Advent Calendar Day 9: Prepare ye the way of the Lord – Godspell

In vain I have struggled.  It will not do.  My feelings will not be repressed.  I cannot possibly end this sequence without earworming you all with Godspell.

I was going to apologise, but unfortunately any apology would completely lack sincerity, because I have loved Godspell ever since I was little and we used to play it on tapes in the car.  And I’ve loved if even more since my awesome primary school music teacher (Greg Mason, if you are reading this, you really were an inspiration) made Godspell the school production for the Grade 4-6 classes.

Which, in retrospect, was probably ridiculously cute.  But we thought it was fantastic, and my fellow Grade 4s and I all liked to see how fast we could sing the ‘Some men are born to live at ease’ song without getting completely tongue tied, and I’m pretty sure that every single one of us can still sing the entire musical, word for word, from beginning to the end.  Except for the Turn Back, O Man song, which was considered too Adult and Racy for 10-12 year old girls.  (It’s an awesome song, so yes, I know that one by heart, too, but not because of school.)

I really do think Godspell is an extremely good musical, and there are some great songs in there – I would love to sing the Godspell version of ‘We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land’ at church sometime, or, for that matter, ‘O Bless the Lord My Soul’, which is just a fabulous gospel piece.

Incidentally, the sound you can hear at the start of this recording is a shofar, which is the ram’s horn instrument mentioned in the Bible, which gets blown at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  So this post is not just about sharing the 1970s music theatre love – it’s also educational!  (For my non-Jewish readers, anyway.  Though I imagine I don’t have a *lot* of Jewish readers seeking out musical advent calendars…)

PS – if you really can’t bring yourself to listen to Godspell, here, have the King’s Singers singing ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel‘.  This is very nearly on theme for today, and it’s a little more classical and restrained…


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.

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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