…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?
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.
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”).
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.