Advent Calendar Day 6: Prepare ye the way of the Lord – Wise

I think we’ve milked the Rorate theme as far as we possibly can, so it’s time to move on to our next Advent theme (which probably should have been my first theme, only I got my Advent texts mixed up…), which is all about preparing the way of the Lord.  Because let’s face it – you really can’t have Advent without some serious time spent on Isaiah 40:

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

There are several really obvious possibilities here, and I promise, you’ll be getting them all in good time, but I wanted to start with this slightly less-well-known anthem by Michael Wise, who was an English organist and composer born just after the English Civil War. He wrote several really gorgeous verse anthems, which are one of my favourite forms of music, because they combine choral sections, solos and duets or small ensemble pieces into one piece of music.

(I also like them because they usually feature the alto pretty heavily; the Puritans didn’t approve of church music, and it took a while after the Restoration for cathedrals to train up a new set of really good boy sopranos.  Verse anthems were a good solution, because you could give the tricky bits to the adult tenors, basses and counter tenors, and just bring the boys in for the chorus.  Having said that… Wise was clearly writing for boy sopranos who knew their stuff, so presumably he just liked the form.)

I have not been able to find what I view as a perfect recording, but this one is pretty lovely.  I love the way Wise mixes and matches his voices in this piece.  But I think my favourite part is the bass solo in the ‘every valley section’, with its brilliant low notes.  The duet about all flesh being grass, and the chorus which follows, is also pretty amazing, though I’m less keen on the boy sopranos’ voices than I am on that of the bass.

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Advent Calendar Day 4: Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord (Michael Wise)

Now that we’ve seen what Handel does with Every Valley and Isaiah generally, I thought it might be fun to see what someone else does with the same text.  Also, of course, we sang this piece on Sunday and I loved it immediately.

Michael Wise was born nearly forty years before Handel, but died quite young – in a duel, if I recall correctly – so their paths did not cross.  And nor did their music.  If you thought that Handel liked to show off occasionally  by using music to illustrate the words, well, he had nothing on Wise, who took this to an extreme degree.  I especially like ‘the crooked shall be made straight’, and later ‘get the up into the mountains’, though the bit where the grass withereth is also good.  Wise feels much earlier than Handel, to my ear.  Where Handel pretty much wrote the book on English Baroque Oratorios, Wise was still playing with verse anthems, and harks back much more to Gibbons in his style of composing.  Which is better?  I really couldn’t say.  I’d hate to do without either of them.

Advent Calendar Day 10: Prepare Ye The Way (Michael Wise)

See, now I am absolutely cheating by looking up lists of Advent music and seeing what I like.  But it’s not really cheating in this case, because while I haven’t actually sung this particular verse anthem before, I was looking for a different Michael Wise anthem for Advent quite recently (this was the path that led me into the pit of smutty Elizabethan Madrigals a couple of Sundays ago).  So when I saw that he had written another Advent anthem, I braved YouTube again, to see if I could avoid the smut, and found this.

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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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