This is the eighth in a weekly series that will seek to break down the mists and myths that put people off the vast treasure house that is classical music. Each time, I’ll take a theme and choose 5 pieces or excerpts (from over 600 years’ worth of music) and then round it all off with one larger work.
Hence 5&1 from 600!
There is a deep-rooted logic to the church calendar. It doesn’t always feel like that, granted, but I’ve often found that its apparent peculiarities provoke some helpful meditation. After all, how weird to celebrate Christ’s birth with a meal devised to memorialise his death! Then within less than three months, we’re preparing for that death with Lenten glooms. It’s all over so quickly. Then, how odd to spend half the year in so-called ‘ordinary time’ without anything specific to focus on at all. There is method in it, however.
So it is profoundly helpful that Advent, a time of preparation, has a double focus on both comings of Christ. It is about expectations and hope; it is about nurturing that most irritating of virtues, patience. Who enjoys being patient? Not me, that’s for sure. But music definitely helps me wait with a little more patience.
Anon (After Palestrina)
—Matin Responsory, I Look From Afar Stephen Farr (conductor), Guildford Cathedral Choir
This track is full of happy memories. I was perhaps 9 or 10, a treble in the school choir, and we would kick off our annual Advent Carol service with it. Usually, the choir will start in church off-stage somewhere. Just like John the Baptist, it begins with an unaccompanied voice, coming out of nowhere. Different soloists respond with the choir chiming in occasionally, expressing eager anticipation of the joyful news to come. Ideally—though, to be fair, it’s tricky to do this well when singing acapella—they start processing in and reach the piece’s resounding climax just as they get to their seats.
So for me, the Matin Responsory is precisely how Advent is supposed to start.
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland: 3 Aria (Cantata BWV 61)
—Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750, German) Antony Rolfe Johnson (baritone), John Eliot Gardiner (conductor), The Monteverdi Choir
How can any classical playlist not have Bach? The more one learns about him and familiarises oneself with his music, the more astonishing he becomes. And he was a supremely theological composer (quite apart from the fact that he was able to compose incredibly mathematical music which managed simultaneously to be very affecting). So I’m embarrassed that he’s not featured on 5&1 until now. No matter. This excerpt from one of his cantatas will rectify the situation more than adequately.
A cantata was a setting of the liturgy in church, often composed specifically for a day in the calendar. When Bach was working for the church in Leipzig, he pulled off the most astonishing feat—producing a cantata for soloist(s), choir, organ and orchestra every week for several years. Many are masterpieces.
This is a solo in the middle of an Advent cantata, reflecting the fact that Advent marks the start of a new church year.
Come, Jesus, come to this thy church now And fill with blessing the new year! Advance thy name in rank and honour, Uphold thou every healthy doctrine, And bless the pulpit and the altar!
This is the record of John
—Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625, English) Fretwork, Rogers Covey-Crump, (tenor), Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford
The effect of the Reformation on sixteenth century Europe was colossal. Its reverberations are felt still. So it is hardly surprising that music, and especially church music, was revolutionised. After all, Luther himself was a more than competent musician (and Bach respected his musicianship almost as much as his theology). One of the big shifts in choral music was the need to pay close attention to words. Much pre-reformation choral music had sought a sense of the ethereal with words a means to an end by providing singers with some nice open vowels! And it did this very effectively (just listen to some Palestrina masses, for example). But the reformers were committed to the Word and therefore to words. So music had to reflect that.
Orlando Gibbons was a brilliant Elizabethan composer in England. And here, he does the most obvious thing—he sets texts taken from the Word. But it is far from pedestrian. This is music as story-telling and it is just gorgeous.
Magnificat (Gloucester Service, 1946)
—Herbert Howells (1892-1983, English) Andrew Nethsingha (conductor), Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge
Dial forward two hundred and fifty years to one of my favourite composers that you’ve never heard of (probably)! Herbert Howells wrote mainly, but not exclusively, for cathedral choirs and so his work, especially his settings of Anglican liturgy, are the pinnacle of the English choral tradition (to my mind). He’s not for the faint-hearted singer, mind you—some of it is complex and exhausting to sing, with scrunchy harmonies that take ages to master. But when you do… just wow.
It is a staple of the Anglican daily office that several canticles (biblical songs, essentially) are said or sung. In the afternoon/evening, at Evensong, the prayer book stipulates the Magnificat (Mary’s song at her annunciation in Luke 1:46-56) and the Nunc Dimitis (Simeon’s song at Jesus’s presentation in the Temple, Luke 2:28-32). So we’ve got to have a Magnificat in this Advent list—and this is one of my favourites from Howells. He wrote many, usually identified by the cathedral or chapel for which it was originally composed. The Gloucester service is epic. Listen out for the word-setting (follow along with your bible, perhaps)—notice how he brings out the great biblical reversals, especially for the proud and worldly wealthy. Then in the Gloucester Gloria (tacked onto the end of all the canticles and psalms in this ‘service’), is overwhelming in its triumph. Sublime.
Es ist ein Ros entsprungen
—Michael Praetorius (1571-1621, German) Graham Ross (conductor), Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
Praetorius was a contemporary of Gibbons, over in Germany. He was an organist and extremely versatile composer. I’m only familiar with a tiny proportion of his output, but he is especially known for his development of the Lutheran hymn tradition. This track is a case in point. Here he took a mediaeval, advent text about Mary, the one through whom Jesse’s line will be carried (see Isaiah 11:1), and added some gorgeous harmonies.
Here is a literal translation:
A rose has sprung up, from a tender root, As the old ones sang to us, Its strain came from Jesse And it has brought forth a floweret In the middle of the cold winter Well at half the night. The little rose that I mean, Of which Isaiah told Is Mary, the pure, Who brought us the floweret. At God’s eternal counsel She has borne a child And remained a pure maid. or: Who makes us blessed. The floweret, so small That smells so sweet to us With its bright gleam It dispels the darkness. True man and true God, It helps us from all trouble, Saves us from sin and death.
This recording is unusual, though. I’ve been trying to dig out more information but failed so far. Perhaps you can help out in the comments. But Graham Ross directs the choir to sustain the harmonies and lines in surprising, even unsettling, ways. It is a wonderful twist on words that ought to inspire deep meditation.
Veni, Veni, Emanuel (Percussion concerto, 1992)
—Sir James MacMillan (1959-, Scottish) Evelyn Glennie (percussion), Jukka-Pekka Saraste (cond), Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Now. I hope you’re sitting comfortably. Because this will come as a shock.
It is not choral, and at several points, it’s definitely not ‘nice’ or ‘comfortable.’ But this piece is by one of the finest composers still working on this side of the Atlantic. James MacMillan is a committed Catholic who seems as versatile musically as he is imaginative. It is a percussion concerto (of all things), written for the unique Evelyn Glennie (MacMillan’s fellow Scot). She went profoundly deaf at 12 but this didn’t stop her performing to the highest standard (google her performances and her TED talk). She simply ‘hears’ through other parts of her body (as she describes it) and often performs barefoot as a result. In common with all concertos, it is designed to show off the potential and glories an instrument (or in this case, instrument section) and this one does so in spades.
So what on earth has this got to do with Advent? Well, yes, the clue is in the work’s title. But listen carefully. The orchestra at times appears to be going completely nuts, as if out of control (hint: it isn’t). But as the piece progresses through its eight separate sections, the storms gradually, if unevenly, clear and we begin to get the point. All the way through, as if trying to find a space to be heard in the cacophony, is the centuries-old melody that we still sing today. O Come, O Come Emmanuel! This is an orchestral depiction of the world’s darkness and chaos, through which the light fights for its rightful, and ultimately triumphant place.
So please—give yourself the 25 minutes or so to listen to the whole thing. It’s as epic a musical depiction of the gospel’s triumph as you well ever hear!