I began this work at the end of August 2007 and finished it on October 2nd with a view to doing it the following Advent. However I could not get enough gentlemen together and so abandoned the idea and booked the following Advent Sunday , in St. Mary's Church. There are 10 sections in all and these are for the most part related. The work is structurally organic.
I wanted to approach the idea of Advent from the point of view of people for whom what follows Advent has not yet happened! For us Advent is just part of the Church year, like Lent, Easter, Whitsun and the like, but folk close to what was happening over 2000 years ago would have seen things in an entirely different light. I wanted to express their sense of excited expectancy; and the “rose” in the seventh carol is a lively teenager who manages to turn disaster into a political movement and ultimately a religion, a force who could convince a lot of people that her situation is divine rather than a silly human mistake. My music aims to express an excited anticipation of something very special to come.
The first section, I Look From Afar, has material that recurs later. I have dealt with the metaphor that is Israel with a kind of musical question mark: the harmony is built up of a D major chord superimposed over C major, and recurs many times (often differently scored and sometimes transposed). In the choral part there are many examples dotted throughout the work – frequently in the Canite Tuba, and of course in the cyclically repeated final section.
The harmony and melody from the very start revolve around a germinal idea, very much in G major. A short instrumental interlude leads into the second main section, Out of Your Sleep Arise! and Wake which is the only music written before having had the idea of this succession. It is for the most part lively and urgent with gentle driving rhythms ever pushing the music on. All the phrases leap upwards, with optimism, in 4ths, 5ths, 6ths, 7ths and 8ves. A short instrumental passage, an imitative passage playing on the 7th leap and “the chord” described above links to the third section Adam Lay Ybounden, the words of which have always fascinated me as a complete religious deceit - giving thanks to God for original sin without which there would have been no need for the Virgin Mary, Jesus and the rest. The underlay for the text about the “clerkes” [clergy] busy scrabbling around in “their book” [the bible] is suitably fussy…The joyful climax of this short section is at figure L with the words “ne had the apple taken been, ne had never Our Lady a been heavene queen.” The final “Deo gracias!” harks back to the main opening theme. A short instrumental duet between flute & bass clarinet sets up the musical material for the next section, the Ave Maria, in particular the off-beat surging rhythm driving the music forward. I had not appreciated that the Ave Maria text, as well as praising the blessedness of Mary, ends with an intercession to the Mother of God to pray for us both now and at the hour of our death, so this is a powerful centrepiece to this succession.
As the flute soars upwards so we hear for the first time the fourth accompanying instrument, the organ, in an instrumental interlude which sets an ancient plainsong melody – Descendit de Celis (sic). This describes a hesitant descent to our earth of the Son of God to offer salvation through sacrifice to an unholy world. In the scheme of this succession God descends to earth straight after the words “in hora mortis nostrae” – ‘at the hour of our death’, thus linking our mortality with eternal salvation. From the original fragment of plainsong I composed an imitative passage in which the entire dynamic is one of hesitant descent – God coming down to earth in the form of His Son, pausing reflectively from time to time. At these reflective moments the organ pedal – a deep 16’ sound – gives a sense of the ever diminishing space between heaven and earth as the descent ‘de celis’ continues.
The extract of the plainsong melody that I have used descends an octave. The full Latin text is as follows:
- Descendit de celis/ missus ab arce patris introivit per aurem/ virginis in regionem nostram indutus/ stola purpurea/ Et exivit per auream portam lux et decus/ universe fabrice mundi
Which translates – roughly – as:
- He descended from heaven/ sent from the bow of the Father he came through the air/ to the Virgin in our region [world]/ assumed the purple robes/ And left through the door of air, light & beauty/ made throughout the world
The first part of the14th century French plainsong is where the majority of the thematic material comes from. Canonic imitation is a feature of much of the piece. The lines of music presented at the beginning are combined with each other in different ways as the music progresses. The elements of hesitation include the use of pauses and the latter part of the plainsong extract which alternates just the two notes, F and G. The dynamics are also important, with the two main statements starting very loud and decrescendo-ing to a whisper.
Canite Tuba – Sound the Trumpet - is thematically firmly linked to the opening movement. It is in three sections, rigorously rhythmic in character in the outer two but almost pastoral in the central section the text of which echoes the aria Ev’ry Valley from the Messiah - making crooked paths straight and rough pastures smooth - and I have incorporated thematic references to this aria:
the long-held trills refer to the repeated tone Handel uses for the text “the crooked straight, and the rough places plain”.
for good measure the piccolo refers to Bach's 'Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring'.
For the third section the organ is reintroduced; there is an increased sense of urgency for the command to come and not to delay – “veni! et noli tardare!” - and the realisation that all the great things that have been promised are now imminent – “Ecce venit!” And at the very end as the shouted echoes fade away there is the quiet awe: “for the day of the Lord is now at hand”. I do not know of anything other than a slow and gentle setting of There Is No Rose, but my setting is full of verve and youthful energy (coruscating accompanying instruments), depicting Mary as an extraordinary teenager turning what could have been a disastrous situation - pregnancy outside of marriage - into the triumph of God's incarnation. Some feat! The macaronic text is rich poetry indeed, Heaven and Earth being described in the “little space” of Mary's womb, Res Miranda. I have brought in the choir for both this and the earlier Alleluia in bursts of rhapsodic ecstasy. The more thought-provoking “pari forma” – God in persons three [the Trinity], but nonetheless ‘of the same form’, is more reflective in my setting. The text mentions both the shepherds in the field and the idea of the Trinity, both of which come after Advent.... I originally omitted the two Latin commands Gaudeamus (let us rejoice) and Transeamus (let us go) but I have since included the full text in an extended revision.
As with the plainsong chant Descendit de Celis I love to connect with past composers and at this stage introduce a quite magnificent plainsong chant Veni, Creator Spiritus (Come, Holy Ghost....), initially making use of a technique called fauxbourdon exemplified in Gilles Binchois’ hymn setting of this chant set in the first half of the 15th century. Around this simple organ arrangement are several independent contrapuntal workings of the main theme, including canons [for example between the piccolo, clarinet and ’cello]. This section ends with a glorious Landini cadence, the leading note dropping to the 6th degree and the chromatically raised 4th so evocative of the early Renaissance. There follows a vigorously rhythmic ‘alleluia’, somewhat jazzy, out of which the choir, in strong unison, once more sing the plainsong chant. This time the accompaniment is my own harmonisation, on top of which the flute and clarinet trip along in double octaves, still based on this plainsong chant. The final section secures the arch-like structure of this work, being a virtual repeat of the opening movement, but this time to the text Tomorrow Go Ye Forth. I was drawn to this text in particular because of the words Stand Ye Still, something very few of us manage to do in our busy modern world. The whole work ends with a short coda, [a reference to ‘There Is No Rose’] where the music disappears into the Palestinian night.
The coming together in a single day workshop to put together from scratch a new work lasting well over half an hour is, as far as I am aware, the first of its kind locally. This happened in January 2008 and was due to happen on a far bigger scale in January 2010, when Michael Finnissy so kindly agreed to direct a choir of soloists [about 25 singers] and an Ensemble of 28 players in a weekend workshop/ recording session in St Mary’s Church [Dorchester]. By its nature it relied on two things: the generosity of the performers all of whom were donating their services for free; and both the individual and collective musical talent present here in such abundance. Closer to the time a few key instrumentalists pulled out and I was unable with such short notice to replace them, so sadly I cancelled the whole venture.