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The St John's Advent Carol Service is something of a staple of the British choral world, invariably featuring works commissioned especially for the event alongside much-loved favourites. This programme selects the best of both from recent live BBC broadcasts.
Britten’s A Hymn of St Columba was written in 1962, a few months after the first performance of the War Requiem, and its distinctive combination of largely diatonic melodies, shifting harmonic planes and a tight motivic repertoire recalls sections of Britten’s choral masterpiece. The text, attributed to Saint Columba, is a loose paraphrase of the requiem mass’s ‘Dies irae’. The Hymn was commissioned to celebrate the 1400th anniversary of Columba’s journey from Ireland to Iona; the premiere, which took place outdoors at a site in County Donegal where Columba is supposed to have preached, was reportedly almost inaudible owing to the wind.
James Burton was a Choral Scholar at St John’s College. A distinguished composer and arranger, he is probably best known as a conductor, and currently serves as Conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and Choral Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Burton’s setting of Tomorrow shall be my dancing day, a traditional text almost certainly medieval in origin, derives much of its character from the use of irregular metres. The mood is generally ebullient, but in the central section ‘dancing’ rhythms combine with rich harmonies to foreground darker colours in the text.
The truth sent from above is a game of musical consequences. Its origins lie in a sacred folksong. Cecil Sharp identified one version in Shropshire; Ralph Vaughan Williams heard another in 1909 in Herefordshire, publishing it shortly afterwards. Text and melody were later used in the composer’s Fantasia on Christmas Carols, first performed in Hereford Cathedral in 1912. The version heard here is an arrangement of Vaughan Williams’s music by Christopher Robinson, former Director of Music at St John’s College. This highly sensitive reworking adds an organ accompaniment but maintains the character and much of the substance of Vaughan Williams’s four-part setting.
Ian Shaw’s setting of Adam lay ybounden was written in 2016. The famous fifteenth-century text, a paraphrase of the third chapter of Genesis, is contained in a manuscript now held in the British Library, where it is found on the same page as ‘I sing of a maiden’—also heard here in a setting by Shaw, a former Organ Student of St John’s. The two carols are composed for trebles with accompaniment—organ (or piano) in one case, harp (or piano) in the other. In both, sinuous vocal lines are contrasted with more astringent harmonies and brittle accompanimental gestures in the organ. In Adam lay ybounden, Shaw builds to a climax, reflecting the text’s positive interpretation of the Fall, before ending on a more reflective note.
The cherry tree carol is heard in an arrangement by Stephen Cleobury, a former Organ Student of St John’s, but best-known today as Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge. The melody, of traditional English provenance, is extremely simple, and has as often been arranged by popular singers—Joan Baez is a notable example—as by church musicians. Here, Cleobury clothes it with entirely diatonic harmony; textural changes, melodic decoration and imitation provide variety.
James Long’s Vigilate was commissioned by St John’s College in 2012. The text combines passages from Mark 13 and three books of Revelation. Mark’s words were set most famously by William Byrd, and when heard in the context of Advent, Byrd’s repeated cries of ‘vigilate’ [keep watch] are usually understood as referring to Christ’s incarnation. By including verses from Revelation, Long shifts the focus to the Second Coming. The text is macaronic, with Latin and English words interspersed, and as in Byrd’s Vigilate, there are strong madrigalian influences—most memorably, chromatic writhing on the word ‘wail’ and a remarkable stuttering effect for ‘gallicantu’ [cock-crow].
The text of Palestrina’s Fuit homo missus a Deo is adapted from the first chapter of the Gospel according to St John, and the motet was intended for the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist. The music is quintessential four-part Palestrina—fluent, largely conjunct lines in an imitative texture. The only hints of homorhythm occur in the setting of the words ‘he came to testify’, as though Palestrina wished to emphasise the declarative nature of this passage by bringing groups of voices together.
The John in the title of Gibbons’s This is the record of John is once again John the Baptist, and the text is again based on St John’s Gospel. Gibbons had connections with King’s College, Cambridge, and his second son Christopher served as Organist of St John’s at the start of the English Civil War. However, this much-admired anthem was apparently commissioned by St John’s College, Oxford. The text tells of an exchange between John the Baptist and ‘priests and Levites’. A dialogic structure lends itself to the verse anthem—solo voice (here, alto) answered by five-part choir. However, it would be wrong to imagine that the alto carries John’s words and the choir the remaining text; the soloist sings the entire text, partially echoed by the choir. The accompaniment is realised here on the organ, but a performance on viols would be equally appropriate.
No traditional Christmas would be complete without the work of George Ratcliffe Woodward, who wrote and arranged the texts of popular carols such as Ding, dong, merrily on high. Malcolm Archer’s The linden tree carol is a setting of one of Woodward’s less familiar creations. The composition has alternating verses in four- and three-part harmony; in the three-part settings, the melody is transferred to the tenor. The harmonic language hints at Renaissance practices, moving in and out of the Dorian mode.
Though South-African-born composer John Joubert wrote numerous large-scale works, including operas, oratorios and symphonies, he is best known for his choral miniatures. Most celebrated is surely his exquisite setting of There is no rose, a fifteenth-century macaronic text. Much of its beauty springs from the subtle use of voices moving in parallel. In the second and third stanzas Joubert even combines pairs of parallel thirds. Such simple resources, and the avoidance of any hint of chromaticism, make for a carol of crystalline purity.
For The birth of speech, Tim Watts, a current Fellow of St John’s, turned to the poetry of Hartley Coleridge, eldest son of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The text contains many musical allusions: as Watts put it, the poem is ‘entirely built from questions about sound’. Watts responds to these questions with characteristic imaginative power, deploying a highly distinctive array of sonic resources—a choir whose trebles whisper, only to break into song towards the end; two violins, played here by undergraduates Julia Hwang and Stephanie Childress; and an organ part that sometimes supports the voices, sometimes contributes lines of its own. While the music is tightly wrought, with numerous canonic or quasi-canonic passages, the overall effect is highly sensuous.
The angel Gabriel from heaven came is heard in an arrangement by Edgar Pettman. The text, based on a folk carol, was adapted from the original Basque by Rev Sabine Baring-Gould who spent some of his childhood in the Basque country. The melody has some typical hallmarks of folk-tunes, notably a flattened leading-note; however, the harmony is pure Anglicana. Arguably, none of the more complex settings of the melody that have emerged in later years matches Pettman’s for directness of expression.
In I know a flower Francis Jackson sets a translation by George Ratcliffe Woodward of the famous German poem ‘Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen’. Jackson uses simple unaccompanied four-part harmony throughout, enlivened by metric fluidity and references to modal practices—for example, Lydian inflections at the start. The composer’s confidence in handling voices is evident throughout—unsurprising perhaps given his decades-long experience as church musician. This particular recording was made shortly after Jackson’s hundredth birthday.
The text of Glory to the Christ child is taken from an early seventeenth-century manuscript held in the British Library. With its references to the sleeping babe, it looks forward to Christmas. Alan Bullard’s setting is vigorous, with significant use of unisons and parts that move in parallel fifths. Throughout the carol Bullard contrasts passages of rejoicing with more reflective moments; ultimately, however, power rests with the sleeping Christ-child.
Two members of the Comeau family have featured in recent Advent services at St John’s. Ben Comeau was commissioned to write a piece for the 2017 service, while his father Paul is represented here by Lux mundi, performed at St John’s in 2016, but originally composed in 1994 for Andrew Nethsingha and the Three Spires Singers. Both composers clearly relish the challenges of rigorous compositional processes. In Lux mundi, this is apparent in the carol’s subtle canonic writing, as well as in the use of mirrored parts. In fact, Comeau’s setting of the third verse of Father Andrew’s text begins with lines that are exact inversions of each other—a nod, perhaps, to John Tavener’s The Lamb, where similar practices are found.
Ian Shaw’s setting of I sing of a maiden is composed for trebles, accompanied here by harp. Conceived as a companion-piece to Adam lay ybounden, it is even more spare than its predecessor. Shaw makes highly effective use of simple unsupported lines and, crucially, silence. The repeated gestures in the harp create a hypnotic effect, leading to a rapt ending.
On one level, David Willcocks’s arrangement of the traditional carol Tomorrow shall be my dancing day is a case-study in simplicity: the melody on which it is based consists of barely more than five pitches, and the accompanying parts are free of all chromaticism. However, texture and dynamics are richly varied, and the carol is full of energising off-beat accents. Despite abundant compositional invention, there is no attempt to overload the melody with artifice. In short, it’s a masterly demonstration of Willcocks’s skill as arranger.
Judith Bingham’s The clouded heaven has particularly close connections with St John’s College. It was commissioned jointly by St John’s and Winchester Cathedral, and was first performed in Cambridge and Winchester on the same day in 1998. The conductors were Christopher Robinson (at the time, Director of Music at St John’s) and David Hill (Master of Music at Winchester, but soon to become Robinson’s successor at St John’s). The words are taken from a prayer by Lancelot Andrewes, Bishop of Winchester, and from Residence at Cambridge by William Wordsworth, who matriculated at St John’s in 1787. A rich choral texture is complemented by an organ part that mostly supports the voices, but with recurrent patterns that create incantatory, at times disturbing effects. As Bingham put it: ‘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.’
The text of the final track, David Bednall’s Noe, noe, is taken from an anonymous medieval carol. However, the setting is dominated by repetitions of the single word ‘Noe’ [Noel] in the choir and their partial echoes in the organ. The composition has moments of contrast—notably, unaccompanied chordal writing to the words ‘a tiny son is born today’. It ends rousingly, using the full resources of the organ—a joyous envoi for our feast of seasonal music.
Martin Ennis © 2018
There have been many Advent commissions at St John’s, including new works written annually since 2008. We have recorded three of these on previous albums (Roxanna Panufnik, Jonathan Harvey and Michael Finnissy); three more follow on the present disc. I wrote to James Burton asking for 'something fun, wacky, quirky, catchy, fast …' He certainly ticked those boxes! Before James Long started his composition I had conversations with him about the lack of repertoire concerning the Second Coming. Tim Watts made use of two astonishingly talented violinists who were undergraduates in College at the time. In addition we gave the premieres of the two carols by Ian Shaw. Judith Bingham’s work was written during Christopher Robinson’s time here, and Paul Comeau’s carol was written for my choral society in Truro.
In 2015 listeners wrote in to Radio 4’s ‘Feedback’ programme to complain about our Advent broadcast containing music that was ‘downright ugly’, ‘screechy’ and ‘discordant.’ I am grateful to Alan Davey, Controller of Radio 3, for having a very different view of our service! Christianity needs to be challenging at times, not only cosy and comforting. I recently read a blog by German conductor Karl-Heinz Steffens, which resonated with my own feelings and which must surely apply as much to choirs as to orchestras. He wrote:
I am always interested in new discoveries and unusual repertoire. I think you have to be inquisitive as a conductor, and as an artist … Orchestras are not just museums for the great art of the past—though the Mona Lisa, of course, has a place—but must also provide space for modern art too. Art has to live a contemporary life, it is an investment in the future. The modern art of today will become the classics of tomorrow.
Some texts are appropriate both at Advent and at Christmas. Our service is a journey through the themes of the four Sundays in Advent, culminating in the Christmas Collect. I allow myself one specifically Christmas piece at the end of each year’s service—the works by Bednall and Bullard are examples of this final carol. For the purposes of this compilation disc I have tried to arrange the works into a pleasingly varied musical sequence, rather than following Advent themes in order.
Our cover image of an apple refers to the second verse of one of the most famous Advent texts, Adam lay ybounden: ‘And all was for an apple.’ The Fall of man followed Adam’s temptation to eat the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. In Western Europe this fruit has often been depicted as an apple.
St John’s College Chapel is an intimate space, which is always very full for the Advent services, broadcast annually by the BBC since 1981. A particular frisson comes from having members of the congregation surrounding the choir, less than a metre away on all four sides, whilst the service is broadcast live around the world. You never know who will be in the Chapel. In the 2016 service I remember finding that a distinguished former choir-member, Iestyn Davies, was sitting right opposite one of his current successors, Hugh Cutting, as Hugh was singing the big Gibbons solo heard here. You don’t get that kind of adrenaline in a recording session!
A one-off live broadcast has much potential for spontaneity. Repeated takes and over-obsession with perfection—whatever that means—can diminish ‘character’ and ‘personality’ in a choir; it is a great shame if that happens. My desire to preserve some of our best live performances is amplified when one considers the constant turnover of the singers; both the Boys and the Gents are constantly changing. There is something deeply moving about the sound of a particular set of boys, knowing that a few weeks later some voices may have broken; it means a lot to me to take a snap-shot for posterity of a special time for the choir. The voices of leading adult singers change in subtle ways over the decades; for boy trebles the evolution is much quicker and shorter—and then it’s suddenly all over. The final bar of the Burton brings a smile to my face, with one single amazing boy—George Balfour—adding a top A which fearlessly projects over the sound of the full organ and choir. Many singers who were on this album can no longer sing a note of treble register. The sound of each group of boys is an expression of our musical relationship and rapport at that particular time; every term is different.
This album is comprised entirely of live recordings as captured by BBC producers and engineers, with no musical editing whatsoever. I am grateful to Simon Gibson at Abbey Road for his work in seeking to reduce extraneous sounds. There is still a degree of background noise emanating from the densely packed chapel and from our wheezy organ blower, but I do hope listeners will tolerate this and may even feel that it enhances the sense of eager anticipation so redolent of the Advent season.
Andrew Nethsingha © 2018