December 9, 2007 - 5:00 PM †
A Service of Lessons and Carols for Advent
Drop down, ye heavens, Richard Lloyd
Canite tuba, Guerrero
Jesus Christ the Apple Tree, Poston
A tender shoot, Goldschmidt
Never weather-beaten sail, Wood
This is the record of John, Gibbons
I sing of a maiden, Hadley
Sussex Carol, traditional, arr. Willcocks
Defying the hectic pace of this time of the year, the true spirit of Advent calls us to quietness and reflection: to listen intently for the summons of John the messenger fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy as “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.”
The word “Advent” derives from the Latin adventus – “coming” – and as such represents both the approaching incarnation of Jesus Christ and the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth.
Around the world, Christians celebrate the seasons of Advent and Christmas with scriptural readings, prayers, hymns, and carols. The origin of the singing of carols is obscure. Possibly the word derives from the ancient Greek koros, a circle of dancers and singers whose commentary complemented the dialogue of Attic drama. Whatever their provenance, carols were adopted (reluctantly, because of their pagan history) by the Church during the Middle Ages. Like mystery plays and the artwork of medieval churches and cathedrals, carols narrated to a largely illiterate populace the story of creation, fall, incarnation, and redemption.
“A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” was established in England on Christmas Eve, 1918, one month after the Armistice ending World War I, with Cambridge University’s King’s College choir; and it has continued – internationally broadcast almost without interruption – since that time. Its pioneering broadcaster, the composer Sir Walford Davies, succinctly described this service as being “at once the most transcendent and the most homely affair.” Following King’s custom of offering its program to the City of Cambridge, the Anglican Singers each year dedicate their service to the City of New London. Lessons and Carols at St. James is held in Advent, and its liturgy and music are reflective of this season of anticipation.
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Following the Bidding Prayer is the mystical tone-poem, “Drop down ye heavens,” arranged by the British composer Richard Lloyd (b. 1933), also organist and master of choristers at Durham Cathedral, with whom Anglican Singer Jill Foster trained. This piece defies categorization. Neither a carol nor a hymn, it resonates with the ambiance of a monastic chant. Throughout, two treble voices “from afar” sing an evocative refrain (“Drop down ye heavens from above, and let the skies pour forth righteousness”) in counterpoint to a homophonic tenor reciting line and four-part verses.
The vivacious and onomatopoeic “Canite Tuba,” composed by Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599), is based on texts taken from the Books of Joel and Isaiah. Musically and textually, this piece unambiguously proclaims the Advent message: “The day of God now is near at hand . . . Come then O Lord and do not tarry!”
Guerrero was arguably Renaissance Spain’s most illustrious composer. It was his and his country’s misfortune that he died, while still artistically active, on November 8th, 1599, of the plague that was raging through his native Seville. He is interred in the chapel of Nuestra Senora de la Antigua.
Elizabeth Poston (1905-1987) was a prolific English composer, whose particular interest was folk music. She collaborated with fellow musicians Peter Warlock and Ralph Vaughan Williams, as well as with the poet Dylan Thomas and the Christian apologist C.S. Lewis. The expressive motet “Jesus Christ the apple tree” is a kind of folk carol. The anonymous poem to which it is set has a lyrical charm of its own; in Poston’s arrangement, it is made magical.
The eminent Irish composer Charles Wood (1866-1926) arranged as a four-part anthem “Never weather-beaten sail,” a vividly textured poem of Thomas Campion, who wrote both poetry and music during the reigns of Elizabeth I and her successor, James I. It is generally agreed that, of the great body of his work, Campion’s devotional poetry is the most inspired.
In “Never weather-beaten sail,” Campion uses as a metaphor for the soul’s journey a storm-tossed ship and her weary sailors. As they long for port and anchor, so does man’s restless “sprite” seek harbor from life’s tempestuous seas. In transforming Campion’s poem from Renaissance verse to Victorian song, Wood preserves the emotional depth of the original without resorting to the sentimentality that epitomizes so much of the music of the Victorian period.
Orlando Gibbons’ (1583-1625) “This is the record of John” is a mini-oratorio (a popular precursor to opera), in which the solo narrator presents – and the chorus echoes – a dialogue between the Jewish priests and Levites and John the Baptist. John declares that he is neither the Messiah nor the reincarnation of the prophets, but “the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness: make straight the way of the Lord.”
The German composer and concert pianist Otto Goldschmidt (1829-1907) is perhaps as remembered for whom he married as he is for his artistic achievements. His wife was the nineteenth-century diva Jenny Lind, popularly known as “the Swedish nightingale.” They met while both were on tour in America, and were married in an elegant Louisburg Square mansion on Boston’s fashionable Beacon Hill. Following their wedding, the couple made their home in England.
Goldschmidt’s rhapsodic “A Tender Shoot” develops with poignant beauty the movement from darkness to light, so emblematic of the Advent season.
“I sing of a maiden,” for treble and alto voices, is one of the loveliest of motets, contemporary or traditional: tender and reverent yet sensuous and tactile, depicting the Incarnation almost as a love story.
Patrick Hadley (1899-1973) spent much of his life in pain from a World War I wound which resulted in the amputation of a leg; yet his disability did not discourage him from pursuing his musical career and studying and associating with the musical giants of his day: Charles Wood, R.V. Williams, William Walton and Herbert Howells. “Paddy” Hadley is not as well known as his more famous contemporaries. Indeed, although he wrote in various genres, he is principally remembered for only two songs, “I sing of a maiden” and the lush “My beloved spake.”
The chorus’ final piece is the sprightly “Sussex Carol,” beloved of cathedral and collegiate choirs and famously set by that master choral arranger, David Willcocks.
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Simon Holt and the Anglican Singers wish to extend their greetings and thanks to the Parish of St. James and the City of New London, to whom they dedicate the service of Advent Lessons and Carols. In addition, it is their hope that all in attendance – of whatever religious or non-religious persuasion – will take from the experience the quiet, anticipatory joy of the season.
Anne Carr Bingham