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This new compilation reassuringly takes us on the traditional Advent journey from darkness to light, while introducing a good few new works and other surprises along the way. Vintage stuff from St John's.
Set against the radical shifts of past centuries, recent changes to the celebration of Advent in Cambridge colleges are modest. Since most students spend Christmas far from the River Cam, most colleges have abandoned a purely ascetic regime in favour of a richer diet. Thus, Advent carol services in Cambridge normally begin with austerely reflective music and end in rejoicing.
For his last Advent CD as Director of Music at St John’s College, Andrew Nethsingha traces a similar course, beginning in ‘the desert depths’ (Frances-Hoad) and ending with shepherds ‘proclaiming the birthday of Jesus our King’ (Gardner). Because the disc contains music from three Advent carol services (2020, 2021 and 2022), the progress is not strictly linear. It nonetheless describes a journey, from darkness to light.
Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Lo! The desert-depths are stirr’d was commissioned by St John’s College for the 2020 Advent carol service, though its premiere was delayed until 2021 by the Covid-19 pandemic. The piece exists in two versions—one for a cappella voices, one (the version heard here) for choir accompanied by a solo harp. The harp is rarely heard within the Anglican liturgy, despite numerous references to the instrument in the Book of Psalms, and the sound-world created by Frances-Hoad’s piece inevitably evokes memories of Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols. Moreover, both composers delight in creating unusual effects from simple material such as scales and juxtaposed triads. The text of ‘Lo, the desert depths’ is taken from the 1736 hymn ‘Jordanis oras praevia’ by Charles Coffin (1676–1749), who was Rector of the University of Paris at the time.
Advent calendar was written by Philip Ledger (Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge, from 1974 to 1982) as a memorial to George Guest, who died in 2002. Guest was intensely proud of his Welsh heritage, so it was appropriate that Ledger chose a poem by another Welshman, Rowan Williams, for this short carol. Williams’s evocative four-stanza text inspired another modified strophic form. However, the sharp contrasts of Williams’s final stanza led Ledger to insert a caesura after ‘toss him free’, and the piece ends peacefully with a brief reverie on ‘He will come like child’. When asked once about the qualities he most prized in choristers, Ledger claimed that he looked for ‘good pianissimos, perfect intonation and texture; not stabbing staccatos or long-sustained fortissimos.’ This setting of ‘Advent calendar’ seems designed to draw these qualities from a choir.
Helen Grime, a Scottish composer who teaches at the Royal Academy of Music in London, has made her name primarily with instrumental music, including pieces for chamber ensembles and concertos for violin, piano, percussion, clarinet and trumpet. Telling, Grime’s first piece for unaccompanied choir, is original and assured. Indeed, the claim that Grime has ‘as precise an ear as any contemporary composer’ (Paul Driver) is as true of this miniature as of any of the more lavishly scored instrumental works. Commissioned by St John’s College and first performed at the 2021 Advent carol service under the direction of George Herbert, Telling is a setting of an anonymous sixteenth-century text. It begins by looking forward to the birth of Christ but rapidly turns to contemplation of the cross, with the words ‘His blood so red for thee was shed …’ stated three times. Grime described the piece, which is built out of a sequence of discrete phrases, as evolving ‘through a series of variations punctuated by a repeated refrain’.
The first setting of There is no rose on this CD was composed by Francis Pott, a graduate of Magdalene College, Cambridge. The text is taken from a fifteenth-century manuscript held yards from St John’s, in the Wren Library of Trinity College. As with several other carols in the so-called Trinity Carol Roll, ‘There is no rose’ combines verses in English with refrains in Latin. In his setting, Pott adopts a modified strophic approach. The first stanza is set as melody and accompaniment, with the main line assigned to the trebles. The melody then migrates to the tenors, with the other parts singing to ‘ah’. In the third stanza, trebles and tenors are in canon. Initially, the imitation is strict, but as the music becomes more exultant, the close relationship between canonic parts gradually loosens. The music builds to what Pott called ‘a free climactic passage evoking the songs of praise sung by the angels’ before subsiding. The final stanza ends with hushed ‘alleluias’ that eventually return us to the tonic chord. The piece was premiered in December 2012 by Matthew Berry’s choir Commotio, an ensemble that has done much to promote Pott’s choral music.
Herr Christ, der ein’ge Gottes Sohn (Lord Christ, the only son of God) is one of four Advent chorale preludes placed at the beginning of J S Bach’s Orgel-Büchlein (Little Organ Book) to reflect Advent’s traditional position at the start of the church year. Like much of Bach’s keyboard output, the Orgel-Büchlein was pedagogical in intent: as explained by the composer on the title page, it was designed to show students the different ways in which they could treat chorale melodies, while developing facility in pedal playing. This was the first Bach project that can be described as having encyclopedic intent. However, the collection was never completed: the autograph suggests Bach intended to include 164 chorale preludes, of which only about a quarter were written. ‘Herr Christ’ is typical of Bach’s procedure in the Orgel-Büchlein: it is short (ignoring repetitions, the setting lasts only ten bars); it presents the chorale melody in the top voice, largely unadorned and without interpolations; it is in four voices; and it is motivically consistent (in this case, the pedal has a five-note figure, perhaps derived from J G Walther’s setting of the same chorale, that dominates the part-writing of the accompanying voices). Though the piece might serve as an introduction to the singing of the chorale, it is unlikely Bach used it for this purpose. In his day, introductions to congregational hymns were mostly improvised, and the contrapuntal intricacy of a miniature such as this would be more likely to distract listeners than remind them of a familiar melody.
Raymond Williams’s Pan fo’r stormydd garwa’n curo (When the fierce storms rage) was first recorded by the Choir of St John’s College in 1988 as part of a disc of Welsh choral music conducted by George Guest, Director of Music at St John’s from 1951 to 1991. (The same recording featured a young Andrew Nethsingha as Organ Student.) Pan fo’r stormydd garwa’n curo is a setting of verse by Gywnne Williams, a leading advocate of Welsh culture. The poem’s two stanzas are set virtually identically: in each case, two four-bar phrases centred on A minor, albeit with modal touches, are followed by two phrases broadly in A major. The work is almost entirely homophonic, and its powerful effect depends largely on the subtle voicing of chords.
For many, O come, O come, Emmanuel! is the quintessential Advent hymn, its passionate cries for redemption seemingly reaching back millennia. However, the earliest authenticated version of the text, which is based on the Advent Antiphons, dates from 1710, when it appeared in Latin in a Cologne hymnal. The first English translations are found in the middle of the nineteenth century, and the familiar words used here were written by Thomas Alexander Lacey for The English Hymnal of 1906. The tune, which has separate origins, is first found in a fifteenth-century missal; it was coupled with an English version of the text in the Hymnal Noted (1851), a marriage that now appears indissoluble. In this performance, the last verse features a choral descant by David Hill, Andrew Nethsingha’s immediate predecessor as Director of Music at St John’s.
Words and music of Nowel! Owt of your slepe are taken from the Selden Carol Book, an anonymous fifteenth-century manuscript held in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. The Selden Carol Book and the Trinity Carol Roll (see above) are among the main sources for fifteenth-century English carols. This carol consists of six verses, set for three overlapping male voices, interspersed with ‘burdens’ (or refrains, in modern parlance). The burdens are built on just one word, ‘nowel’, which also appears as the last word of the last verse—in other words, as the culmination of the poem’s narrative. The original manuscript fails to indicate which voice or voices should sing the burdens; nor is it clear how the notational signs in the manuscript, the signa, are to be interpreted. The carol is performed here in an edition by Jason Smart that realises the canonic potential of the music.
Judith Weir’s Drop down, ye heavens, from above was written for the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, and first performed at their Advent carol service in December 1984. The text is taken from the Advent Prose, and the setting is built round the associated chant, a melody of limited range that the singers are invited to perform like plainsong. Initially, trebles and basses sing in octaves, and the only other active part, the altos, functions as little more than harmonic enhancement. As the piece moves towards its central climax, the main melodic line shatters the octave ambitus within which plainsong frequently moves, and the accompaniment grows richer. However, the added voices never challenge the supremacy of the chant, particularly as they often run in parallel. The piece ends as it began, with hints of harmony wreathing a treble–bass duet.
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV659, is taken from a group of chorale preludes put together by J S Bach during his time as Kantor of Leipzig’s Thomaskirche. This collection, commonly known as the ‘Leipzig Chorale Preludes’ or ‘The Great Eighteen’, contains pieces written years earlier in Weimar. That Bach chose to gather them together, typically making small adjustments in the process, is an indication of the value he placed on them. The piece recorded here is the first of three settings based on the famous Advent chorale ‘Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland’ (Come now, o saviour of the gentiles). These were probably intended to illustrate three contrasting approaches to the same melody. The second setting, BWV660, features a decorative version of the chorale in the right hand, while left hand and pedal provide two interlocking and motivically similar bass lines. The third, BWV661, is an amalgam of chorale prelude and fugue, with the chorale melody thundering out in the pedal’s lowest octave. The version heard here, BWV659, offers a highly ornate version of the chorale in the right hand, accompanied by a walking bass in the pedal, and inner voices derived from the chorale melody. The individual lines of the chorale are separated by interludes, and at the end the melody line opens out in an expressive peroration over a pedal point that surely references Buxtehude’s chorale prelude on the same chorale, BuxWV211. Was this one of the works Bach heard Buxtehude play when he visited Lübeck in the winter of 1705/6? Quite possibly. As Bach noted, his journey to North Germany was ‘not without profit’.
Simon Preston, one of the most gifted church musicians of his generation, wrote his setting of There is no rose in 1971, shortly after he was appointed Organist of Christ Church, Oxford. Preston differs from earlier setters of the poem—notably Benjamin Britten (in A Ceremony of Carols) and John Joubert (in a free-standing carol)—in frequently stating English and Latin words simultaneously. In fact, the text is sometimes presented out of order: for example, ‘gaudeamus’ (fourth stanza) appears before ‘pari forma’ (third stanza), and both Latin fragments are heard before the English words to which they respond. Textures, styles and tempos vary markedly throughout. However, most of the carol is in five parts, with divided basses. This affords a rich harmonic palette that, at times, comes close to jazz.
Come, thou long-expected Jesus was published in 1744 by Charles Wesley, widely regarded as the greatest hymn-writer of the prolific Wesley family. (He is thought to have composed over 6,000 hymns.) Like many of Wesley’s texts, it builds on Biblical passages though, in this case, elements from the Book of Haggai are combined with a prayer that includes ‘born your people to deliver, born a child and yet a King, born to reign in us forever’, words that appear almost verbatim in the hymn. The tune, taken from John Stainer’s 1887 oratorio The Crucifixion, is known as ‘Cross of Jesus’. The descant is by Christopher Robinson, Director of Music at St John’s College from 1991 to 2003.
Harry L’Estrange may well be the youngest composer ever recorded by the Choir of St John’s College: he was only twelve years old when O virgo virginum was first performed by the Choir in 2020. As the son of composers who specialise in church music, and as a chorister at St John’s, Harry was well acquainted with the sounds of choirs, and this short piece, which is constructed in AABA’ form, handles choral textures with confidence. The text, addressed to the ‘Virgin of Virgins’, is sometimes added to the canonical seven Advent antiphons, texts traditionally sung or recited either side of the Magnificat at Vespers on the seven days leading up to Christmas.
Peter Maxwell Davies once claimed that meeting the Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown, author of the words of One star, at last, ‘changed my whole existence’. Maxwell Davies abandoned London for the Orkneys in 1970, and on his first visit he came across Brown’s An Orkney Tapestry in a Stromness bookshop. Captivated by its ‘most wonderfully poetic evocation’ of the place, he stayed up all night to read it. By coincidence, poet and composer met the following day, and a close friendship developed that lasted until Brown’s death in 1996. One star, at last was written some years after the initial encounter—the score is marked ‘Basel, September 1984’—and it was premiered by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, as part of that year’s Service of Nine Lessons and Carols. Maxwell Davies’s response to Brown’s verse is chaste: he eschews obvious opportunities for word-painting, preferring to capture the atmosphere of Brown’s resonant words in poignant harmonies.
The seven canonical Advent Antiphons are sometimes called the ‘Great Os’, as all the texts begin with the acclamation ‘O’. Each of the antiphons apostrophises Christ: the three recorded here are addressed to Oriens, Rex gentium and Emmanuel—dayspring (or light of the east), King of the nations and Emmanuel (the Hebrew name that translates as ‘God be with us’). Taken together, and read backwards, the first letters of the seven antiphons’ principal nouns form an acrostic that spells out ‘ero cras’—Latin for ‘I shall be [with you] tomorrow’. When ‘O virgo virginum’ is added as an eighth antiphon, ‘ero cras’ is converted into ‘vero cras’ (truly tomorrow). On this recording, the words of O Dayspring, O King of the nations and O Emmanuel are sung to the traditional Gregorian chants.
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV645, is taken from a collection known as the ‘Schübler Chorale Preludes’ after the name of the publisher who issued them a year or so before Bach’s death in 1750. Five of the collection’s six pieces are known to be transcriptions of cantata movements that Bach composed some twenty years earlier, during his first decade as Thomaskantor. (The origin of the sixth is unclear.) ‘Wachet auf ’, sometimes translated as ‘Sleepers wake’, is based on the fourth movement of BWV140, an Advent cantata thought to date from 1731. In the cantata, the chorale melody was taken by the tenor voice (presumably a soloist), with the figurative upper melody assigned to tutti violins and violas. The organ version required little adjustment: the organist’s right hand takes over the upper-string line, while the left hand plays the chorale melody, and the orchestral bass is transferred to the pedals. Though the melody will be immediately recognised by anyone familiar with Bach’s music, the style of the movement was unusual for the early 1730s. The right-hand part—which seems to take its inspiration from the penultimate line of the chorale, ‘we all follow to the chamber of joy’ (Freudensaal)—is full of unexpected progressions. Repeated leaps from dissonance to dissonance, unusual in the high Baroque, are compounded by a disconcerting relationship between right-hand part and chorale melody. The phrase structures are largely independent, and it is almost as though Bach went out of his way to create a melody that ignores or even contradicts the chorale around which it is draped. Meanwhile, the pedal, with its repeated notes and simple rhythms, is almost rustic in effect. Many of the elements found here—largely periodic phrasing in the right hand, emotively charged leaps, and relatively simple harmonic functions—hint at the ‘empfindsam’ (expressive) idioms that became prevalent a decade or so later during the so-called preclassical period.
The poem Adam lay ybounden can be traced back to an early fifteenth-century manuscript held in the British Library. Though it is now a staple of Advent and Christmas seasons, the text appears not to have attracted much attention before the early twentieth century. Composers who set it include Benjamin Britten, John Ireland and Giles Swayne, whose version of Adam lay ybounden was written for the 2009 Advent carol service at St John’s. The most celebrated of the free-standing settings was composed by Boris Ord in 1957, shortly before the directorship of the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, passed from Ord to David Willcocks. Peter Warlock’s Adam lay ybounden was first published exactly a century ago, in 1923, as part of a group of five unison songs with piano accompaniment—a format possibly selected as a way of reconciling complex harmony with singability. It is not clear whether Adam lay ybounden, like Warlock’s more famous carol Balulalow, was originally intended for unison or solo singing. The form of Warlock’s setting might be described, once again, as modified strophic. However, each stanza is so short—the entire piece lasts little more than a minute—that the impression is one of gradual melodic mutation and of accrued harmonic riches. Warlock’s setting appears to have influenced Boris Ord’s 1957 version—so much so that Ord’s carol could almost be considered a reworking. The second phrases of the two settings are virtually identical, and both versions draw heavily on modal harmonies—unsurprising in the case of Warlock, who was very interested in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century music. In this setting, however, the line between early music and jazz is surprisingly porous.
Gottes Sohn ist kommen, BWV600, (or ‘Gott durch deine Güte’, to give Bach’s alternative title) is similar to ‘Herr Christ, der ein’ge Gottes Sohn’ in texture and scale. However, it is the first of the Orgel-Büchlein chorale preludes to include canonic writing. In this case, the chorale, stated in the top voice, is answered one bar later in the pedal. Perhaps to enable the canon to shine through, the other voices have distinctive and consistent profiles: the alto moves in continuous quavers, while the left hand, the real bass, has a stream of uninterrupted crotchets. Uniquely in the collection, Bach notes the stops to be used—‘Prinzipal 8 Fuß’ in the manuals and ‘Trompete 8 Fuß’ in the pedal. The word ‘canon’ suggests strict imitation. However, Bach takes liberties where slavish repetition would have created intolerable dissonance, and the attentive listener will detect several deviations, particularly in rhythm.
On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry is a nineteenth-century translation by Revd John Chandler of the Charles Coffin hymn used in Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Lo, the desert depths are stirr’d. The words are sung here to ‘Winchester New’, a tune that derives from a late seventeenth-century Hamburg publication. As so often, hymns that appear to be creations of the Anglican church reveal, on closer inspection, polyglot and polytemporal origins. On this recording, the last verse of the hymn features another descant by Christopher Robinson.
The second version of Adam lay ybounden on this CD was composed in 1980, towards the end of Philip Ledger’s tenure as Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge. If Boris Ord’s setting seems indebted to Peter Warlock, Ledger’s version builds in several respects on Ord’s. Both use minor keys with modal inflections, and the rhythms of the two composers’ principal melodies are similar. However, Ledger treats the last line of the text, ‘Deo gratias’, as a refrain, which appears at the end of each of the four stanzas. Paradoxically perhaps, this disruptive gesture heightens rather than undercuts the overall strophic effect.
John Gardner enjoyed a varied career as composer, conductor and teacher. He worked for a time at the Royal Opera House, and it is no surprise that his oeuvre includes four operas as well as many pieces of theatre music. He will be remembered for Tomorrow shall be my dancing day, one of the most popular carols of recent decades. A gallery carol was written a few years later, in 1970, and, as with the earlier piece, its effect depends largely on snappy syncopations, allied here to a certain jazzy swagger. Both works can be performed in different versions: Tomorrow shall be my dancing day features optional percussion, while A gallery carol is written in such a way that male voices can be omitted. (A glance at the dedication—‘To Neville Atkinson and the Choir of the Perse Girls’ School, Cambridge—helps explain this.) The carol is a setting of an anonymous eighteenth-century text in four stanzas that looks forward to Christmas – indeed, to Epiphany.
In 2001, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams published ‘A Reflection on Advent’ in a collection of essays titled Darkness Yielding. This title was intended to invoke the seasons of the church year from Advent to Easter—in effect, the entire span of Christ’s life on earth. However, the phrase takes on new meaning when applied to this sequence of Advent music from St John’s. The final part of Andrew Nethsingha’s Advent trilogy concludes not with John the Baptist crying in the desert but with three wise men bearing ‘myrrh, incense and gold’ for the new-born Christ. The darkness of winter has yielded to rejoicing.
Martin Ennis © 2023
Preparations for Advent 2021 were going well, but then several choristers had to isolate and I went down with Covid two days before the service. The choir performed with only ten choristers. An adult soprano was on standby, just in case, but she sang only a few phrases in the service. My exceptional Senior Organ Scholar, George Herbert, agreed to conduct at very short notice. I was sorry to miss the service, not least because that year-group had one of the two best sets of trebles of my 15 1/2 years at St John’s. However, lying in bed listening to my choir conducted by George live on the radio was one of the proudest and most moving moments of my career. In our recent album The Tree I wrote of the thrill of training the choir to the best of my ability in 2019 and then hearing it taken to a much higher level of artistry by my teacher, Christopher Robinson. It is lovely that Advent Live – Volume 3 can document a similar process from 2021; again I poured my heart and soul into the choir, and then I marvelled as a genius musician added many more layers of beauty. One time it was my teacher, the other time it was my pupil! I’ve had similar experiences with other organ scholars such as Glen Dempsey. Speaking of the next generation—in our 2020 broadcast it was wonderful to perform a piece written by one of our choristers, Harry L’Estrange.
Advent 2022 was an unexpectedly significant occasion for me, because it turned out to be the end of my time working at St John’s. I was proud that it was also the very first Advent Carol Service in which we had girls and women singing in the choir as well as boys and men. The Advent commission that year was Iain Farrington’s Nova Nova, recently released on our New Millennium album. The premiere of our 2020 commission by Cheryl Frances-Hoad had to be postponed until October 2021 because of the pandemic, but it features on this disc alongside the 2021 commission by Helen Grime.
Former King’s Director of Music Philip Ledger (with whom my late father played piano duets in Toad of Toad Hall in the 1950s!) died in November 2012. His setting of Advent Calendar was composed in memory of his great St John’s colleague, George Guest, who died in November 2002. It was moving to pay tribute to both men as we performed the piece in November 2022. The carol by Simon Preston, later to be one of my predecessors at Westminster Abbey, was included in our 2022 service a few months after the composer’s death. In my time as Organ Scholar at St John’s in the 1980s the choir often sang the exquisite carol Pan fo’r stormydd garwa’n curo. Coming exactly forty years after the first Advent broadcast, the performance in 2021 was given added atmosphere as a storm raged audibly outside the building. The text felt especially poignant at a time when many migrants were drowning whilst trying to reach our shores.
The acoustic of the Chapel at Advent varies from year to year, as does the sound of the choir itself. I am grateful to Dave Rowell and Matthew Bennett for their great skill in creating a consistent sound picture across the whole album. By the time this album is released it will nearly be time to enjoy Christopher Gray’s first Advent Carol Service broadcast, as the next chapter of this wonderful choir’s history is beginning. May this great tradition continue for many many decades to come!
Is there something about being human which makes the purple seasons of the Church year the ones that most grip us? Those seasons are Lent and Advent. Both, in their different ways, are periods of preparation for, or anticipation of, the two great festive seasons—Easter and Christmas, respectively. Nevertheless, however seriously we try to whoop it up for those festal days, the apparently-introspective character of Lent and Advent seems to grab Christian believers more potently. It may be part of the same psychology which relishes the hell scenes in Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ more than the scenes in heaven.
At its best—i.e. when this is not a symptom of some inner disease or neurosis—this speaks to a kind of spiritual seriousness and candour which can be fruitful and healthy (and realistic). Interestingly, many find Lent a lot easier to invest in than Advent, even though their culminating festivals are not matchingly celebrated. For most Christians, Christmas is much more straightforwardly a time to party than Easter.
In terms of their traditional practices and spiritual focus, Lent and Advent have distinctly different perspectives. Put at its simplest, we look inwards in Lent and outwards in Advent (only the looking-forward is common to both). In Lent, apart from the best-known and often-trivialised practice of giving something up, we dare to look inside ourselves, in a way which recalls what Jesus was doing during his forty-day self-sequestering in the wilderness of Judea.
In Advent, the traditional themes relate powerfully to our journeys of faith, but not by looking inwards. Those themes are death, judgment, heaven and hell: themes of ultimate seriousness. Of course contemplating them is an activity of our inner lives, with massive consequences both for our self-knowledge and our ethical intentions. But you could say that if Lent is about our behaving, Advent is more about our believing.
In fact the season is almost over-supplied with themes and strands. As well as those four ultimate things, there are the figures in the key bible narratives: Mary and John the Baptist. She will deliver the Incarnation; he will prepare the way. There are the prophecies of the Old Testament to revisit, most especially those of Isaiah. There are even modern quartets of themes, for those perhaps too squeamish to face the traditional one: hope, love, joy, peace, for example.
All these elements of the season of Advent find their expression in a rich body of music. And whichever of them you settle on, all of them are ways into the mystery and wonder of Christmas itself: that celebration of our belief that God thought being human was so amazing, he became one.
Andrew Hammond © 2023
Chaplain, St John’s College