Ledger Advent Calendar
Gibbons This is the record of John
Guerrero Canite tuba
Bach, J.S. Komm Jesu, komm
Lloyd Adam our father
Praetorius, H. Magnificat quinti toni, with Christmas interpolations
Victoria O magnum mysterium
Bach, J.S. Der Geist hilft
St Stephen’s, Rochester Row
Gilly French, Helen Prentice, Helena Bickley-Percival, Catharine Robertson
Jonathan Bull, Manvinder Rattan, Iain Butler, Robert Harvey Wood, Willow Northeald
with Dewi Rees organ
Philip Ledger (1937-2012) was Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge and Principal of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. The 8-part Advent Calendar, to a text by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, and written in memory of George Guest, exudes the composer’s style of sensitive and reverent word-setting. The moving poem is coloured with imagery, with ‘red December’ richly scored for divided tenors and basses and ascending upper voices conveying an image of the ‘star-snowed fields of sky’. The music becomes dissonant, with augmented chords and whole-tone passages conform with textual expressions of a more threatening darkness, before arriving at a quiet, peaceful ending, emphasising the Christmas message that ‘He will come like child’. Richard Lloyd (1933-2021) was organist at Hereford and Durham cathedrals. His distinctive choral music is accessible and beautifully crafted and stands out as some of the most rewarding of its time. Adam our Father is a setting of a 15th-centry text about the fall of Adam and prophecies of a redeeming Christ child. It has a stunningly haunting simplicity that endures in the heart.
Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) was one of the most important English figures of the early 17th century. He became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal around 1603 and organist of Westminster Abbey in 1623. A master of serious polyphonic music, his verse anthems show contrapuntal and vitality. His verse anthems are amongst the finest of the genre: This is the Record of John shows a simple alternation of solo voice and five-part chorus, in three sections, with a superb declamatory solo line imitated each time by the chorus. William Byrd (1539/40-1623) was the finest English composer of his age. During the 1580s and 1590s Byrd’s Catholicism became the driving force for his music; he wrote and openly published motets and masses, almost certainly composed for small chapel gatherings. Vigilate is notable for its madrigalian characteristics, such as sudden changes in declamatory style, the highlighting of individual words and short phrases, and overt illustrations of textual ideas in the music. The text, from Mark 13: 35–37, is presented from the perspective of Christ, warning his disciples of their inevitable deaths, which could come suddenly and without warning. This message might be read as a warning to English Catholics about the potential mortal danger from civil authorities, or as a metaphor about God coming suddenly in judgment.
Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599) was born in Seville, where he was known for his early proficiency on several instruments and became maestro de capilla at the city’s cathedral. His Canite tuba in Sion was published in 1570; it uses the four voice-parts to imitate trumpets, conveying the urgency in the Advent responsory. The text is from Joel 2:1 and Isaiah 11:4 ‘Blow up the trumpet in Sion, for the day of God is near at hand’. There is a clear harmonic impulse and the voices move smoothly and effortlessly. The second part, Rorate Caeli (Drop down, ye heavens) is characterised by glorious word-painting, for example with the skies pouring down righteousness (nubes pluant justum) and the earth opening (aperiatur terra). Tomas Luis da Victoria (1548-1611) was the greatest Spanish Renaissance composer and one of the leading figures of church music in the Europe of his day. The exquisite O magnum mysterium is one of his best-known works and was written when the composer was only 24. The text refers to the ‘great mystery’ and ‘wonderful sacrament’ of animals seeing the new-born Lord.
Joseph, lieber Joseph mein and In dulci iubilo are two of the best known of all ecclesiastical medieval tunes. Both carols are in compound duple time, and macaronic in that they use a mixture of German and Latin words. The German composer Hieronymous Praetorius (1560-1629) sets both pieces for eight voices, with Joseph, lieber Joseph mein for two contrasting four-voice choirs. The high point occurs where the top voice soars to the upper limit of its range with the clearly audible ‘Hodie apparuit’ in a majestic statement of the Christmas miracle. In dulci iubilo, for an 8-voice choir, is more athletic in its presentation of the text, with ebullient syncopations and directed suspensions propelling the music forward. Both carols fit perfectly into the monumental Magnificat quinti toni. Word-painting is evident throughout. The music rejoices, is holy, is powerful, scatters, and sends empty away as the text requires. Abraham is afforded unique respect through the use of resonant chords which allow the listener to connect directly with the Old Testament. The symphonic Gloria has all the voices sounding together to create a climax of extraordinary power and finality.
The music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is revered for its technical command, artistic beauty and intellectual depth. Komm Jesu, komm, the fifth of his six motets, dates from around 1723-34 and is a setting of a funeral poem written by Paul Thymich (d. 1684). The setting is for SATB double choir. The opening section, in moderate triple metre, is the darkest. Descending lines and angular counterpoint predominate, accentuating the hardships of life. It is remarkable for its word-painting, notably at ‘Der saure Weg’ (the bitter way), where the bitterness of life is emphasised with a downward leap of a diminished seventh in every voice, perhaps implying that no-one is exempt from earthly trials. The mood shifts to a more hopeful sentiment which, in turn, moves into a stately expression of faith; the words ‘You are the right way, the truth and the life’ are set as a dance in 6/8 for alternating choirs, moving through an interval of a fifth each time and culminating in a true eight-voice polyphony. With ecstatic confidence, a stately four-part chorale concludes the motet with the words ‘My spirit…shall soar with its creator’. The eight-part Der Geist hilft was written for the funeral of J H Ernesti, Rector of St Thomas’s School, on 24 October 1729. The text combines scripture with contemporary devotional poetry: the main body is taken from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans while the words of the concluding chorale are by Martin Luther. Structurally, the motet unfolds as a sequence of continuous, loosely linked sections that are differentiated both musically and textually. The opening evocation of the Holy Ghost soars aloft in swirling semiquavers. A more sedate section ensues as the singers contemplate the Spirit’s prayerful intercession. After a brief cadential pause, Bach abruptly switches to duple meter at the words ‘sondern der Geist selbst’ with breathless syncopations and sighing figures painting the words ‘unaussprechlichem Seufzen’. The motet culminates in a vigorous fugue followed by a four-part chorale invoking the ‘holy fire’ of faith that strengthens us to press onward to God ‘through death and life.’