Part II of Jason Wood’s guest series–thanks, Jason!!
Advent II – Populus Sion
In my remaining posts, I’ll try to share some interesting background information I’ve picked up singing in church choirs (at least info I find interesting) in addition to musical selections of chant, hymns, anthems, and organ music.
Background — Gregorian chant
I shared a few chants in last week’s post. I am far from an expert on plainchant, but I am an enthusiast. Back in the 2000-2002 time frame, before cell phones had polyphonic ringtones, I programmed the Victimae paschali laudes and Veni creator spiritus chants into my phone so that I had seasonally appropriate ringtones. As the oldest and most “unadorned” music of the church, chant, also known as plainsong or plainchant, is especially fitting for the seasons of Advent and Lent. Plainchant grew from earlier Jewish tradition, and in an early example of correlation, was standardized throughout Western Christendom sometime in the ninth century. It was gradually replaced by polyphony, and fell out of favor until a revival in the late 19th and 20th century. It remains popular to this day (anyone remember the chant albums from the early 90s?) except ironically in the Catholic church where its influence has waned somewhat after the reforms of the 1960s.
The chant revival was helped in the early 20th century when the monks of the abbey of Solesmes in France published the Liber Usualis, which is a huge compendium of all of the chants of the church. It is the bible of Gregorian chant, and is available for free on the internet if anyone is interested. There are a few subsets of this massive tome that have also been published–the Graduale Romanum contains only the chants for the mass, and the Kyriale Romanum contains only the chants for the ordinary. Each chant also has a number preceding it, which tells you what mode it is in. A discussion of church modes is beyond the scope of this post, but generally speaking modes 1-4 sound “minor” and 5-8 sound “major” to modern ears.
In order to understand the influence that chant had on Western music, it is helpful to know a little about the structure of the mass. The ordinary is the portion of the liturgy that does not change, consisting of the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. These are the familiar sections that most composers set when they are writing a mass. In medieval times, they would have been sung to one of the 18 standard plainsong settings, which would have varied according to season. The proper, on the other hand, is the part of the mass that changes every week, and consists of the Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Sequence, Offertory, and Communion. The chant books contain separate chants and texts for each of these for every week of the year.
Practically speaking, this left a large body of texts and melodies for later composers to draw from. It was common for composers in Catholic countries (France, Italy) to set the mass propers (e.g. Durufle’s well-known motets), whereas those in Protestant countries (England, Germany) were more likely to set texts from the Old Testament, New Testament, or Gospel lessons. Nowadays, there is a lot more liturgical flexibility, and it is common to see modern composers continuing to use these ancient texts and melodies as the basis for new compositions.
There are a lot of great Advent hymns. I’m sure most readers are probably constantly asking themselves, “What is the best Advent hymn?” Luckily this question has an answer, and that answer is Helmsley (“Lo, he comes with clouds descending”). At my friend Deborah’s Anglo-Catholic parish, we usually get to sing this one at their Carols Service in Advent, all 7 verses, and it is glorious. (Note despite this video being labeled Kings College, I am pretty sure it is the Cambridge Singers).
Coming in right behind it is the well-loved “O come O come Emmanuel.” Here is a nicely performed rendition by the Clare College choir, and as a bonus they pronounce “Israel” correctly.
The Old Testament reading for Advent II is Isaiah 11:1-10. “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: And the spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD.”
This passage is choral gold, and the basis for one of my favorite carols I learned while living in Switzerland, “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” (“Lo, how a rose e’er blooming”). The melody and text, originally in German, date from the late 16th century. Here are four settings that I love.
First, the well known Praetorius harmonization, exquisitely performed here by the King’s Singers:
Second, Hugo Distler’s setting, which is part of his excellent Weihnachtsgeschichte.
Third, a beautiful setting of Catherine Winkworth’s English translation by 20th century English composer Herbert Howells. Howells was a prolific composer of Anglican cathedral music (and a master of the idiom), and has a characteristic sound influenced by Tudor music, plainsong, and folk music.
And fourth, for those whose tastes lean more toward the Romantic, here is Anton Bruckner’s “Virga Jesse floruit,” setting a Latin version of this text from Isaiah 11. Translation here. Incidentally, if you want to hear the most sublime piece of music ever composed that used no accidentals (sharps or flats), have a listen sometime to Bruckner’s “Os justi meditabitur.”
And because I can’t do a post without some Tudor era English music, here is Byrd’s 5 voice setting of Rorate caeli:
In keeping with the theme, this week’s organ postlude is Brahms’ “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen.”
Finally, for anyone in the Boston area who likes this sort of music, I will put in a plug for my choir’s Service of Lessons and Carols on Sunday, Dec. 15 at 5 pm, at Christ Church Cambridge, Zero Garden St. in Cambridge. Come by 4:30 to get a seat.