A service for Advent with carols from St John’s College, Cambridge, surely brought great solace to many

United KingdomUnited Kingdom A service for Advent with carols: Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge / Andrew Nethsingha (Director of Music). Chapel of St John’s College, Cambridge, 29.11.2020 (reviewed from BBC Radio 3 broadcast). (CC)

The Choir at a previous service for Advent with carols © Nic Marchant

Introit: O pastor animarum (Hildegard von Bingen)
Processional Hymn: O come, O come, Emmanuel (Veni Emmanuel) (descant: Hill)
Bidding Prayer
Carol: The seven joys of Mary (Whitehead)

I The Message of Advent
Sentence and Collect
Antiphons: O Sapientia and O Adonaï
First lesson: Isaiah 11 vv.1-5
Carol: Adam lay ybounden (Ord)
Second lesson: 1 Thessalonians 5 vv.1-11
Motet: Laetentur coeli (Mathias)

II The Word of God
Sentence and Collect
Antiphons: O Radix Jesse and O Clavis David
Anthem: Drop down, ye heavens, from above (Weir)
Third lesson: Micah 4 vv.1-4
Carol: The Cherry Tree Carol (arr. Cleobury)
Fourth lesson: Luke 4 vv.14-21
Hymn: Come, thou long-expected Jesus (Cross of Jesus) (descant: Robinson)

III The Prophetic Call
Sentence and Collect
Antiphons: O Oriens and O Rex Gentium
Carol: A Prayer to St John the Baptist (McDowall)
Fifth lesson: Malachi 3 vv.1-7
Anthem: This is the record of John (Gibbons)
Sixth lesson: Matthew 3 vv.1-11
Hymn: On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry (Winchester New) (descant: Robinson)

IV The God –Bearer
Sentence and Collect
Antiphon: O Emmanuel
Carol: O virgo virginum (H. L’Estrange)
Seventh lesson: Luke 1 vv.39-49
Carol: There is no rose (Pott)
Magnificat: Service in E (Murrill)
Eighth lesson: John 3 vv.1-8
Sentence and The Christmas Collect
Carol: A Gallery Carol (Gardner)
Hymn: Lo! He comes with clouds descending (Helmsley) (descant: Robinson)

The College Prayer and The Blessing
Organ Voluntary: Chorale Prelude ‘Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland’ BWV 661 (Bach)

The sequence of discs released by the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge on their own label are destined to become classics of their kind. The most recent came out just days ago to coincide with Advent and, in turn, this service (Advent Live, Volume 2).

The atmosphere was beautifully created for this 2020 Advent Service. After a tumultuous year, this event surely brought great solace to many, whatever their denomination or belief. The high trebles in the Hildegard sounded as if from afar on a breeze from a distant past. How rousing, then, the organ announcing the hymn, ‘O come, o come, Emmanuel with a descant by Hill.

So began the sequence of readings, hymn, and antiphons, of more recent works, some created specifically for St John’s, and of works of ancient lineage.

It was lovely to hear the silvery organ against choir in Whitehead’s The Seven Joys of Mary, rhythmically sprightly, and rising to a joyous climax.

The male voices had a turn to shine in the Antiphon O Radix Jesse after the Sentence and Collect of the service’s second part, The Word of God. William Mathias’ anthem Laetentur coeli (Be glad ye heavens) is a magnificent specimen, harmonically spicy and rhythmically vibrant, performed with real relish by the choir.

Judith Weir’s short setting of a text associated with Matins at Advent, Drop down ye heavens from above, was written in 1983; shaped by a move form unison to eight-part harmony and back again, it is incredibly tender, with drooping melodic lines ceding to unison arrival points (it was first performed at Trinity College’s Advent service).

It wouldn’t be Christmas (well, nearly) without some carol arranged by the late Stephen Cleobury; here it was The Cherry Tree Carol, an ancient piece thought to have been sung at the Feast of Corpus Christi in the early 15th century.

In The Prophetic Call section, the focus is on messenger that comes before Jesus; O Oriens featured some beautiful male voices; they shape the phrases so well, so purely.

Cecilia McDowell composed A Prayer to St John the Baptist for this very event in 2018; it sets a text that combines Guido d’Arezzo’s Ut queant laxis (a hymn to John the Baptist, as well as a medieval music-teaching mnemonic) and Thomas Merton’s poem on the same subject. The organ’s flowing part represents the water of baptism. With an octatonic flavour to the harmonies, the music has a tieless feel, simultaneously modern (not least in those harmonies) and ancient. Separated only by a reading, Gibbons’s This is the record of John stood in high contrast.

The hymns were well chosen throughout: the warm harmonies of On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry seemed the perfect close to the penultimate section.

Finally, The God-Bearer takes us to the Divine Feminine in the form of the ‘blessed Mary’. The setting of O virgo virginum was made when the composer, Harry L’Estrange, was a mere 11 years old; it is beautiful in its gently unfolding melody and perfectly calibrated harmonies. Potts’s There is no rose of such virtue is a delicious 2011 SSAATTBB setting, its ending here perfectly hushed. The Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in E by Herbert Murrill (1909-52) is a glorious setting with an inspired organ part.

I was not familiar with John Gardner’s A Gallery Carol with its jazzy, jaunty rhythms and outgoing demeanour; it was the perfect final choral offering outside of the concluding hymn. ‘Rejoice and be merry in songs and in mirth!’ is the text’s instruction; and neither the musical realisation nor the piece let the text down.

The organist James Anderson-Besant is really something: his Bach BWV 661, the last of a group of three settings of that chorale that close the 18 Leipzig Chorales, was given with the utmost confidence, and also with full grasp of Bach’s processes. The import accorded to the pedal lines is remarkable, the whole perfectly judged. A great close to a truly heart-warming event that you can still listen to (again) for a short while (click here).

Colin Clarke

Leave a Comment