Advent & Christmas

Lauri Jõeleht – Cantus angelorum

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Happy Christmas to you all!

To conclude my week-long sojourn into the start of winter, i’m returning to the Estonian trio Una Corda – comprising harp, harpsichord and kannel – for a performance of a piece that i think is perfect for the festive season and especially Christmas Day itself: Cantus angelorum by Lauri Jõeleht. The title, which translates as ‘song of the angels’, directly relates to the choice of these instruments, as Jõeleht explains in his brief programme note:

A group of theologians and philosophers have contemplated the nature of sound produced by various musical instruments and have concluded that the sound of plucked string instruments might be the closest to those that one hears in the heavenly spheres.

The music primarily consists of an interplay between melodic and chordal ideas – the former highly conversational, driving the piece on; the latter acting as gathering points when the dialogue pauses and the trio is more rhythmically united. However, a sense of unity actually persists throughout everything that happens; the nature of the contrapuntal sections is such that it’s as if the three players were finishing each other’s sentences, or passing a train of thought between themselves, conveying the impression that they’re all essentially communicating the same thing. Read more

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Karen Tanaka – Sleep Deeply

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While i can take or leave most Christmas music, i have a real soft spot for lullaby works setting texts that either allude to or directly address the sleeping infant Jesus. It’s a nice counterpoint to the shouty-shouty zeal that permeates a great deal of festive musical fare, but more importantly it invites composers to explore the most intimate, dare i say ‘snuggly’ side of their musical language. So the next piece in my week-long journey into winter is a lullaby composed last year by Japanese composer Karen Tanaka. Though not actually a Christmas carol at all, to my mind it fits perfectly in this context.

Setting words by Irish musician Michael McGlynn, Tanaka approaches the text in two ways. The verses take the form of personal reflections about the nature of Christ and the broader spiritual relationship the writer has – from birth to death – with what the figure of Christ represents. Consequently, these verses convey a nice mixture of introspection, contemplation and wonder, Tanaka’s melody having a simple, folk-like quality, surrounded by warm, balmy harmonies. The refrain is treated much more intimately, the words here becoming a lullaby sung to oneself, liltingly and soothingly inviting an immersive sleep in an atmosphere of safety and security. Throughout Sleep Deeply, a female soloist takes precedence in the verses with the accompaniment kept light, occasionally doubling or reiterating key phrases. But the ending is really special, Tanaka allowing the choir to elaborate just a little bit, finally repeating the word “softly” again and again as if savouring it on the lips and tongue, lingering over its sound and its meaning. And the unresolved final chord – which nonetheless feels final – couldn’t be more right. Read more

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Howard Skempton – The Wells Service

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The pair of canticles used in a traditional Anglican choral evensong service effectively straddle the Christmas story, the Magnificat pointing towards it, the Nunc dimittis referring back to it. Their use in this service means that there must be literally thousands of settings of them, though, no doubt fuelled by the overtly conservative tone endemic to both that service in particular, and to contemporary religious music in general, the number of these setttings that are interesting, imaginative and individual is significantly smaller, the exception rather than the rule. One such exception is Howard Skempton‘s The Wells Service, composed in 2011.

i think it’s fair to say that Skempton’s approach to the texts is, in the best sense, something of an acquired taste. Not because it’s radical or wilful or arch or just weird, but because – as with so much of his output – it manages to combine great simplicity with a subtle kind of aloof calculation that makes it sound disarmingly strange. The Mag and Nunc are essentially two parts of a single, singular expressive act, grounded in a basic rhythmic language of crotchets and minims that Skempton uses to give the phrases a gentle elasticity. It’s in the way these phrases progress that the strangeness is most apparent. Skempton doesn’t particularly treat each canticle as a broad sweeping narrative but rather as a sequence of individual sentences that become connected through the unity of their language. It’s almost entirely syllabic, no repetitions or melismas, giving the canticles something of the air of chant; they don’t so much sound sung as recited. Read more

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Tõnis Kaumann – Ave maris stella (World Première)

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During my week-long journey into winter, i’ll be veering back and forth between sacred and secular music. When i first heard Tõnis Kaumann‘s setting of the Marian hymn Ave maris stella at the World Music Days earlier this year, i have to admit it didn’t make a huge impression on me. Then, i regarded it as over-simplistic, a bit like an exercise, but i’ve since spent quite a bit more time with the piece and have come to appreciate it a great deal more. Kaumann uses two melodies, the hymn’s original plainsong and, more often, another melismatic melody that may or may not be based on a different bit of plainsong (if it is, i’ve not yet been able to find it in my Liber Usualis), mirroring its scalic contour.

The structure of the work uses the stanzas of the text as the basis for a sequence of shifting permutations of a small number of parameters:

  1. tonic: G or D;
  2. melody: plainsong or melisma;
  3. voices: solo voice, women/men, tutti;
  4. accompaniment: single-note drone, perfect fifth drone (both primarily sung by the men), or unaccompanied.

Read more

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London Choral Sinfonia – O Holy Night

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The solstice and the season of winter are fast approaching, so over the next week as we transition through i’m going to explore music that taps into some of the aspects of this remarkable time of year. By that i don’t just mean ‘Christmas music’ – which, let’s face it, is rarely something to get excited about these days – but also works that speak of cold, darkness and the ever more encroaching presence of the night.

To start, though, i am turning to music celebrating Christmas, in order to flag up a new disc called O Holy Night performed by London Choral Sinfonia. From the perspective of contemporary music, Christmas is seriously troublesome in the way it so often leads composers down over-trodden paths towards tradition, banality and cliché. It’s refreshing, then, to find a sprinkling of contemporary pieces on this disc that offer a little more than that. To be clear, O Holy Night doesn’t just feature contemporary music – the album is clearly designed to emulate a conventional Anglican carol service, including a number of exceedingly well-worn hymns and carols that act as structural points of familiarity and repose in between some of the more adventurous music. There’s not a great deal to say about these except that the choir, conducted by Michael Waldron, gives them all the most lusty treatment, at times singing with such overblown heartiness you can’t help wondering if copious quaffings of mulled wine took place before rather than after the performance. Read more

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Mixtape #52 : Christmas

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For the last of my 2018 monthly mixtapes, which i’ve been doing throughout 5:4‘s 10th anniversary year, i’ve gone seasonal and turned to the theme of Christmas. However, while that theme permeates all the choices i’ve made, the result is quite far from the kind of conventional upbeat playlist we’re using to hearing this time of year. i haven’t in any way set out be deliberately contrary, still less put something together that’s sarcastic or ‘alt Christmas’, but i’m conscious that this is a distinctly subdued and contemplative mixtape (something i’ve reflected in the cover artwork). Like compositions, mixtapes are very personal things, and i guess this collection of music is just what i particularly wanted to be spending time with at the moment.

No need for a breakdown of what’s included this time, i think the music pretty much speaks for itself. 60 minutes of mysterious, melancholic and magical music to provide perhaps a darker, deeper hue for the festive season. Here’s the tracklisting in full, together with links to obtain the music. As usual, the mixtape can be downloaded using the link below or streamed via MixCloud. Read more

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Kantos Chamber Choir – The Silver Stars at Play

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‘Tis the season and all that, and while the majority of festive new releases are concerned with reheating the usual fare, there’s one new Christmas disc that i particularly want to single out. Called The Silver Stars at Play, it’s a collection of 23 contemporary Christmas carol settings, performed by the Manchester-based Kantos Chamber Choir, conducted by the choir’s founder Elspeth Slorach. i won’t go into my usual level of depth about the disc due to the fact it includes a setting of my own, and while i’ve long regarded objectivity and impartiality to be pretty mythical and irrelevant, for obvious personal reasons i would of course love everyone to go out and support the disc by buying as many copies as possible.

That being said, while music of this ilk is inevitably going to be a somewhat polarising affair, what makes this collection so worthwhile is its general avoidance of the kind of mawkish sentimentality and blank enthusiasm that one encounters in far, far too much Christmas music. In place of the former are broad, rich harmonic palettes, tonal but occasionally wayward. Andrew Cusworth‘s Of a rose synge we is the most sumptuous example of this, as well as being the most externally calm, though everything about it suggests inner joy and ecstasy. Matthew Coleridge‘s short but expansive and beautiful Balulalow is only marginally less lush, flirting with (but, mercifully, not embracing) the kind of harmonic writing redolent of US choral composers. John Turner‘s brave attempt at a new setting of Away in a Manger (retaining the established rhythmic scheme) is simpler, as is Peter Parshall‘s That yongë child, to gorgeously tranquil effect, while another lullaby, Mark Hewitt‘s Silent Night, rather nonchalantly sets out as though it’s nothing to do with the original carol before a number of dropped hints lead to a thorough reworking of it, its harmonies and rhythms both wonderfully convoluted. My own Infant holy, Infant lowly stays true to the original Polish melody (though using the correct original descending line as opposed to the misprinted version that one usually hears), with new harmonies designed to gently emphasise elements of the text.

However, it’s not all blissed-out devotions and adoration. Read more

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Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols (King’s College, Cambridge): Richard Causton – The Flight (World Première)

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A couple of days ago, amidst the predictable bucketload of Rutter, Willcocks, Ord, Goldschmidt, Ledger, Darke and so on, the Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols from King’s College, Cambridge produced something singular, rather marvellous and downright challenging, in the form of the newly-commissioned carol from Richard Causton (who is also Fellow in Music and Reader in Composition at the University). Causton’s typically thoughtful response reached far out beyond the narrow, preserved-in-aspic confines of the rest of the service, striking a contextually as well as musically dissonant chord by being informed at its core by the upheavals facing contemporary society:

Earlier this year I spent a great deal of time in libraries looking for a suitable text for my new carol and although I unearthed many old and very beautiful poems about the Nativity, I struggled to find one that I really wanted to set to music. I had a growing sense that at this precise moment it is perverse to be writing a piece about a child born in poverty, away from home and forced to flee with his parents, without in any way paying reference to the appalling refugee crisis that is unfolding.

I phoned my friend, the poet George Szirtes to ask if he might be prepared to write me a poem which could encompass some of these ideas. By complete coincidence, the very day I phoned he was in Hungary, at Budapest railway station talking to the refugees who were stuck there while trying to leave the country. Within days, George sent me a poem that is at once beautiful, eloquent and hard-hitting.

Read more

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Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols: Carl Rütti – In this season of the year (World Première); Harrison Birtwistle – O my deare hert, young Jesu sweit

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This year’s new carol commissioned by King’s College, Cambridge for the Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols was written by Swiss composer Carl Rütti. There’s not really a great deal one can say about it; Rütti was always going to deliver something cosy and comfortable, which for that reason alone perhaps makes him a fitting choice for what is inevitably a cosy and comfortable occasion. His piece, In this season of the year, sets a Latin text celebrating the virtues of Christ while simultaneously giving regular shout-outs to the Virgin Mary. Rütti uses a lilting melody with a simple rhythmic idea as the basis for a series of variations that gradually get more elated as the verses progress. Not exactly adventurous, but hardly offensive, its most charming moment comes right at the very end, when Rütti discreetly places the sound of a bird in the organ, a “short tribute” to a soprano in the choir Cambridge Voices who died at the same time Rütti completed the piece.

The only other contemporary offerings were homages to the two grand old dukes of new music, Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle, both of whom turned 80 this year.  Read more

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Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols (King’s College, Cambridge): Carl Vine – Ring out, wild bells (World Première)

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This year’s Festival of Nine Lessons andamp; Carols from King’s College, Cambridge, had been prefaced by two newspaper articles, in the Guardian andamp; the Telegraph, both of which went to some lengths to emphasise choir director Stephen Cleobury’s determination to include new music in the service. It was therefore very disappointing that, while the tally usually runs to at least three, this year’s service featured just a single example of recognisably contemporary music: the newly commissioned carol, which for this occasion was composed by Carl Vine.

Vine chose Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem Ring out, wild bells as his text, matching its string of adjurations with a simple but rich tonal language, pulling the choir through a never-ending series of smooth harmonic contortions. Vine’s music feels intimately well-matched to the words, his setting thereby becoming a meaningful vehicle for reflection, particularly when the piece veers towards more negative emphases. 2012 has seen more than its fair share of tragedy andamp; loss, andamp; confronted by exhortations such as “Ring out the grief that saps the mind” andamp; “Ring out a slowly dying cause” (it’s tempting to hear these lines as “wring out”), one can only sigh andamp; agree wholeheartedly with their sentiments. Read more

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Advent Carol Service (St John’s College, Cambridge): James Long, Matthew Martin, William Whitehead

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Last week’s Advent Carol Service from St John’s College, Cambridge, once again included several pieces of more recent music. The newly commissioned piece came from a composer i’ve not heard of, James Long. Long’s anthem, Vigilate, weaves together words from the Biblical books of Mark and Revelation to arrive at a text that, in a nutshell, backs up its titular imperative—“watch!”—with an emphatic “or else”. The music is fairly standard-issue new choral music, yet it’s not without some telling moments; the opening and closing stanzas perhaps punch hardest, and while Long’s use of snatches of Latin to echo the English is odd, the appearance of “gallicantu” (“cock’s crow”) is nicely judged. The middle stanzas lose their way somewhat, getting bogged down in the words, but the conclusion of “and every eye shall see him, And they also which pierced him”, where the men’s voices are abruptly silenced to leave just the trebles, is very striking. Read more

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Tansy Davies – Christmas Eve (World Première)

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The highlight of this year’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge was the commissioned carol, composed by Tansy Davies, setting Christina Rossetti’s poem Christmas Eve. Considering Tansy’s previous output, which consists largely of hard-edged, punchy instrumental works, it was hard to know quite what to expect. On the one hand, Christmas Eve is a definite stylistic departure, but on the other, it’s a seriously beguiling one. In parallel with the text, the piece blows hot and cold through the opening stanza, exploring some intriguing and paradoxical contrasts: “Christmas hath a darkness/Brighter than the blazing noon”. In the first line of each phrase, Tansy establishes a series of winding, independent strands, lingering over the words (finally – a composer unafraid to repeat whole lines of text!); these strands are then pulled together, creating some marvellous chords, before the choir erupts with the answering line. Read more

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Messiaen on Speed (or Dieu parmi nous – what not to do)

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Being Christmas Day, organists up and down the land will be putting Messiaen‘s Dieu parmi nous through its paces. In the UK, it’s become practically as ubiquitous as Handel’s Messiah, so with the wonderful and timeless “Messiah on Crack” in mind, i offer you what we might perhaps call “Messiaen on Speed”.

At the 2001 Proms, Wayne Marshall gave an organ recital that included the last two movements of La Nativité. Whether Marshall was drunk, over-excited, showing off, taking the piss, eager to get home early, or some wild combination of all the above i have no idea, but the result rather boggles the mind. Marshall takes most of the music at a tempo so fast as to be way beyond ridiculous, his fingers literally spilling over the keys—wrong notes a go-go—sounding like an organ transcription of one of Conlon Nancarrow’s more frantic studies. Inevitably, all the detail of Messiaen’s material is completely lost, and the closing toccata simply has to be heard to be believed. Marshall turns Messiaen’s coruscating hymn of joy into a excruciating but hilarious exercise in meaningless velocity. Oh, and the organ’s out of tune too.

HAPPY CHRISTMAS!

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Seasonal favourites: Morten Lauridsen – O magnum mysterium

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The last of my seasonal favourites uses one of the oldest texts heard at Christmas. ‘O magnum mysterium’ has been used as a chant on Christmas morning for well over a millennium, and may date from as far back as the 6th century. As so many Christmas-related texts do, it explores the immense contrast of sacred and secular, here between the great mystery of God born as a human being and the fact that He lies in a manger, watched around by animals—the profound and the prosaic, cheek by jowl. Throughout the last 500 years, many composers have been drawn to this text—the settings by Palestrina, Victoria and Poulenc are among the most well-known—but the setting by Morten Lauridsen, composed in 1994, has become not only the most celebrated in recent times, but also one of the most-performed contemporary Christmas pieces of the last two decades. One doesn’t need to listen to much of Lauridsen’s music to realise that he has a decidedly single-minded approach to composition. Lauridsen has, it seems, little time or interest in the drama and dissonance of life, opting instead for untroubled subject matter and an indefatigably tonal palette. Heard in large quantities, i find Lauridsen’s music to be both stifling and disingenuous; but taken in small doses, as in O magnum mysterium, there’s much that rings true, much to celebrate. Read more

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Seasonal favourites: Jan Sandström – Det är en ros utsprungen

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One of the composers most strongly associated with this time of year is Michael Praetorius. His music dates from the early 17th century, and he is particularly well-known for his prolific treatments of Protestant hymns and songs. He harmonised numerous Christmas carols too, and there’s a kind of bold swagger to Praetorius’ approach that has no doubt helped to keep his music so beloved and oft-performed down the centuries. Composers have frequently arranged Praetorius’ music, and my fifth seasonal favourite is an impressive reimagining of one of the carols most associated with Praetorius, Es ist ein Ros entsprungen.

Swedish composer Jan Sandström will perhaps forever be known best for his wild and wonderful Motorbike Concerto, but his reworking of Praetorius’ material, known by its Swedish name Det är en ros utsprungen, is no less impressive. Composed in 1990, Sandström divides the singers into two choirs and then sets to work, seemingly stretching the original to infinity. Surrounded by voices that are static, Praetorius’ chords steadily make progress through what quickly becomes a vast ambient soup, a mystical cloud of notes hovering at the boundary between familiarity and strangeness. i wonder whether Sandström was influenced by the resurgence of ambient music that began in 1990, but regardless, the soundworld of his setting remains current, even prescient (today, bedroom composers would simply put Praetorius’ original through sound-stretching software for not dissimilar results). In such a highly immersive and intense atmosphere as this, the temptation is to linger, but Sandström bravely restricts himself to just one of the carol’s three verses; admittedly, its four-minute duration never feels enough, but each one of those minutes restores a badly-needed sense of wonder back to Christmas choral music. Read more

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Seasonal favourites: Kenneth Leighton – Lully, lulla, Thou little tiny child

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As the text in Paul Edwards’ No Small Wonder intimates, there’s more to the Christmas story than just stables, angels and presents, and perhaps the best-known carol to tap into the dark side of the narrative is “Lully, lulla, Thou little tiny child”, often referred to by its nickname, the Coventry Carol. It originates in the city’s renowned mystery plays, from the section that would have been performed on the feast of Corpus Christi by its sartorial tradespeople. The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors focused on one of the New Testament’s blackest episodes, the so-called Massacre of the Innocents, when the ruler of Judea, Herod, ordered the execution of all male infants in Bethlehem, with the aim of killing the child claimed by the Magi to be the prophesied ‘King of the Jews’. This is the ghastly subject of my fourth seasonal favourite. Read more

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Seasonal favourites: Paul Edwards – No Small Wonder

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It’s a curious and rather sad phenomenon that the majority of carols being composed in recent times don’t really have much to do with congregations. For the most part, composers these days write for the choir rather than the flock, but i’m sure that many of the most popular new carols attain their popularity in part due to how ‘singable’ they seem to listeners. That can’t always be true, of course; Judith Weir’s piece needs a choir (and a good one), but Peter Warlock’s exquisite melody would be perfectly singable by the average singer, and that’s also the case in my third seasonal favourite.

Composed in 1983, Paul Edwards‘ carol No Small Wonder has become well-known over the years, and is heard regularly today in more forward-thinking Christmas services and concerts. Like the Peter Warlock i wrote about yesterday, Edwards’ setting is focused on its melody, which is both restrained and straightforward, using simple repetitions through its first four bars, not doing anything dramatic. But again like the Warlock, it’s in the conclusion of the melody that Edwards allows himself to be more adventurous. Beginning low, an ascending sequence leads to the titular refrain, the simplicity of the tune countered by highly chromatic harmonies in the organ. The opening verse is given just to the sopranos, but the second is for the full choir unaccompanied, and Edwards cranks the chromaticism of this closing chord sequence a notch further; as the text (by Paul Wigmore) has at this point veered into darker territory—”but God gives his life on a cross”—it’s both effective and very striking. The mood brightens in the final verse, the choir beginning in unison, the organ building to a forte climax, but the text casts another shadow on the light; “and all to redeem my poor heart” sings the choir, and Edwards in response pushes this chord progression further, made more poignant by the organ once again dropping out. Despite starting relatively brightly, the sudden major key of the coda quickly solemnifies to a minor shade, providing a fittingly haunting end to what is a beautiful but bittersweet carol. Read more

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Seasonal favourites: Peter Warlock (arr. Andrew Carter) – Lullaby my Jesus

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The second of my seasonal favourites is an arrangement. Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite is a somewhat humdrum affair, but the fifth movement, ‘Pieds-en-l’air’ (the melody of which began life in a 16th-century book of Renaissance dances), stands out for the quality of its high lyricism. Some years ago, composer Andrew Carter made this music the vehicle for a delicate Christmas text of his own devising:

Lullaby my Jesus, lullaby my king,
Lullaby my lording whom I sweetly sing.
Slumber softly, slumber on your mother’s arm;
She will rock you, she will keep you safe from harm.

Lullaby my Jesus, lullaby my son.
Lullaby my child in whom God’s will is done.
Be at peace, soft dreams beguile you as you lie;
I will rock you, I will sing a lullaby.

Read more

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Seasonal favourites: Judith Weir – Illuminare, Jerusalem

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Despite being a time of year deeply entrenched in tradition (and not necessarily the worse for it), composers do from time to time bring a flash of innovation to Christmas. So, in the week leading up to the day itself, i’m going to explore a few of my seasonal favourites.

The first is Judith Weir‘s short carol Illuminare, Jerusalem, which dates from 1985. It was commissioned by King’s College, Cambridge, for their annual service of Nine Lessons and Carols, and has remained a regular item in their repertoire. The work combines two of Weir’s strongest qualities, simplicity and succinctness, taking as its subject a joyous mediæval Scottish text exhorting Jerusalem to be—in every sense—illuminated by what is taking place above and around it. Anyone familiar with the language of mystery plays will recognise something similar here, and Weir emphasises the quirky contours of the text in her music. The three verses are distributed to different sections of the choir; the opening verse, announcing both star and angels, is given to the trebles; the closing verse, detailing the supplanting of Herod by the more “richtous king” falls to the men alone. They’re combined in the central verse that delightfully describes the Magi as “Thre kingis of strenge regionis to thee ar cumin with lusty rout”—i doubt Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar have ever been depicted quite like that before. Each of these verses follows a similar pattern, a triplet-laden melody that begins low and gradually rises to a climax; but what follows is a stroke of genius. The refrain “Illuminare Jerusalem” is sung softly but pointedly, the second word drawn out, but the first delivered staccato and momentarily underpinned by deep organ pedal notes. It’s a totally unexpected way to set such a word, but it’s a compositional triumph, lending a weird and unsettling numinosity to the refrain, perfectly capturing the sentiments its ancient words are seeking to convey. Read more

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Jonathan Harvey – The Annunciation (World Première)

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Today is the First Sunday of Advent, and with it comes the first carol service of the new Church year, once again from St John’s College, Cambridge.

This year’s newly-commissioned carol came from Jonathan Harvey, who explored the Annunciation through words by the Orcadian poet Edwin Muir. It’s a stunning text, and Harvey clothes it in an emphatically melodic music, passing it between solo voices, creating an intimate effect. Read more

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