Advent Calendar Day 10 – Gabriel’s Message (Joshua Shank)

I seem to have a bit of an accidental Basque theme going this week – yesterday’s carol was a contemporary setting of an old text by a Basque composer, and today’s carol is a traditional Basque carol.  I’ve always loved this piece of music, even in my primary school days when we used to giggle about the chorus (to this day, I have to work hard not to sing ‘most highly flavoured gravy’ instead of ‘most highly favoured lady’).  It’s such a lovely melody, and the harmonies are gorgeous – I love the way you have to wait for the dissonances to resolve. Also, I just like Mary songs.  (I should probably be Catholic.  Except that I would be a terrible Catholic.)

I’m teaching this to my work choir at present, and they are loving it too.  And doing a much better job than I am of singing the proper words.

I was going to give you a traditional arrangement of this piece, but then I got completely captured by this fascinating version by Joshua Shank, in which he tries to paint the scene of the annunciation with music.  It’s stunning – there is such a feeling of light and brightness in this piece, and somehow the way Gabriel’s words are set, with different voices and rhythms against each other, make me think of Madeleine L’Engle’s depiction of the cherubim as this unfathomable beast with so many eyes and wings that it almost seems plural even though it is only one creature.  Very otherworldly, and a bit intimidating and even overwhelming, as an angel should be.

Also, it’s rather lovely to hear a verse in the original Basque.  None of the other arrangements I’ve heard do that.

If you’ve never heard the piece before, my serving suggestion is to start by listening to either this version, sung by The Sixteen, or to this ethereal arrangement by All Angels, so that you can see where Shank’s arrangement is departing from.

And if you know this carol and hate it and want to see violence done to it, allow me to recommend to your attention this version, sung by Sting.  My husband claims that it isn’t so bad, but actually, he’s wrong about that.  It’s a shocker.  And yet, somehow, I can’t resist sharing it anyway…

(Oh my, and I just looked up the composer and he was born in 1980.  I feel ancient now.  Also inadequate.  How can anyone born in 1980 possibly be old enough to be writing music like that?)

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Advent Calendar Day 5 – The Cherry Tree Carol (Hunt)

Maintaining this week’s theme of fruit (hey, sometimes you just have to embrace these things), here’s a carol that comes from a genre I am hereby dubbing ‘Medieval Bible Filk’, or possibly ‘Medieval Bible Fanfic’.  It’s inspired by the New Testament (specifically from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, something I didn’t even knew existed until I looked it up), but it isn’t strictly canon, and it clearly comes from the mind of someone who was sitting there during a sermon one day and thought ‘well, it’s all very well for Mary to say that she is pregnant by the Holy Spirit, but I bet Joseph wasn’t too happy about that.’

(Incidentally, I’ve been told that churches dedicated to St Joseph are pretty rare in Italy, because the perception was that Joseph, for all his holiness, was also kind of a cuckold, and this didn’t sit well with the sort of men who were providing money to build churches.  Poor Joseph just can’t win.)

In this carol, Mary is pregnant, and she is craving cherries.  Since she is in a cherry orchard with Joseph, this seems like an easy fix, and she asks Joseph to pick some cherries for her.  Joseph is evidently having a bad day, because his response is that if she wants cherries so much, she should ask the guy who got her pregnant to pick them for her.  At this point, either the cherry tree bows down of its own accord, or the baby in Mary’s womb commands it to do so.  Mary gets her cherries, Joseph apologises, and everyone lives happily ever after.  There are a LOT of versions of this, but I love the mix of voices in this one.

The song doesn’t paint poor Joseph in a very good light, but clearly it had significant popular appeal, because there are lots of different versions not just of the tune, but of the text, with Joseph attaining varying levels of snarkiness, and Mary’s triumph when the cherry tree bends down to her being illustrated in greater or lesser degrees.  There are versions which go all the way through to anticipating Easter, versions where Joseph himself asks the tree to bow down to Mary, versions where Joseph starts conversing with the babe in the womb and Mary is just a side issue to the whole story, and versions with no cherries at all (still part of the same carol sequence, allegedly).  There’s a great article on the carol here, if you are interested – I fell down an internet rabbit hole reading it, though, so be warned. I suspect the appeal comes from the very human light in which the Holy Family is painted – grumpy Joseph, Mary with her cravings and her ‘heavy load’.

Incidentally, that appeal apparently hasn’t faded.  While looking for a version of the carol to share with you, I found not just a version by Joan Baez (a folk classic) but versions by Sting (regrettable, but entertaining) and by Annie Lennox (a version with absolutely no cherries in it, but great fun, and with a bonus African children’s choir on backing vocals).

Monday Music: Flow my Tears (John Dowland)

I was up way too late last night, trying to get organised for the week ahead, and failing.  It is to weep.  And who better to weep with than John Dowland, the author of such cheery works as ‘Weep, O mine Eyes’, ‘Weep ye no more sad fountains’, ‘Lachrimae, or Seven Tears’, ‘I saw my lady weep’, and, of course, ‘Flow, my Tears’?

(I must admit, whenever I read my way down a list of Dowland song titles, I find myself becoming increasingly concerned for the man’s mental health.  He wasn’t a happy man, that’s for sure.)

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Advent Calendar Day 7: There Is No Rose of Such Virtue

Given that I’m coming up with a post a day during Advent, I was going to put my Friday Fun on hiatus… but on reflection, that didn’t sound like much fun at all, so instead, I’m going to devote Fridays in Advent to interpretations of carols that are just plain weird.  And what could be weirder than Sting singing medieval Advent Carols?

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