Voices of St David’s concert

Feast of St Nicholas
2018.12.06 · 12.00
St David’s Episcopal Church

The passing ages pray
Advent through the centuries

Veni, veni Emmanuel    c15 French, arr. Richard Proulx
Tydynges trew    c15 English, arr. Eric Mellenbruch
Comfort, comfort ye my people    Genevan Psalter, arr. Claude Goudimel
Rejoice in the Lord alway    Henry Purcell
The Heavenly Vision     Jacob French
Watchman, tell us of the night    trad. British-American[?], arr. D. F. White
The Linden Tree Carol    c15 German, arr. Reginald Jacques
Macht hoch die Tür    c17 German, arr. Hugo Distler
Lo, the newborn King    Keith Heldman

The Voices of St David’s, the professional vocal ensemble which I direct, will present this concert as part of the Advent Midday Music series. The program includes the premiere of an arrangement I have made of an Annunciation carol found in Bodleian MS Eng.poet.e.1.

Program notes

Today’s program presents, in roughly chronological order of musical style, several of the aspects of Advent (Latin for ‘approach’ or ‘arrival’): the ancient longing of Israel for a return from exile and prophecies of a coming Messiah, taken up by St John the Baptist; the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin; her and our immediate preparation for the celebration of the birth of Christ; the delight of the soul at Christ’s continual presence in prayer, sacrament, and neighbor; and Christ’s final coming to put everything right.

Veni Emmanuel is a versification of several of the ‘O Antiphons’, a series of chants that bookend the singing of the Magnificat (Song of Mary) at Evening Prayer in the days immediately before Christmas. Each of these begins with
‘O _____’, evoking a name or aspect of God found in the Hebrew Scriptures.
The harmonization heard with the second stanza is found with the melody in the oldest manuscript source.

Many aspects of the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary have been retold imaginatively in song and elsewhere, putting a very human (and female) face upon the Gospel story. Tydyinges trew is one of very many Annunciation carols from the Middle Ages and later, this one being on the slightly more literary end of the spectrum given its use of Latin and phrases such as ‘temple of deity’. The spelling is modernized here, and one phrase has been modified to maintain the rhyme in modern pronunciation; the present arrangement of the particularly catchy tune (which probably predates the present text) was written for this concert. (The scribe of the manuscript in which this carol notes, however, that ‘yf so be that ye wyll have a nother tewyn it may be at yowr plesur’.) The Linden tree carol (‘Es steht ein’ Lind’ im Himmelreich’) is another example of the Annunciation genre, a simpler and sweet telling of the story. This text, dating at least to the fifteenth century, is based on an even older folk song; the melody, which first appeared in manuscript with the present text, is probably older as well. G. R. Woodward, a Church of England priest, wrote and translated a good deal of religious verse, including some well-known carols.

Comfort, comfort ye my people is a translation of a German meditation (‘Tröstet, tröstet, meine Lieben’) upon the passage in Isaiah 40 which St John the Baptist quotes in the Synoptic Gospels. The translator, Catherine Winkworth, was a great translator of German hymns and campaigner for women’s education in mid-nineteenth-century England. The Hymnal set this text to a Genevan (Calvinist) tune originally used for Psalm 42; here that tune is heard in two settings by Claude Goudimel, one of the musical shapers of that Genevan Psalter.

Rejoice in the Lord is one of the most famous anthems of Henry Purcell, the outstanding composer of the English Baroque. In typical style, a solo trio alternates with instrumental interludes and choral refrains, and although the overall mood is buoyant, Purcell’s characteristically clashing harmonies can still sometimes be heard. The text is traditionally appointed on the second or third Sunday of Advent; today it is also used on Thanksgiving Day.

Jacob French was a New England singing master and composer in the tradition of William Billings. The Heavenly Vision, typical of his œuvre, picturesquely sets a cento of verses from the Revelation; it appeared in print at least as late as the 1844 collection The Sacred Harp. This collection is also the source of the tune ‘Auburn’, to which the hymn-in-dialogue Watchman, tell us of the night (written by John Bowring, a political economist, industrialist, colonial Governor of Hong Kong, and accomplished linguist) has been set for this concert; the three-part arrangement is credited to the son of the main editor of the book, B. F. White, but the tune was probably, like many others of its ilk, a pre-existing folk melody.

Throw wide the gates (‘Macht hoch die Tür’), inspired by Psalm 24, was written by a Lutheran pastor to be sung on the First Sunday of Advent; the tune first appeared with this text in a 1704 hymnal. Hugo Distler, the arranger, was one of the most original and important voices in twentieth-century German organ and choral music. This setting comes from a collection of hymn arrangements for the Church year, Der Jahrkreis, his Opus 5, one of several works he wrote for amateur musicians. (A different translation of the text, set to a different tune, appears at Hymn 436).