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 20: O Magnum Mysterium (Byrd and Lundgren)

Here’s something a bit different that I found when I was looking for a version of a piece we sang in choir a few years ago. And yes, this is indeed the piece we sang.  But we didn’t sing it quite like this…

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Monday Music: Byrd Venite

I know, I know, it’s all church music all the time around here, but what can I say?  I spent most of yesterday singing in services to celebrate the 350th Anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer (and I now know much more Anglican church history than I used to – ask me hiw.  You’re just lucky I’m not inflicting Stanford’s Te Deum (and all its manifold top Fs) on you.  My ear-worm-prone brain is still inflicting it on me…

Instead, here, have some equally British Byrd.

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Advent Calendar Day 8 – O Magnum Mysterium (Byrd, Lundgren)

So there’s this lovely piece by Byrd called O Magnum Mysterium, which is a perfectly good Advent text with, moreover, an excellent alto line, but it turns out that it’s incredibly difficult to find online, principally because everybody in the world has at some point composed a setting of this text, and apparently everyone else prefers to sing one of the other ones. And if you do find the Byrd version, it is being played on the viol or the recorder, which is not in the spirit of this advent calendar at all.

Byrd’s music is polyphonic which, for any non-musicians who are not skipping this entire sequence out of sheer frustration, means that instead of everyone singing the same rhythm in blocks of harmony, each part has its own line and melody and rhythm twining around the others. If you’ve ever sung a round, that’s a basic form of polyphony (actually, there are some rounds out there which are fiendishly complicated and not at all basic, but you get the idea). This means that you get beautiful interwoven melodies and harmonies, and that very often the listener is left with no clue what the lyrics are, because everyone is singing different words at the same time. Of course, the composer knows this, too, and this style of music, at least in the context of church music, is designed more to generally lift the spirit and promote meditative prayer than to actually convey meaning.

Anyway, I tried, I really did, to find a good recording of the Byrd. And I found one… sort of. It’s beautifully sung, if a trifle slow, the choristers show evidence of paying attention to the conductor (YouTube is teaching me that this is a rarity), and it’s accompanied by Arthur Rackham fairy illustrations. No, you didn’t misread that. Nor are you hallucinating the piano which comes meandering in after a couple of minutes and starts playing laid-back jazz behind the choir, before going into a piano solo interlude that Byrd never dreamed of.

It’s Byrd, Jim, but not as we know it.

Honestly, I was in two minds about including this. I still am, actually. It’s absolutely not what I was looking for… but for all its weirdness and my feeling that this is not proper Advent music, I feel as though it would be cheating in some way to leave it out.

Translation of the lyrics:

O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
Christ the Lord.