Not Christmas Yet by David Wihowski
Not Christmas Yet.
Avoiding the incessant vocal vandalism done to traditional Christmas carols and holiday chestnuts is all but impossible if you go anywhere in the American marketplace between now and January 1. Unfortunately having one’s ears stuffed with cotton is not particularly polite when in public. While I love good Christmas music, and there is a wealth of fine music for that holiday, the season of Advent is all but ignored by all but a few. In a sort of personal resistance to the American obsession with the holiday spirit, prior to the holiday, I listen only to Advent music before at least December 23. If you are not yet ready to hop on the carol train, I have a few suggestions to suit the more contemplative season prior to December 25.
Some of the British, for reasons unknown to me, still hold to the Advent tradition and several of their great churches and cathedrals have created some fine recordings. I will not go into subtleties of the “O antiphons” and liturgical constraints; my goal is simply to explore some real options for this season (and considering the dearth of Advent music recordings, belaboring subtleties restricts one’s options almost completely). Wikipedia, though hardly a stellar resource, has a reasonable introduction to the “O antiphons,” should you need some instruction.
A personal favorite is From Darkness to Light – The Salisbury Advent Service. It contains five of the traditional advent O antiphons, along with traditional hymns, Renaissance settings and several contemporary selections, all sung with classic British precision and dignity. Since it is a recording of a “service” it includes Advent readings, all read with the same British precision and dignity. The timbre of the choir is also traditionally British since children (I believe all boys) sing the treble parts. While the musicians are careful not to over-romanticize, their service is well-crafted and does indeed take one on a journey, so that by the time we have reached the final hymn, "Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending," there is the emotional, and perhaps spiritual, sense that the Light is nearing the dawn. This recording has become something of an Advent ritual for me.
For a recording which adds a few more contemporary composers to other selections in traditional styles, Angelus ad Virginem recorded by the Choir of St. Mary’s Cathedral is a worthy addition to one’s Advent collection. It may be worth the price of the recording just for the stunning setting of Es ist ein Ros entsprungen, sung is Swedish as Det är en ros utsprungen on this recording. The composer, Jan Sandström, allowed for his piece to be sung with the original German text or in English or Swedish translations. While some of the other contemporary settings may be a stretch for some traditionalists, I believe they fit in the flow and general tenor of the whole recording. The first three verses of the eponymous selection Angelus ad virginem are set in a starkly beautiful, almost medieval style; the last verse stands in sharp contrast with its contemporary dissonance—the dissonance being apt for the text: Angelus disparuit/ Et statim puellaris/ Uterus intumuit/ Vi partus salutaris./ Qui, circumdatus utero/ Novem mensium numero,/ Hinc exiit et iniit conflictum,/ Affigens humero/ Crucem, qua dedit ictum/ Hosti mortifero.:The angel vanished, and at once the girl's womb swelled with the force of the pregnancy of salvation. He, protected by the womb for nine months in number, left it and began the struggle, fixing to his shoulder a cross, with which he dealt the blow to the deadly Enemy.[emphasis mine] This recording ends with five Christmas selections, which if you are listening to the recording strictly for Advent, you may skip.
Another in the similar British tradition is Advent in Winchester "O Come Emmanuel." It contains some of the same material as the others but adds its own character with several selections the others do not have. The Biebl Ave Maria is one of the best contemporary settings (I have sung it so many times that I know it by heart and still never tire of it); if you have not heard it before, it is worth pursuing. Biebl’s inspiration for the composition was the resonance of the great cathedrals, and it is difficult for me to listen to it or sing it without being transported to some great, soaring space.
Veni Emmanuel: Music for Advent by the Choir of Clare College Cambridge is a worthy recording similar in many ways to the aforementioned recordings; it, however, seems a bit sterile, perhaps too professional, for my taste.
Puer Natus Est - Tudor Music for Advent and Christmas by Stile Antico, though technically not strictly music for Advent, fits the season well and is an excellent recording regardless of season. Stile Antico’s purity of tone and vocal control are well suited to the Renaissance gems which comprise the album. For me Byrd’s Ave Maria and Ecce virgo concipiet are highlights, but that is possibly just nitpicking among diamonds, emeralds and rubies. For fullest appreciation while listening, this is a recording for which it is best (unless perhaps you have them by memory) to follow the texts (and translations, if you need them); the composers use subtleties to express textual meanings, and unless you are paying attention to the relationship between text and music you may miss much.
Leaving British recordings momentarily brings me to a recording I do not recommend, or recommend with reservations: Advent at Ephesus by the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles. The choice of selections they have included is excellent; the singing is not—being from the United States it seems these women cannot shed their (perhaps adolescent) ties to the sound of American pop music. They will sing a perfectly good phrase and end it so that one hears echoes of American Idol wafting through the air. Perhaps for younger listeners or those not very familiar with serious music, this would be a good introductory album. If you are not accustomed to listening to purely treble voices, the album may be tiring in that regard. If the Benedictines could sing with less “pop” in their voices I believe the treble limitation would not be aurally tedious. Intonation is also an issue at times on this album.
If you do not wish to purchase music (and all of the above are available at least as downloads or CDs), there is a fine YouTube mélange. Once you have launched YouTube, search “the most popular Advent carols ever written” and you should find the 3 hour and 44 minute recording. For a YouTube entry, it is quite good. The sound is clear and the list of selections is exemplary. The person who posted this recording apparently has received permission to use the material, though due to copyright issues, one never knows how long this type of thing will last on YouTube; but while it is there, it is worth listening to. Many of the pieces occur on the other recordings listed previously. It is organized well and may be listened to over several days. Each “section” begins with an O antiphon and is followed by Advent selections, some of which relate to the preceding antiphon. It provides pleasant music with engaging theological and emotional depth, as well being a reflection on the meaning of the season. I find it helpful to pause the recording after each section, to allow for additional reflection. You should have the correct YouTube entry if when you click <SHOW MORE> you see:
0:00:00 | Hymn - O come, O come, Emmanuel
0:03:42 | O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
0:04:36 | John Rutter - There is a flower
0:08:44 | Elizabeth Poston - Jesus Christ the apple tree
None of the previous recordings is flawless; however they offer a good alternative to having too much Christmas before Christmas.
And finally, for some by the great masters: There are four advent cantatas by Bach: BWV61 & BWV 62: Nun komm der Heiden Heiland (Now come, Saviour of the Gentiles), BWV36:Schwingt freudig euch empor (Soar joyfully up to the lofty stars) and BWV132: Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn (Prepare the ways! Prepare the path). And though it may be an exercise in futility to attempt such a thing, one can always listen to just the first 12 movements of Handel’s Messiah. I do not suggest particular recordings of the Bach or Handel simply because picking from the dozens available is too large a task.