More Advent Goodness

…from Jason Wood

Advent III – Gaudete in Domino

For this week’s Introit, I was going to use the plainsong for Gaudete in Domino, but it is in a minor mode and doesn’t seem very joyful. Instead, enjoy these minstrels from my hometown of Orem, UT singing the English translation of this text “Rejoice in the Lord alway,” formerly attributed to John Redford, but now usually considered of anonymous composition. Who knew there was a Catholic church in Orem?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ezc1JEEeRZY

Liturgical background

In many Christian churches during the month of December, a large Advent wreath is displayed near the front of the church with three purple candles, one pink candle, and one white candle in the center. The white candle is for Christmastide, but the pink candle is for Advent III, traditionally known as “Gaudete Sunday” from the incipit of the Introit for today. The theme of the day is Joy, and it is intended to be somewhat of a respite from the austerity of Advent.

I’ve mentioned a few times in previous posts about the readings or lessons for each Sunday. Generally speaking, for each Sunday there is an Old Testament lesson, a New Testament lesson, a Psalm, and a lesson from one of the Gospels, though some churches omit one or more of these. The lessons, usually covering several verses of scripture, rotate in a three year cycle. We have just started year A, so the Gospel lessons this year will be from Matthew. The readings are laid out in a book known as a lectionary, and most churches use the Revised Common Lectionary, so you can go to any liturgical church on a given Sunday and you will hear the same scripture readings. Usually, the musical selections and sermon/homily will be based on one or more of the lessons. As the one who came before Christ and prepared the way for him, John the Baptist is a central player in the Advent narrative. This week’s Gospel lesson (Matthew 11:2-11) discusses John the Baptist’s mission and his fulfillment of prophecy, and he will be featured in one of the hymns and one of the anthems I’ve chosen for this week.

Hymns

For the first of this week’s hymns, we have Divinum Mysterium (“Of the Father’s heart begotten”). This is a clip from the BBC’s “Songs of Praise” series. If you’ve never seen this show, it is somewhat hilarious. They basically go around to different churches and film old British ladies singing hymns. You wouldn’t think this concept would have much staying power, but it’s been on for decades. This is a beautiful hymn–the melody was originally plainsong.

For the second hymn, we have the choir of the Southwell Minster singing “On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry” to the tune of Winchester New (not to be confused with Winchester Old, which is the tune usually used for “While shepherds watched their flocks by night”).

Anthems

The Old Testament reading for this Sunday is Isaiah 35: “The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose. It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice even with joy and singing: the glory of Lebanon shall be given unto it, the excellency of Carmel and Sharon, they shall see the glory of the Lord, and the excellency of our God. Strengthen ye the weak hands, and confirm the feeble knees. Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong, fear not: behold, your God will come with vengeance, even God with a recompence; he will come and save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing: for in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert.”

William Harris, the director of music at St. George’s Windsor in the mid-twentieth century, set this text in his anthem “Strengthen ye the weak hands.” The piece starts with a tenor solo, then the catchy melody takes over, and then it moves through a few keys and swells to a climax before tapering off and ending quietly with the prayer “Save us and help us, we humbly beseech thee, O Lord.” I confess to an affection for this piece after having sung it at several English cathedrals during our spring 2011 tour. Unfortunately, despite it being a reasonably popular anthem, the only rendition I can find on youtube is a live recording of an Evensong from Ely Cathedral, which is not totally ideal. The full text can be found at the bottom of this page.

Harris is virtually unknown outside of church music circles, but he left us with some gorgeous pieces of sacred music. If you’re used to hearing the “truck driver gear change” style of key changes so prevalent in pop music and pop-oriented choral music, let Sir William teach you how it’s done properly. I never cease to be amazed with how effortlessly he modulates between keys in his compositions. If you haven’t heard it, listen sometime to his unaccompanied double choir motet “Faire is the heaven” and prepare to be blown away. It is probably my favorite choral piece of all time.

Today’s second anthem is a fine example of an English verse anthem, a format that was very popular in the early 17th century. A verse anthem contains both solo sections (verses) as well as full choral sections. Orlando Gibbons was born a generation or so after Byrd, and was a prolific composer of all sorts of music, including several fine sacred music pieces that are still widely performed in churches. “This is the record of John” sets the text from John 1:19-21. Here’s the choir of Magdalen College, Oxford, performing the anthem with a viol consort, the way God intended. Viols were the precursors to today’s string instruments, all played upright. They have a very sweet and mellow sound, as you will hear. Nowadays, this anthem is usually sung by an alto or countertenor, but this performance returns the solo to its original tenor range. Those with perfect pitch will notice as the notes scroll by that it does not match what they are hearing. If you’ve ever wondered why so many Tudor-era pieces are in A-flat, it’s because they were all originally in F but have been pitched up a minor third to better fit the ranges of modern mixed sex choirs.

The Magnificat or Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55) appears today in place of the Psalm. This is the song of praise Mary offers after the Annunciation, when visiting her cousin Elisabeth. In it, Mary praises God, recounts His past deeds, promises fulfilled, and blessings given to His people. In the monastic Daily Office, the Magnificat is the canticle for Vespers, and the Nunc Dimittis (Song of Simeon, from Luke 2) is the canticle for Compline. During the Reformation in England, the monastic services were simplified, and Vespers and Compline were combined to form Evening Prayer (or Evensong). Every Evensong service, observed daily in English cathedrals, uses these same two texts, so it became customary for composers to set the “Mag” and “Nunc” together as a pair. Pretty much every English composer for the last 500 years working in church music has set the evening canticles one or more times. They are usually referred to by the composer and key, e.g. “Stanford in A” or “Walmisley in d”.

With so many to choose from, it’s not easy to narrow down Magnificat settings to just a couple, but I’ve chosen two to share. First is Stanford’s Magnificat in G, which is very popular. This setting has a treble solo alternate with choral parts. The arpeggiated organ accompaniment is said to bring to mind Mary sitting at her spinning wheel. Here is the choir of King’s College Cambridge singing it. For some reason there is a large gap before the Gloria, so be sure to keep listening all the way to the end.

Herbert Howells, mentioned in last week’s post, wrote several sets of canticles for specific choirs and buildings around the country. Of these, the most famous are probably the “Coll Reg” (for King’s College), St. Paul’s, and Gloucester services. All are excellent and worth a listen, but I chose the Gloucester service, written for the cathedral where he studied as a boy. To me, this setting has a very mystical quality to it, and I love the modal motif that recurs throughout this piece, clearly heard at the opening and recapitulated in the Gloria.

Since I’m not sure when I’ll have a chance to do this again, I am going to cheat and sneak in a little Christmas here as well. I love American composer Morten Lauridsen’s modern setting of the “O magnum mysterium.” The text comes from a responsory in the matins for Christmas (text and translation here). I first heard this piece when my college choir did it for our carols service in 1999, and it’s been my favorite setting ever since (although the Victoria is also excellent). I find it to be a particularly sensitive setting of the text, with the mood of the music capturing the serenity and mystery of the Nativity, and swelling to a climax at the Alleluia. Here’s King’s College singing it at their Lessons and Carols a few years ago:

Finally, for our organ postlude, we return to Bach and an encore performance from our organist from week 1, Hans-Andre Stamm, who must be the most expressionless man to ever sit at an organ console. Seriously, go back and watch the video from that post. Here he is playing another beloved Advent chorale, “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” (BWV 645). Play us out, Maestro.

Comments

  1. “Of the Father’s heart begotten” is one of the greats.

  2. Wherever there are latinos, there is a Catholic church.
    I loved going to Hispanics’ masses when I was visiting Utah (I’m from Italy).

  3. Thanks for another installment. Agreed that it doesn’t get much better than the Bairstow “Faire is the heaven.”

  4. “Faire is the heaven” is great, but I like “Bring Us, O Lord God” even more. Amazing that he wrote it 34 years later, when he was 76 (Harris lived to the age of 90). It doesn’t get better than Spenser and Donne for texts either.

    Twelve years ago this week in a Manhattan singles ward we did Gibbons’ “This is the Record of John” with tenor, ten-voice choir, and strings — we didn’t have viols, however, but the modern string players tried to play as much as possible in the appropriate style. We also did Howells’ “Sing Lullaby,” one of his earlier works.

    The following Easter we had a big program that included such unaccompanied fare as the Lotti Crucifixus and the Duruflé Ubi Caritas. Sometime in the next year the grumbling started.

  5. Interesting, Bill.

  6. A man after my own heart, Bill. All great selections. “Bring us, O Lord God” is on my funeral list. I go back and forth about which one I like better. He certainly had a talent for selecting excellent texts.

    About 10 years ago, I directed a small singing group that used to sing in the Boston singles wards. We did most Tudor stuff–no copyright restrictions, mostly in English, no need to find an organist. There was a Camelot period when for the most part we were pretty well received, but then some leadership changes happened and things went downhill. New “music chairman” had other ideas about what should happen, and the bishop said we sounded like “monks in a cave” and it was not appropriate for church. It is unfortunate that the structure of our church tends to drive away those who are the most enthusiastic about music.

  7. People who pay attention to the news in Provo know that there’s a Catholic church in Orem. St. Francis used to be in Provo, but moved to Orem in 2000 and has built and dedicated a new church building there. http://www.oremstfrancis.org/about-us/

  8. “Walk into any Christian church during the month of December”

    Except, of course, Christian churches that do not follow the liturgical calendar. I trust that you were not intending to relegate all of those churches (including ours) to the non-Christian darkness.

  9. Change it to “almost any Christian church” if it bothers you.

  10. So, it’s not a matter of accuracy, but just personal taste?

  11. I don’t know why you are so hung up on this. I don’t have any experience with Southern evangelical churches, but around here every church I have ever been in to, including the Unitarians, has an advent wreath. They are very common.

  12. woodboy I don’t see Mark B. being “hung up” on this. One could just as easily ask why you are so defensive about his comment. All of this Anglican christian love on BCC is interesting but a little quaint. The music is wonderful and inspiring, but I think it all overreaches a bit, trying to make it sound, like your comment about walking into _any_ Christian church, as if mormons are the sole outliers in your preferred mode of high church worship.

  13. I guess I’ve never thought of an Advent wreath as a “mode of high church worship.” Unitarians are about as far away as you can get from high church. In any case, I don’t have the ability to edit the post to remove the offending sentence, so just try to ignore it.

  14. >All of this Anglican christian love on BCC is interesting but a little quaint.

    Best not to read it then.

  15. I fixed the offending sentence. Let this be a lesson to you, Jason–BCC readers are analyzing every word carefully. Probably just trying to save you from becoming an apostate like the rest of us. You should thank them.

  16. Thanks Kristine!

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