediaeval Baebes have a very simple unison version that has somewhat ear-wormy properties, and the German group, Faun, have a gloriously bouncy version with the verses mixed up in a manner that completely clouds any theological argument at all, but is nonetheless good fun to listen to.  Enjoy!


Advent Calendar Day 24: The Holly and the Ivy (Trad. Arranged Shaw)

The Holly and the Ivy has been one of my favourite Christmas Carols since I was quite young – I think I first heard it when my family stayed for a few months in England when I was six, and I rather imprinted on it because there was *actual holly* near where we lived and that was pretty exciting.  Australia doesn’t really run much to holly, especially around Christmas.

This is one of those carols which tends to show its Pagan roots, while simultaneously being very very Christian and going, ‘no, really, the holly is totally all about being a symbol of Christ’s passion and has nothing to do with Yule, honest!’.  So it always sits just a little oddly with me, even though I love both the melody and the words, with their vivid visual imagery.  There are a lot of arrangements doing the rounds – I’m also fond of the Mediaeval Baebes version, and if you ever wondered what Annie Lennox does with it, wonder no longer!  I especially like her jazz harmonies in the later verses.  Gorgeous.

Advent Calendar Day 1: Veni, Veni Emmanuel (The King’s Singers)

It’s December, which means it’s musical Advent Calendar time (and possibly also, oh look, I have a music blog, maybe I should stop ignoring it time)!

I’m starting Advent this year with a recording of The King’s Singers, singing Veni, Veni Emmanuel, a Christmas Carol – or, really, an Advent Carol – with medieval origins.

It is well known, I think, that I adore The King’s Singers.  They are, in my view, the best vocal group currently performing, and their harmony and clarity is so perfect that when you hear them in concert, their music often develops extra harmonics from the resonances.  Their work is, quite simply, sublime.

I’m particularly fond of Veni Veni Emmanuel, because of all the ways it has developed over the years.  In its purest form, it’s simply Gregorian chant (and one thing I like about the King’s Singers version of it is that they do start in unison, befitting the music’s origins, before developing the harmonies in later verses); it can also be sung as a big Christmas Carol with organ and descant à la Willcocks.  And in between you get thoughtful, countermelody versions by the Medieval Baebes, or solo versions by Celtic musicians like Enya.  And then there’s the version by Nox Arcana…  All different, and all gorgeous – very few people do this hymn badly, I find.

The text is a paraphrase of Isaiah, and properly belongs in the third week of Advent, but I like it as a starting point, since it is an invitation, after all.  And that is the start of any journey.

Advent Calendar Day 16: Gaudete! (Trad., sung by Mediaeval Baebes)

Today is Gaudete Sunday (Gaudete is Latin for “Rejoice”), which is notable for the fact that the liturgical colour is Rose, which means priests in pink vestments and great swathes of hot pink fabric draped over the purple that was covering the cross at the Catholic church I sometimes sing at.

This is clearly a reason to rejoice, and who better to rejoice with than the Mediaeval Baebes?

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Advent Calendar Day 25 – MERRY CHRISTMAS

Huzzah! I survived a midnight mass as the lone soprano in descant hell – and I still have my vocal chords!!

I’ve been trying to figure out all day what I can possibly use for tonight’s carol. You see, I did all my favourite Midnight Mass ones last year, and it seems like cheating to repeat them. And then, I haven’t done The Holly And The Ivy this year, which is really a favourite of mine, but doesn’t seem to have the joyfulness required of a Christmas Day carol. And I want to do ‘Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day’ again, but I think we all know why I shouldn’t.

Now we’re all going to have to go back and listen to those ones, aren’t we?

Right then. Like last year, I’ll celebrate Christmas with a trio (a Trinity?) of Christmas Carols that fit my mood. The first is a Mediaeval Baebes version of a medieval carol – Ecce Mundi Gaudium. I love the vibrance and energy of this, and the sense of joy, and just the general bounciness of it.

The second carol I’m sharing with you is Past Three O’Clock, which I sincerely hope it will *not* be by the time I click ‘post’ on this entry. It never gets sung at midnight mass (too early in the evening, perhaps?), but it speaks to me of the whole getting up in the middle of the night to go to church, or possibly the manger, on Christmas Eve. Also, infidel choristers find the whole bit about cheese from the dairy / bring they for Mary vastly amusing.

Finally, a carol I’d forgotten until recently but remember vividly from my shopping centre carolling days as an undergraduate – The Shepherd’s Farewell, by Berlioz, affectionately known as ‘Carols on Acid’ because it’s kind of trippy and changes key twice a bar. Actually, I was told recently that Berlioz was rather fond of his opium, so perhaps the trippiness wasn’t just in our undergraduate minds.

I was going to stop there, but after singing all those descants tonight I can’t possibly end without a descanty one, now can I? I wanted to include the diabolical descant from Christians, Awake!, but apparently we are the only people insane enough to make sopranos sing top B flats at one in the morning. So here’s a recording of God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, which is a fitting carol to end with, being the first carol I sing every year. This is the first carol in my work choir’s carol book, and we use it as our warm up, though we go a lot faster than this and we do not do the mad descant, because it actually requires a bass section, which we don’t usually have. You have to love a descant that involves the altos, too. Or at least, I have to love it.

Time to sign off from this year’s Advent Calendar, I think.  Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Advent Calendar Day 14 – The Holly and the Ivy (Mediaeval Baebes)

I’m not sure this next one is strictly an Advent carol (I’ve been saying that a lot, I know); it usually gets sung as a Christmas carol, though it shares the advent tendency to focus on aspects of theology or Christ’s life other than his birth.

I first heard this carol when I was six years old and living in York. It brings back to me my first experience of conkers, that gorgeous walk home from school through late-autumn woods (that smell and look completely different to the Australian kind), complete with red squirrels and actual robin red-breasts (just as exotic to me as koalas are to our overseas visitors), and then across the stepping stones of the lake at York University. It reminds me of the fascination of cobbled streets and Roman walls and going to bookshops up long flights of stairs in The Shambles when it was already dark outside. It reminds me of ice on car windows, of colouring in stained-glass snowflakes (which was as close as I got to real snow that year), of eating blackberry jam and collecting gollywog stickers while watching Jackanory, and of being Clara in the school production of the Nutcracker – because, as the school closest to the University, lots of academics and graduate students from overseas sent their children there, so the teacher thought it would be a good way to showcase national dances and costumes. (Presumably, Australia was not cultured enough to have a costume or a dance, and that’s why I got Clara. Or perhaps it was evident even at that stage of my development that my talents lay in memorising lines, not in dancing.)

And it reminds me, of course, of holly, which is so beautiful and shiny and green – and such a good green! – with those wonderful rich red berries that seem so much brighter in the grey of a Yorkshire winter than they ever could in the gold and blue of an Australian summer (it’s true that we have redcurrants, which are almost Christmas decorations in their own right, but we don’t have the darkness for them to shine in). Also, it’s prickly, which was generally the part I encountered. But that didn’t prevent me from adoring the colour and the name of it – holly is such a lovely, sparkly green word that sounds just like what it is. At least to me.

I love this carol, too, because of all the colours in it – the red of the berries, the white of the blossoms. The green isn’t mentioned, but it’s implied, at least to me. I didn’t even notice all the religious content until years later. And the melody is beautiful, and the version we do in choir has these perfect harmonies in the verses that make me happy.

Mostly, though, I love this carol because it reminds me of York.

This is another Mediaeval Baebes recording. Why should King’s College Choir get everything their way? I don’t trust them not to sing it as though it was rocket-fuelled…

Advent Calendar Day 6 – There is no Rose of Swych Vertu (Mediaeval Baebes)

Here’s one that I’m not quite sure counts as an Advent Carol – is it still an Advent Carol if it is not sung with any religious intent? – but is nonetheless too pretty to miss. The text is medieval, but the tune is modern, and it’s sung by the Mediaeval Baebes, who actually do quite a lot of Advent stuff, largely because they do a lot of Mary stuff. And let’s face it, we all like Mary stuff.

I’m afraid I don’t have much else to say about this one on this hot, sticky morning other than “Here it is. It’s pretty. Listen to it…”