Advent Calendar Day 11: Det är en ros utsprungen – Praetorius / Sandström

So now that we’ve prepared the highway, and made it nice and straight with the rough places plain and so forth, it it’s time to plant some flowers by the side of the road.  Theme number three is all things roses and blossoms, and really, I could have devoted an entire Advent Calendar to this theme if I’d wanted to – it was super popular throughout the Medieval and Renaissance periods, had a resurgence with the Romantic composers of the 19th century, and got really big again in the 20th century.

Let’s start with one of the oldest and most famous of these texts – Es ist ein Ros entsprungen (Lo how a rose up-springing).  The original text appears to be from the Cologne Gesangbuch of 1599 and depicts Jesus as the rosebud blooming from Jesse’s branch, i.e., Mary.  This hymn has been translated into a lot of other languages – there are at least three English translations that I know of, one of which has the oceans clapping their hands in verse three (something that I assure you the German text does not include).

The most famous arrangement is that of Michael Praetorius, a 16th-17th century German composer.  The tune is older than that, but the Praetorius harmonies (sung here by the King’s Singers) are pretty wonderful, and I don’t think anyone has even tried to improve on them.

Having said that… I think I’ve sung this piece every Advent for at least the last decade, so when I came across this eerie, modern version by contemporary Swedish composer, Jan Sandström, I couldn’t resist it.  If you listen closely, it still has all of Praetorius’s harmonies in it… there’s just a lot of strange, atmospheric stuff going on at the same time.  And I do rather love the film they’ve chosen to put with it here.  For a scene with very little actual snow in it, it does convey the feeling of winter and cold very effectively.


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 – Christmas Day!

Merry Christmas!  Usually this is the point at which I go for all the big descants, but you have the entire internet for that.

Instead, I am going to be completely self-indulgent (and hopefully you-indulgent, too), because I was looking for a beautiful Christmas song by the King’s singers to end with and instead I found… an entire King’s Singers Christmas concert.  Merry Christmas indeed!

I wish you a day with the people you love, a day of delicious food and enjoyable conversation and a baby to hug, if that’s your sort of thing (or a cat to hug, if that is your preference), with no drama, no disasters, no politics and someone else doing the washing up.  And a nice book to read at the end of the day.

With love,


Advent Calendar Day 16: Gaudete!

Sometimes, I like to be a really evil choirmistress, and last Wednesday was one of those times.  With our first performance on Thursday, I grinned evilly at my little work choir and suggested we give Gaudete – a piece we had never previously looked at – a try.  It was, predictably, a disaster, mostly because the Latin goes by terribly fast, so that even if you get the hang of the tune (which my choristers did, quite fast), the verses are a shambles.  So I laughed at them and said maybe we’d give that one a try next year, and then we went back to singing stuff we had actually rehearsed.  And singing it very well, too.

(I don’t know why they put up with me, really I don’t.)

Anyway.  This little carol is one I first encountered in an Adelaide pub back in my university choir days.  It lends itself very nicely to pub singing, because it has a pleasingly bouncy chorus, and the verses – generally sung by a soloist – are a nice little rhyming iambic heptameter, which means that anyone can jump in for a verse and sing just about any humorous or scurrilis couplet they can make up.  “Mary had a little lamb, the doctors were surprised / When Old MacDonald had a farm they couldn’t believe their eyes!” was one of the cleaner verses we liked to sing.  Some of the less clean verses were known to get us kicked out of the pub.

If, however, one chooses to sing the actual lyrics as written – which really doesn’t come naturally to me, even twenty years later – one finds that actually, they are a Christmas carol.  Fancy that.  The chorus, in fact, translates as ‘Rejoice, Christ is born of the Virgin Mary, Rejoice’, which perhaps explains why the Mary had a little lamb verses were such a popular variant.

The King’s Singers version is, of course, on an entirely different plane from that of the pub version.  For one thing, they vary the keys and harmonies in different verses.  For another, they sing the lyrics as written.  And for a third thing, they sing so beautifully that they probably wouldn’t get kicked out of the pub even if they were singing the dirty words.

(That’s how things work when you are that beautiful.)

And – did you notice? – we also get to continue the theme of Rejoicing for the third Sunday of Advent.  See, I do pay attention sometimes…

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 22: Spem in Alium (Tallis)

I have to confess that this is not exactly an Advent Carol. In fact, today was meant to be The Truth Sent From Above, but as I was looking for the King’s Singers version, I found their recording of Spem in Alium, a piece designed for eight choirs of five voices.

Since there are only six singers in The King’s Singers, I immediately had to see how they’d managed it…

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Advent Calendar Day 8: Lullay My Liking (Lawson)

After yesterday’s travesty, I thought you deserved something really gorgeous, and what could be more gorgeous than the King’s Singers?  I was fortunate enough to see them in concert earlier this year, as well as attending one of their masterclasses, and they really are the most perfect ensemble I’ve ever heard – their tuning is so perfect that you get harmonics, and the balance between parts is just amazing.  And they also seem to be lovely people, which is an under-rated skill…

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