A Service of Lessons and Carols for Advent
- Thomas Ravenscroft - "Remember O Thou Man"
- Peter Warlock “Adam lay ybounden”
Tomas Luis de Victoria O magnum mysterium
John Gardner “Tomorrow shall be my dancing day”
Peter Niedmann: Unto Us a Child is Born *
Arnold Bax “I sing of a maiden”
Hans Leo Hassler Verbum caro factum est
* World premiere of a new carol especially commissioned by The Anglican Singers
Almost lost in the frantic round of pre-holiday busyness, the spirit of Advent calls us to pause, that we may enter a deeper kind of anticipation as we listen for the ancient prophecy about to be revealed and fulfilled in the birth of the Christ Child.
Across the world, Christians celebrate the season of Advent with scriptural readings, prayers, hymns and carols. Advent (from the Latin adventus meaning “coming” or “approach”) marks the beginning of the new Church year and is a time of preparation and deliberate focus.
On Christmas Eve, 1918, just weeks after the conclusion of World War I, A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was established in England by Kings College, Cambridge University, as an offering to the city of Cambridge. It is a custom that has continued for almost a century. Fifteen years ago, the Anglican Singers adapted that venerable tradition to A Service of Seven Lessons and Carols for Advent, which it dedicates annually to the City of New London.
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Like his musical descendant Ralph Vaughan Williams, Thomas Ravenscroft (c. 1582-1635) was an avid collector of folk music, which he organized into three volumes. In addition, he was a musical theorist and penned two treatises on that subject. “Remember, O thou man” is a hymn calling man to repentance for Adam’s sin, arranged in a simple but familiar and popular setting.
British composer Philip Arnold Heseltine (1894-1930) went by the pen name Peter Warlock (the last name reflecting his interest in the occult). Perhaps the most formative association of young Heseltine was with the English composer Frederick Delius. It was Delius who helped Heseltine find his musical métier. Tragically, beset by depression and anxiety Heseltine died suddenly in December of 1930 and the circumstances of his death have remained a mystery. His arrangement of “Adam lay ybounden” (a medieval text of unknown origin), though not as recognizable as that of his contemporary, Boris Ord, has a buoyancy and charm all its own.
O magnum mysterium is a breathtaking motet of Spain’s most acclaimed Renaissance composer, Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611). His style is consonant with that of his Italian contemporary, Giovanni da Palestrina, both exemplars of the Counter-Reformation stand taken by many composers of church music. O magnum mysterium is a masterpiece of polyphony, whose quarter-note arpeggios intersperse dazzling whole and half-note suspensions until the conclusion, when the piece becomes a stately galliard.
Peter Niedmann (b. 1960), a native of New London, is well known to those Anglican Singers who are members of the Chorus of Westerly in Rhode Island, where he sang for many years. He and Director Kevin Jones are acquainted through Christ Church Cathedral in Hartford, as well as through their service on the executive board of the American Guild of Organists. Currently music director and organist at Church of Christ, Congregational, in Newington, Mr. Niedmann is also an organist and composer of growing acclaim, whose awards and accomplishments are too many to cite here.
The Anglican Singers are honored to premiere this evening as a commissioned piece Peter Niedmann’s expressive tone-poem, “Unto Us a Child is Born.” Portions of the macaronic text are taken from a Christmas poem composed by William Dunbar (c. 1460-c. 1520), one of Scotland’s greatest poets, whose works figure large in that country’s recent literary renaissance. Its mystical verses also foreshadow the compositions of one of the preeminent metaphysical poets of the next century, Richard Crashaw (1613-1649).
“Unto Us a Child is Born” is structured in a modified sonata form. The opening passages introduce Christ as the fruit of the untouched rose, Mary – and perhaps also allude to “rosemary,” symbolizing remembrance. He is the Son whose brilliance far outshines nature’s sun (helios/Phoebus). The second section – the most carol-like part of the piece – is a lyrical paean to natural and divine rebirth, suggestive of sensuous passages from the “Song of Songs.” The conclusion returns to the primary melodic motif – now as a jubilant hymn to the glory and miracle of Christ’s Incarnation, culminating in the exultant refrain, Puer natus est.
John Gardner (1917-2011), born in Manchester, England, came from a family of amateur composers. Sadly, soon after his birth he lost his father when the elder Gardner was killed in the final months of the Great War. John Gardner’s musical career took off after the conclusion of World War II. Among various prominent positions, he found time to compose prolifically, and his works include symphonies, concertos, operas and cantatas. He may be best remembered, however, for his playful, frisky arrangement of the medieval carol, “Tomorrow shall be my dancing day” – Christ’s love song to the world he had come to save.
Greatly influenced by Irish literature, notably the poetry of W.B. Yeats, English composer and poet Arnold Bax (1883-1953) blended elements of romanticism and impressionism in his works. Along with Yeats, he particularly advocated for the Irish Literary Revival of the early twentieth century.
In contrast to the more familiar version of “I sing of a maiden,” arranged by Patrick Hadley to an anonymous 14th-century poem, Arnold Bax’s setting is bolder, earthier, more structurally complex than Hadley’s luminous, ecstatic treble duet. But the quicksilver energy of Bax’s piece, interspersed with moments of unexpected tenderness, is infectious, and the Singers are pleased to be performing it for the first time.
A forerunner of the Baroque period in northern Europe, German composer Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612) introduced this novel Italian style to his native land – a style which included dance songs, the villanelle, and the canzonet. A Protestant, he nevertheless wrote a large body of music for the Catholic rite, including Verbum caro factum est. This is a motet in six parts of declarative intensity, whose precise chordal phrases embody the greatest proclamation of the New Testament, John 1:14: “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory . . .”
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As the Anglican Singers bid a fond farewell to Director Kevin Jones as he prepares to assume his new position in Columbus, Ohio, they and he wish to extend yearly greetings and thanks to their “home church,” the parish of St. James, and to the City of New London to whom they dedicate this service. It is their hope that all in attendance – of whatever religious or non-religious persuasion – will find in the experience the reflective yet joyous spirit of the season.
Anne Carr Bingham