Taking as its starting point their world-famous Advent Carol Service, The Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge, is here on dazzling form in an imaginative and varied programme devised by David Hill.
Alongside Christmas classics by Rutter, Warlock, Howells and Holst, we have new works by Judith Bingham and Francis Pott, and Naylor’s epic Vox dicentis. Many of these works have specific connections to David Hill and his choir, and the resulting conviction of performance is a testimony to their stature.
A narrative thread is provided throughout the disc by the seven Great ‘O’ Antiphons (‘O Wisdom’, ‘O Key of David’, etc) which fall on 17 to 23 December in the liturgy. At the close David Hill’s imaginative arrangement of Bethlehem Down (combining the popular choral version with Warlock’s own accompaniment for a solo song version) leads into Morten Lauridsen’s phenomenally successful O magnum mysterium and a blaze of glory in the Christmas Day hymn O come, all ye faithful. ‘Hodie Christ natus est’ indeed.
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The music on this CD devised by David Hill, Director of Music of St John’s College, Cambridge, is arguably more than the usual miscellany for the seasons of Advent and Christmastide. Although Dr Hill’s point of departure was the College’s Advent Sunday Service, the sequence of words and music takes the listener through a spiritual journey that starts in the darkness of Advent anticipation and continues to Christmas, the Epiphany and even (in Holst’s This have I done for my true love) to Easter with its promise of redemption. The space of the college chapel has been utilized imaginatively too, with music being performed in the Ante-Chapel, the Choir, and as processional hymns, to create a sense of physical movement beginning at the west end and concluding at the east. The carols, anthems, motets and hymns (many of which have direct associations with St John’s) are interspersed by antiphons (sentences from scripture that in the medieval church were sung before and after the Psalms and Canticles of the Divine Office) for the days prior to the Christmas Vigil.
Researches by the distinguished scholar Dr Mary Berry into the manuscript of The Ordinale of St Mary’s Abbey, York (which is housed in the St John’s College library), have revealed fascinating information about how the antiphons, dating from the ninth century or earlier, were performed by different members of the abbey community, with the Precentor assigning who should sing them. In Dr Berry’s translation from the Latin original the conventions are proclaimed: ‘Let it be known, too, that in order to fulfil the wishes of the Fathers, on eight days preceding Christmas, eight antiphons, and only those beginning with O, are to be sung with the Magnificat at Vespers, because eight beatitudes were brought to us by the Incarnation of Christ the King, and because it was after eight days that Jesus entered Capernaum … In the first seven of these the word “veni” is sung, recalling the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit. And all these antiphons are in Mode II, because they all speak of the two “Comings”. The Precentor, leaving his stall, will assign these antiphons to the singers on his day.’ St Mary’s, York, was unusual in singing eight antiphons; seven was the norm, as performed on this disc.
As the tolling of the Chapel Bell ceases, the choir, situated in the Ante-Chapel, sings the plainsong Rorate caeli (‘Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above’), before processing to the choirstalls during the Hymn O come, O come, Emmanuel. The words are based on the Advent antiphons and were first translated by J M Neale. Thomas Lacey, an editor of the first edition of The English Hymnal (1906) made the translations that are usually sung today. The tune was first noted in Thomas Helmore’s Hymnal Noted (1852) and its provenance may be traced to a Missal in the Bibliothèque Nationale of France. Here it is performed in the version that J H Arnold made for the 1933 edition of The English Hymnal.
The first antiphon, for 17 December, O Sapienta (‘O Wisdom’) was intoned by the ‘Lord Abbot from his stall, and in his absence the Precentor will replace him’. A tender shoot was written by the German pianist, conductor and composer Otto Goldschmidt (1829–1907), who settled in England in 1858 with his wife, the famous Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, nicknamed ‘The Swedish Nightingale’. He made important contributions to English musical life, and founded The Bach Choir with whom he gave the first complete performance in Britain of Bach’s B minor Mass. (By an apposite coincidence, The Bach Choir’s current Music Director is David Hill.) This carol became popular through the recording made in the early 1960s by St John’s Choir under George Guest, Music Director from 1951 to 1991. Its text describes Christ as the ‘tender shoot’ that sprang from the root of Jesse.
Herbert Howells (1892–1983) is remembered particularly for his contribution to twentieth-century Anglican church music, arguably the finest by any English composer of the century. During World War II he deputized for Robin Orr as organist of St John’s College and was made an honorary fellow of the College in 1966. His carol-anthem A Spotless Rose was composed in a day in 1919 under somewhat prosaic circumstances, as Howells recalled: ‘This I sat down and wrote after idly watching some shunting from a window of a cottage […] in Gloucester which overlooked the Midland Railway […] I looked out on iron railings and the main Bristol–Gloucester line, with shunting trucks bumping and banging.’ The contrasting images of the fourteenth-century text—warmth flooding into the world with Christ’s birth, juxtaposed with the raw cold of a winter’s night—are caught magically in musical terms by the achingly beautiful cadence that concludes the carol.
Charles Wesley’s inspiring words for Lo! He comes with clouds descending were based on verses by John Cennick. Thomas Olivers derived the tune from a country dance, itself possibly by Thomas Arne, which he heard whistled in the street. This appeared in John Wesley’s Select Hymns with Tunes Annext under the name ‘Olivers’ in 1765, and four years later Martin Madan in his Collection of Psalm and Hymn Tunes produced a revised version called ‘Helmsley’. Vaughan Williams reharmonized it for the first edition of The English Hymnal, and the descant is by Christopher Robinson, Director of Music at St John’s from 1991 to 2002.
Following the antiphon for 18 December, O Adonai (‘O Mighty Lord)’, which would have been intoned by the Prior, is the motet Vox dicentis: Clama by Edward Naylor (1867–1934), who was organist of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Apart from an extensive body of church music, he also wrote an opera (The Angelus, performed at Covent Garden in 1904), was one of the earliest advocates of musical authenticity, and an authority on Shakespeare and music. Vox dicentis: Clama was composed in 1911 for King’s College, Cambridge, and sets texts from Isaiah describing the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. It is an extended work, in four distinct sections, with the choral textures frequently dividing into lush eight-part writing that consciously used the resonant acoustic of King’s chapel. The striking opening is almost operatic with a declamatory bass line and dramatic interjections from the rest of the choir. Particularly effective too is the final pastoral-like section, which features a solo treble setting words dwelling on the image of Christ the Good Shepherd, and an ending exploiting harmonic suspensions of caressing beauty.
O Radix Iesse (‘O Root of Jesse’) is the antiphon for 19 December, intoned by the Almoner. As Judith Bingham (born 1952) is both a composer and singer it is perhaps hardly surprising that choral and vocal music have featured prominently among her compositions, (including a Mass written for Westminster Cathedral, recorded on). The clouded Heaven was commissioned jointly by The Dean and Chapter of Winchester Cathedral and by Ruth Daniel, a long-standing supporter of St John’s Choir. It received simultaneous premieres at Winchester Cathedral and St John’s College, Cambridge, sung by their choirs directed by David Hill and Christopher Robinson respectively, at their 1998 Advent Sunday services. Bingham’s choice of texts reflect both commissioners, a conflation of words from a prayer by the seventeenth-century Bishop of Winchester, Lancelot Andrewes, and William Wordsworth’s On First Entering St John’s Cambridge. The music has a quality of anxiousness reflecting Bingham’s inspiration behind the work: ‘I always think of Advent as the time when the Magi are making their unsafe journey towards the Nativity and so wanted to suggest a spiritual journey into the unknown. I was hugely influenced at that time by my experience of an Alpine starry landscape and wanted to try and capture my feelings of awe and wonderment in the music.’
On 20 December the antiphon O Clavis David (‘O Key of David’) would have been allotted to the Cellarer—the monk with the key to the wine cellar! There is a flower is one of the quintessential carols of John Rutter (born 1943), whose highly popular choral music includes many miniature masterpieces of the contemporary Christmas choral repertoire. It was composed for George Guest and St John’s College Choir and first performed by them in the Advent services of 1986. The fifteenth-century poem by John Audelay, a blind and deaf Shropshire monk, draws on the medieval imagery of the Jesse Tree that is frequently found in paintings and stained glass of the period. A characteristic of Rutter’s art is the strength of his melodic invention, as exemplified by the sheer charm of the carol’s main tune, as well as his masterly ear for texture, as for example in the final verse, where the men sing the main melody against the exultant ‘alleluias’ of the trebles and altos.
Gustav Holst (1874–1934) regarded This have I done for my true love (which he always referred to as ‘The Dancing Day’) as his finest partsong. It was written in 1916 for the first of the Whitsuntide Festivals that Holst organized in the parish church of Thaxted, the Essex village where Holst retreated to for long weekends to compose. In this venture he received the enthusiastic support of his friend Conrad Noel, vicar of Thaxted, a rather controversial figure whose philosophy combined, with original flair, High Anglicanism and flying the Red Flag from the church tower! Holst found the words of this old Cornish poem on the inside of the church door where Noel had pinned them. Threaded through the poem is the symbol of dance as a means of religious ritual and praise, as the words encapsulate the key events of the Gospels: Christ’s birth, baptism, temptation, betrayal, trial, crucifixion, descent into Hell, Resurrection and his Ascension in glory. Holst dedicated the work to Conrad Noel and it is commemorated by an inscription on one of the Thaxted church bells: ‘I sing for the general dance.’
It fell to the Chamberlain (the monk in charge of the household) to intone the antiphon for 21 December, O Oriens (‘O star of the morning’). Lullay my liking by Francis Pott (born 1957) is another carol written specifically for St John’s. Pott is known both as a pianist and a composer, in particular of choral music—his oratorio A song on the end of the world, for example—as well as music for organ such as his Passion Symphony Christus. Lullay my liking was first heard in the Advent Sunday service in 2004 and is dedicated to David Hill and his wife Alice. The composer has written that the carol ‘seeks to evoke a plausibly medieval sensibility, to match the words, whilst also remaining detectably of its own time’. This is achieved partly through Pott’s retention of the text’s verse and refrain structure with solos and duets alternating with the full choir. The music surges to a climax as the angels sing of the birth of the Christ Child, then slowly fades with the words set against hushed humming, until finally everything comes full circle with the return of the music of the opening.
On 22 December, O Rex gentium (‘O King of all nations’) was intoned by the Plumber, a ‘lead worker’, Mary Berry explains, who ‘seems to have been frequently dispensed from community activities, but among his other duties he was in charge of the coffin for funerals’.
Peter Warlock was the pseudonymn of Philip Heseltine (1894–1930), whose principal legacy was an important body of solo song. Bethlehem Down, with its gentle lilt and tenderness riven with sadness, is a brilliant marriage of music and words. Yet it was created in a mood of flippancy due to the impecunious state of Warlock and his poet friend Bruce Blunt (who were both notorious for their Bohemian behaviour). As Blunt recalled: ‘In December 1927, we were both extremely hard up, and, in the hope of being able to get suitably drunk at Christmas, conceived the idea of collaborating on another carol which should be published in a daily paper. So, walking on a moonlit night between the “Plough” at Bishop’s Sutton and the “Anchor” at Ropley, I thought of the words of “Bethlehem Down”. I sent them off to Philip in London, the carol was completed in a few days and published (words and music) in The Daily Telegraph on Christmas Eve. We had an immortal carouse on the proceeds and decided to call ourselves “Carols Consolidated”.’ In this new arrangement David Hill has combined the accompaniment of the later solo-song version with the original for a cappella voices.
O Emmanuel, the antiphon for 23 December, was given to the Bursar to intone. He was also known as the Granatarius, the monk in charge of the granary, who dispensed the supply of corn. It was with the setting of the Christmas Matins text O magnum mysterium that the American composer, Morten Lauridsen (born 1943) gained an international reputation. The premiere was given in 1994 by the Los Angeles Master Chorale at the beginning of Lauridsen’s association with them as their composer-in-residence. Among his best-known works are his other a cappella motets Ave Maria and Ubi caritas, as well as the larger-scale Lux aeterna (all recorded on). Composers over the centuries, notably Victoria and Lassus, have been drawn to the words of O magnum mysterium which depict, in Lauridsen’s words, ‘the birth of the new-born King amongst the lowly animals and shepherds’. Lauridsen continues: ‘This affirmation of God’s grace to the meek and the adoration of the Blessed Virgin are celebrated in my setting through a quiet song of profound inner joy.’ In its serene but purposeful progress, the music captures the awe and wonder of the mystery of the Incarnation.
The origins of both the music and words to O come, all ye faithful, the triumphal hymn of praise for Christmas Day, are obscure and may be traced to English Catholic circles of the mid-eighteenth century. They appear in manuscripts copied by John Francis Wade, a lay teacher and musician at Douai Abbey. The tune written down by Wade was first published under the title ‘Adeste fideles’ in An Essay on the Church Plain Chant edited by Samuel Webbe the elder in 1782. Additional verses were added later and Frederick Oakley translated the original Latin from Wade’s manuscript. Modern versions are based on W H Monk’s harmonization for the first edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861), and in this performance the descant of the penultimate verse is by David Hill. To the Christmas Day antiphon, Hodie Christus natus est (‘Today Christ was born’) the choir recedes; Christmas is come, darkness has turned to light.
Andrew Burn © 2006