Advent Calendar Day 10: The Record of John – Gibbons

I really had intended to leave The Record of John out of my Advent calendar this year, especially as I have more Gibbons planned for you later in December, but then I made the mistake of listening to it again, and I just couldn’t.  I really do think this is one of the most amazing pieces of Advent music ever written, and it just doesn’t feel like Advent to me until I’ve sung the part about the voice that crieth in the wilderness.

(Which is sad, because I haven’t actually had the opportunity to sing this piece for some years now, and I miss it quite desperately.)

Like the Michael Wise piece from last Thursday, this is a verse anthem, but where other composers use music to paint a picture of the words, Gibbons takes the approach of using the music to capture the natural inflections of speech, at least in the solo line.  It makes him very easy to sing with feeling, and I think also heightens the emotional impact of the music.

But really, you don’t need me to tell you why this is beautiful.  You would be far better off just listening to it, and finding out for yourself.

PS – So I just went and had a look at Gibbons’ biography, and he apparently died of an apoplexy aged only 41.  Spookily, this is the same age at which Michael Wise died (though he died while brawling with a night watchman).  The moral of the story: don’t write verse anthems, or you will die young.  And let’s not even get started on Purcell, who only made it to 36.  Come to think of it, he wrote verse anthems, too.  Really, don’t write verse anthems if you want to grow old…

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Advent Calendar Day 8 – The Record of John (Orlando Gibbons)

I make no apology for including this piece of music again, even though I include it in my Advent Calendar every year.  I’ve sung the alto solo (really a countertenor solo) in The Record of John on the first Sunday of Advent every year for the better part of a decade, and to me, it doesn’t feel like Advent until I hear those opening bars on the piano.  The song has a real weight of expectation to it, and the melody is crafted so perfectly to the natural inflections of speech that the lyrics are incredibly easy to sing expressively.  I love it dearly.

Very sadly, I won’t be singing this piece in 2015, either as soloist or as choir member, which was one of the reasons I decided to revive the Advent Calendar after a year’s hiatus.  It’s a melancholy pleasure listening to it instead of singing it, but this is an excellent recording.  I’d love to find a good recording with a female soloist, but so far the internet has failed to provide.

Maybe next year…

Advent Calendar Day 2: The Record of John (Orlando Gibbons)

I know I link to this every year, but to me, this is where Advent starts.  I’ve been singing this with the Wesley Choir for about twelve years now, most of that time as the alto soloist, though I have also dabbled with the first alto and soprano lines in this and other choirs.  It is, I think, one of the most beautiful and evocative pieces of church music out there, and whenever we walk into choir on that day in late November and our conductor plays the opening bars, some part of me just settles into a place where all is well, and Advent is here, and it’s all just *right*.

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Advent Calendar Day 5 – The Record of John (Gibbons)

In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. We have to have The Record of John now.

Sorry, sudden attack of Pride and Prejudice there.  Put it down to severe lack of sleep and far, far, too much time spent making confectionery this weekend.

But the other thing I did this weekend was attend (and of course sing in) our Advent Service, which was this evening.  Every year, we do a service of readings and carols.  We always do some new pieces – this year, we did some lovely, medieval-sounding polyphony by Heinrich Isaacs and some truly demented Palestrina, as well as Es Ist Ein Rös Entsprungen – but there are some we do every year.  The Matin Responsory.  Adam Lay Y Bounden.  The Record of John, by Orlando Gibbons (also known as my big Elizabethan crush).

(Incidentally, the other highlight of the Advent service is sitting there during the readings and mentally singing along with the reader.  “For unto us a son is born,” says Isaiah, and I’m in Handel-land.  “Make straight in the desert a highway,” and there’s John’s tenor solo.  Actually, currently it all seems to be Handel, but I know there were other composers in my head too.)

I posted this in the Advent Calendar last year, but I feel no hesitation in posting it again now, because for me, Advent starts on a Thursday in late November when Geoff starts playing the accompaniment, generally without warning, and I come in on the alto solo: This is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites to Jerusalem, to Jerusalem, to ask him, “Who art thou?” And he confessed and denied not, and said plainly, I am not the Christ.

The specific part where Advent begins is on “And he confessed and denied not’.  There’s something about the way the accompaniment and the voice combine there that affects me on a visceral level.  Suddenly, everything is just right (until we get into the chorus and I screw up my section because I’ve forgotten what the other alto part is doing).  And then there’s the part: And he said, I am the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness “Make straight the way of the Lord,” which just sends shivers down my spine whenever I sing it.  It’s something in the writing, I think, because it’s on the same bar every time, and for just a few moments right there I can’t help believing absolutely in what I’m singing. Belief of this kind (of any kind, really) doesn’t come easily to me.

I do think this is down to Gibbons’ writing, and his exceptional way with setting lyrics.  I’ve mentioned before his habit of setting the lyrics so that they follow the inflections of speech, and this does something – I don’t know what, exactly – to enhance the emotion in the music.

Basically, it’s a perfect, perfect piece of music.  It’s in my head now, and will be all the way until Christmas.

It might as well be in yours, too.

Advent Calendar Day 1 – The Record of John (Orlando Gibbons)

All the cool kids are doing Advent Calendars, and since I’ve been raving to everyone in sight about how wonderful Advent music is, perhaps I should demonstrate.

So, for December 1 (a mere two days late), we will start with my absolute favourite piece of Advent music, which is of course The Record of John, by Orlando Gibbons. I absolutely love Gibbons’ work – he has an absolute gift for writing musical lines that mimic the intonations of speech, and this is part of what makes him such a joy to sing. He makes it so easy to convey meaning, because his inflections are so natural, and he is one of those composers who makes you believe the words when you sing them.

When he writes for duets or trios or even quartets in his verse anthems, he is unparalleled. I am hoping to find a recording of ‘Behold, I bring you glad tidings’, which is his other Advent piece, but haven’t had any luck so far. Gibbons also has the charming habit of giving the altos all the best solos, which would make me feel kindly towards him even if he wasn’t such a magnificent writer – really, I have sung any number of his works, and every one has been glorious.

This is the best recording of The Record of John I could find on YouTube. The countertenor is so beautiful I can even forgive him for not being an alto…