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Every year on Advent Sunday St Paul's Cathedral in London holds an Advent Carol Service. This recording captures the mood and structure of this event, presenting a selection of the music which might be performed in its liturgical order.
The Church's preparation for the coming of Christ begins in contemplative mood with the plainchant processional Laudes Regiae and the famous Mattins Responsory ('I look from afar …'). The wealth of music that follows is typical of the approach of this choir: traditional favourites such as Hosanna to the Son of David and the Parsons Ave Maria rest alongside contemporary works from composers such as John Rutter, Richard Lloyd and Philip Wilby. This album—and the hypothetical service—comes to an end with a joyous arrangement of the great hymn O come, O come, Emmanuel; an organ toccata on the same theme by Andrew Carter acts as the voluntary.
The procession from west to east is a symbolic journey: it is a symbol of the spiritual journey the Church makes each year to greet the Son of God; it is also a spiritual journey through the readings and hymns together with the choir’s music (both old and new) which it sings on behalf of the congregation—music which accompanies the sacred texts to illustrate and illuminate the faithful; furthermore, the procession is a physical journey as the Church moves from the west to the east to await Christ’s birth.
The two sides of the cathedral choir move from the west—cantoris along the north aisle, and decani along the south aisle. The clergy, cantor and acolytes process down the centre of the building. As the great processional cross moves, the cantor begins the monodic Laudes Regiae.
Laudes Regiae was sung in the Norman Abbey of Fécamp when royalty entered for worship. A manuscript was brought by Osmund to Old Sarum which was discovered on the flyleaf of an eleventh-century manuscript in Salisbury Cathedral Library. The version sung here is based on a modern edition and some of the text has been adapted for use in Advent. The music, edited by Christopher Dearnley, was written before the Norman Conquest and provides a dramatic and declamatory opening to this recording.
The so-called Mattins Responsory by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525/26–1594) is, in fact, an adaptation of a Magnificat, together with words which are a translation of the First Responsory of Advent Sunday in the Office of Mattins in the early medieval Roman rite. This adaptation has become widely known through its usage at the Advent Carol Service at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. At St Paul’s Cathedral the Responsory is sung at the west end of the building before the procession moves. It is complemented at the end of the service by the Vesper Responsory which is found towards the end of this sequence.
Jacob Handl (1550–1591) was a Slovenian composer who resided in Austria and Bohemia. He stayed at the Benedictine abbey at Melk and went on to Vienna in or around 1568. By 1574 he is known to have become a singer at Maximilian II’s imperial chapel. From 1575 he spent the next four or five years travelling and learning and was then engaged as a musician by the Bishop of Olomouc before moving to become Kantor of Saint Jan na Brzehu in Prague. Handl was clearly a master contrapuntalist, although his music suffered some criticism in its day on account of its complexity.
The anthem Ecce concipies is a setting of words from the first chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. The text, which forms the Gospel reading for the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, proclaims that Mary will conceive and bear a son. In the secunda pars of this anthem, the tempo changes to triple time, boldly to announce that Jesus ‘will sit on David’s throne, and rule his kingdom’.
Martin Peerson (c1572–1651) was a Vicar Choral and Almoner at St Paul’s Cathedral in the early seventeenth century. He took the BMus degree at Oxford in 1613 and may have worked as sacrist at Westminster Abbey between 1623 and 1630. As Almoner at St Paul’s (from 1624 or 1625) he would have had responsibility for the choristers and may have been made a Minor Canon. In 1642 at the outbreak of the Civil War (when services had been stopped at St Paul’s) Peerson, along with the other Vicars Choral, had special financial provision made for him. He was buried in St Faith’s Chapel in the cathedral crypt.
This five-part setting of Blow out the trumpet in Sion, the words being from the Book of Joel, Chapter 2, achieves its effect by contrasting fanfare-like chords with a series of jostling, exciting short melodic fragments. The declamatory bass line at the words ‘Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble’ has the qualities of a madrigal and this is also evident as the word ‘cometh’ is bandied about between basses and altos. This reappears, but the second time the tenors are answered by the rest of the choir before a reprise of the words ‘and sound an alarum’, ending with an English cadence. The music is found in no fewer than six contemporary sources which may indicate that this anthem might have been widely performed in its day.
As the clergy and choir process during the St Paul’s Advent Carol Service they move to the west side of the dome before moving to the chancel step to face west and from there into the choir stalls in the chancel. It is from the west side of the dome that the choir might sing Lloyd’s setting of the Advent prose, still facing east on their journey.
Richard Lloyd (b1933) was a chorister at Lichfield Cathedral and later became organist of Hereford Cathedral before moving to succeed Conrad Eden at Durham Cathedral. Drop down ye heavens is a setting of the Advent Prose, sometimes known as Rorate, caeli. The piece was designed to be used at the atmospheric candle-lit Advent Carol Service held in Durham’s mighty cathedral; it makes use of the spaciousness of that building and its acoustic. It is, therefore, almost perfectly suited for performance in the vast spaces of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Lloyd retains the flexibility of rhythm of the original plainsong, uses a repeated refrain (sung remotely by a soloist in a high gallery), but presents simple yet dramatic new harmonies. The sense of suspense in the music is achieved by the high voices from afar and the hint of a whole-tone scale.
After the choir have sung from the west side of the dome, they move to the chancel step as the cathedral is illuminated. Here they might sing music of a more celebratory nature. One such piece is Byrd’s Laetentur caeli.
William Byrd (1539/40–1623) learned his art from Thomas Tallis and became one of the most successful of Tudor composers. Byrd worked as Organist and Master of the Choristers at Lincoln Cathedral between 1563 and 1570 before moving to London to become a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal following the accidental death of Robert Parsons. At the chapel he worked jointly with Tallis. In 1575 Tallis and Byrd secured a royal patent for the printing and distribution of part-music. The five-part anthem Laetentur caeli, from their first publication Cantiones Sacrae, is a setting of the Processional Respond for Advent Sunday in the Sarum usage. It is virtuosic in its command of florid, imitative counterpoint and seems to have been composed with the utmost ease. Little wonder that Squire remarked that Byrd ‘seems rapidly to have made his way’ after his arrival in London.
Philip Wilby (b1949) was educated at Keble College, Oxford, and studied composition with Herbert Howells. He was appointed Lecturer in Composition at the University of Leeds in 1970. In recent times his compositions have mostly been concerned with music for brass band and for the church. The Echo Carol was published in 1989 and uses a similar idea to his setting of the Evening Canticles for boys’ voices, in which a pencil is used to hold down the note G on the organ keyboard. In the Carol this note is also sustained—this time by the organist—to underpin the music’s texture.
The Echo Carol is a setting for boys’ voices of the plainsong hymn Creator of the starry height, introduced by the organ and answered in turn by two echo parts, both invisible to the listeners and set at different distances from the choir.
Hosanna to the Son of David by Thomas Weelkes (1576–1623) is a composite paraphrase setting of the text from the Gospels according to Matthew (Chapter 21) and Luke (Chapter 19) where Jesus makes his triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The words form part of the Gospel reading for Advent Sunday. This is another dramatic anthem which might be used at St Paul’s as the building is illuminated. The pauses in the music allow the sound of the choir to resound in the cathedral’s vast acoustic.
Recent scholarship has pointed out that this music does not survive in any liturgical sources which may indicate that the anthem was intended for secular use. Furthermore, the text is corrupted to read ‘Hosanna in excelsis Deo’ which also may suggest that it was not intended for liturgical use—although there are many other examples of this in music of this period. These points, together with the unusual scoring for two means, two basses, together with alto and tenor, suggest an origin to the work which, as yet, remains a mystery.
Benjamin Britten (1913–1976) made a significant contribution to church music. The Hymn of St Columba is, literally, a setting of words by that great Saint. It was published in 1963 and is unusual in its use of the ostinato in the organ pedals. This gives the music a sense of unease—as if something dramatic is about to happen. Britten has, therefore, succeeded in painting the text which tells of the impending Judgement Day. The Second Coming is one of the Advent themes, and the Christmas season is a reminder to all Christians to be ready for that day.
The anonymous sixteenth-century anthem Rejoice in the Lord alway (formerly attributed to John Redford) is a setting of the fourth chapter of St Paul’s letter to the Philippians which forms the Epistle reading for the Fourth Sunday in Advent in the Book of Common Prayer. The only known source of this anthem is in the Mulliner Book which is held in the British Library. The rhythms in the music make it apparent that the words originally set were from the 1594 Prayer Book. The music—a careful setting of the words—varies between imitative passages and homophonic sections as, for example, at the words ‘Let your softness be known unto all men’.
The Epistle and Gospel readings for the Sundays of Advent deal with different themes. The Third Sunday in Advent has as its Gospel part of the first Chapter of the Gospel according to John. These words are set by Orlando Gibbons (1583–1625) as This is the record of John, one of the most remarkable of all Tudor verse anthems.
Gibbons sang in the choir at King’s College Cambridge with his brother, became a student at the University and went on to sing at the Chapel Royal when James I was on the throne. By 1625, the year of the composer’s death, Gibbons had become the senior organist.
The music—originally set with an accompaniment provided by viols—seems brilliantly matched to the words: the question ‘Who art thou?’; the long notes at ‘and said plainly’; the florid reply ‘I am not the Christ’; the rising figure at the question ‘Art thou Elias?’. There are three sections for the soloist; each is answered in turn by the choir ending with the step-wise phrase sung immediately by all: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’.
John Rutter (b1945) wrote his double-choir anthem Hymn to the Creator of Light for the cathedral choirs of Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester and their respective conductors at that time: John Sanders, Roy Massey and Donald Hunt. The work is dedicated to the memory of Herbert Howells and was sung at the dedication of the Howells memorial window by Caroline Swash which adorns Gloucester Cathedral. This anthem occasionally uses musical gestures reminiscent of that composer’s style.
The mysterious, quasi-plainsong opening sung by the second choir is answered as if from on high by the first choir. This eventually leads to a central section, Allegro energico, in which the two choirs continue to answer each other. This subsides in turn to a quieter final section where the chorale Schmücke dich by Johann Crüger (1598–1662) is delicately reharmonized by Rutter, bringing the work to a peaceful conclusion.
The fourteenth-century Irish carol Angelus ad virginem is performed here in a cheerful arrangement by Sir David Willcocks (b1919). The bright organ introduction is answered by the choir who sing the Latin hymn and tell the story of the Angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, found in the first Chapter of the Gospel according to Luke. In the third verse the second choir provides the accompaniment whilst the first choir sings the melody before all join together for the final verse.
Walter Buzin recorded that the mixed-voice motet Virga Jesse floruit by Anton Bruckner (1824–1896) has been referred to as ‘the crown of [his] shorter choral works’. He goes on to note that ‘it bespeaks the spirit of romantic and ecstatic mysticism’ and that ‘in this glorious and exalted composition we see reflected the very soul of its composer’. The dramatic contrasts are well suited to the acoustic of St Paul’s. The composer uses a gradual crescendo in the opening phrase to depict the words ‘The rod of Jesse has flourished’. The text—a setting of the Alleluia for the Feast of the Annunciation—culminates in the powerful Alleluias which eventually give way to the gentle ending.
Robert Parsons (c1535–1572) was sworn in as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1563 and met an unfortunate accidental death drowning in the River Trent. Of all the musical works written during this period, the five-part Ave Maria surely shines as one of the most impressive. It has been described as the most perfect Marian motet. The balance of the thematic counterpoint and the rich harmonic framework support the top line which rises to the high notes in the most delicate and thoughtful manner, betraying a broad melodic sequential plan. Thereafter the texture changes (at the words ‘benedicta tu’) returning to the melismatic style for the Amen. Thus the overall design, plan and shape of the work leave musicians to contemplate what other riches Parsons might have left had he lived beyond his fortieth year.
The Mattins Responsory finds its counterpart in the Vesper Responsory which has been adapted to suitable words by Christopher Dearnley. The music is virtually the same as for the Mattins Responsory and is a call-to-arms, as it were, for the congregation at the Advent Carol Service.
The setting of O come, O come, Emmanuel by Andrew Carter (b1939) is an effective arrangement of the well-known Advent hymn. The words are adaptions by J M Neale of the so-called ‘Great Advent Antiphons’, sometimes known as the ‘O’ Antiphons as each of the texts in Latin begins with the word O. These are sung as follows:
O sapientia: O wisdom—December 16
O Adonaï: O Adonaï—December 17
O radix Jesse: O root of Jesse—December 18
O clavis David: O key of David—December 19
O oriens: O dayspring—December 20
O Rex gentium: O King of the nations—December 21
O Emmanuel: O Emmanuel—December 22
O Virgo virtutem: O Virgin of virtues—December 23
The inclusion of this great Advent hymn is, therefore, a neat summary of the various elements of the Advent message.
Andrew Carter was invited by Oxford University Press to write a Christmas piece for organ based on a seasonal theme. The composer writes about the Organ Toccata on Veni Emmanuel:
As everyone had used the best tunes, I felt my favourite Advent hymn might work well. I had just returned from France having heard Jean Guillou playing the mighty organ at Saint Eustache in Paris and had the notion of a Grand French Toccata in my mind. So I chose the tune ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’ which I had also set as an Advent anthem. I thought I would use the same key and adopt the Toccata idiom and allow the tune to weigh in played by the pedals. After a short development section in an imitative style, the theme returns, this time with the notes disposed more than two octaves with the glittering manual figurations above.
The work was first performed by John Scott at York Minster on 29 July 1995.
William McVicker © 1997