Advent Calendar Day 5: Rorate Caeli – Weir

Our last Rorate Caeli brings us into the 20th century, via the early Middle Ages.  This setting is by Judith Weir, and was written in 1983.  She uses the melody from the Gregorian chant as her base, then adds in harmonies that are very much 20th century, but give another nod to the Middle Ages with their open fifths.

I have to say, I absolutely love this – my only complaint is that it is far too short, and I want more…

… which is what sent me down the 20th century Rorate Caeli rabbit hole to this very modern Rorate by Leo Nestor, composed in 2011.  This is another composition that uses the plain chant as a starting point, but it has a completely different feel – one I associate with American close harmony singing.  There’s a little bit of jazz to the harmonies, and a fairly fabulous bottom D for the basses.  I don’t love it as much as the Weir, but it’s an interesting addition to the genre.


Advent Calendar Day 4: Rorate Caeli – Rheinberger

Our survey of Rorate Caeli settings now enters the swoonily romantic (not to say sentimental) territory of the 19th century, with this pensive and occasionally dramatic setting by Josef Rheinberger.  Rheinberger was born in Liechtenstein and spent most of his working life in Germany.  And it shows – you can see that he would have gotten along very well, musically speaking, with the likes of Brahms and Brückner.

To me, this particular setting has a pervasive sadness and wistfulness to it – there’s a real feeling of looking back toward a happier past, now irretrievably gone.  The sense of loss reminds me, on some emotional level, of the sort of music written by composers during and just after the Great War – in fact, I looked up Rheinberger’s biography to see if he had actually lived through to the war, but in fact he died in 1901.  I did learn, however, that Rheinberger wrote this piece in 1893, less than a year after the death of his wife, Fanny, a poet who had written the lyrics for many of his vocal compositions. A year later, ill health forced him to give up his post as Court Music Director due to poor health.

So perhaps the sadness isn’t just my imagination…

Advent Calendar Day 3: Rorate Caeli – Handl

Another Renaissance Rorate Caeli, but the Renaissance in Eastern Europe was clearly a different beast to the Renaissance in Spain!  Jacob Handl (also known as Jacobus Gallus and Jacobus Handelius) was born in Montenegro in 1550, making him about 20 years younger than Guerrero, but definitely a contemporary, and he lived and worked in Germany and Austria, and eventually died in Prague, at the early age of 41.

Depending on which bits of the internet you believe, Handl may or may not have been a Cistercian monk, which is not an order known for its joyous nature (I’ll admit, I still bear a grudge against Bernard of Clairvaux for crimes committed in my undergraduate history studies… and perhaps the order changed after his death, though Handl’s early death suggests that it), but this Rorate is actually quite lively and pretty delightful. I especially like the rippling line that runs through all the parts – if Guerrero’s Rorate is a gentle rain, Handl’s feels like a rapidly running stream, or maybe a river…

Tomorrow, we will leave polyphony behind and move to more romantic heights, but I feel like it would be neglectful not to at least acknowledge what the Renaissance composers were getting up to in other parts of Europe.  So here, if you wish it, is Byrd’s lively English version of the Rorate, and Palestrina’s sweet and reflective Italian version.

Advent Calendar Day 2: Rorate Caeli – Guerrero

While I was looking for just the right Rorate Coeli/Caeli to share with you yesterday, I fell down a very deep internet rabbit hole where it turns out that pretty much every composer and his cat has written a setting of this text.  Some of them do very little for me, but others are absolutely lovely – lovely enough, in my opinion, to justify a sequence of Rorate Coeli posts for the first few days of this Advent.

Today’s Rorate, however, is in fact the one I was looking for when I stumbled on this rabbit hole in the first place.  It’s by Francisco Guerrero, a 16th century Spanish priest and composer.  It’s a setting I’ve sung a few times in different churches, and it’s very lovely and unexpectedly simple to sing – everyone gets a melody, and they all blend together very beautifully.  I like the word painting in this one – the all those lovely, waterfall-like runs in each voice part, matching the psalmist’s rainy metaphor.

Advent Calendar Day 1: Rorate Caeli – Zebrowski

The classic text for Advent 1 is Rorate Coeli Desuper – Let the heavens open and rain down righteousness. The oldest setting for this is this Gregorian chant, which still gets sung today (literally today, actually – I’ll be singing it this evening), but just about every church composer of note has had a crack at it. I’ve sung a fair number of versions, and cast envious eyes over more (shout out to the setting by Heinrich Schütz, which I passionately adore and annually badger my various choirmasters to let me sing, so far to no avail).

What these settings all have in common is that they tend to be reflective and a bit mysterious.  The Schütz is, admittedly, fairly chirpy, but the overall theme is one of sweetness and stillness.

And then we have this one.

Which is… not. Apparently, this is what happens when you give a Polish Baroque composer the Rorate text.  I’ve never encountered Marcin Zebrowski before, but apparently he was born in 1702 and died in 1770, which puts him in the later baroque period – he’s younger than Bach and Handel, but older than Mozart, and would have overlapped at least a little with all three.

I’m honestly not at all sure what I think of this as a setting for rorate coeli – it sounds almost military to me, which is an odd thing to do with those lyrics – but it certainly starts Advent off with a bang!

Advent Calendar Day 22 – Rorate Coeli

And here we are on the fourth Sunday of Advent, which, according to all the sources I’ve found, means that it is time for a bit of Rorate Coeli.  This is a very lovely and very old text, which started its musical life as Gregorian chant, before becoming super-trendy in the 16th century, when Palestrina, Handl, Byrd and Schütz all got into it.

(Those who have spent any time in the Australian intervarsity choral scene might also be entertained by this alleged arrangement by Christopher Tye, which bears a striking resemblance to the Australian intervarsity choral anthem, only with a bit less punching of the air when one’s part comes in.)

The text is lovely, and translates to ‘Let the heavens drop down dew, and let the clouds rain down justice. Let the earth open and bring forth the Saviour.  The word used for bring forth is ‘germinet’, which really means ‘grow’, in a similar sense to ‘germinate’ – I like the image of the rain of justice making the ground fertile for the germination of salvation.

Most years, I find myself sharing the Schütz yet again, because it is so gorgeous and lively and bouncy, but we have spent most of the last week in the middle ages and the Baroque era, musically speaking, and I think a little bit of 19th century German Romanticism would do us all some good.  So today, you are getting the very lush setting of Rorate Caeli by Josef Rheinberger, a composer born in Liechtenstein but who lived most of his life in Germany.  I know very little about Rheinberger, but Wikipedia went out of its way to tell me that he had a very happy marriage with his wife, Fanny, who was a poet and wrote a lot of his lyrics.  This is not really germane to the music, but I think it’s rather sweet, so I am mentioning it anyway.