This blog is moving!

Hi all,

I’ve decided to merge this blog with my food blog over at Cate’s Cates.  The reason for this is that I currently spend one month a year on this blog, and then ignore it for the other eleven months… also, I’m pretty sure my audience for this blog overlaps by 100% with my audience at Cate’s Cates.

I’ve transferred all the content across to Cate’s Cates, and you can find the main index page here. I won’t remove any content from this site, but when my ownership of the site expires (late in 2019, if I recall correctly), I will let it lapse.

See you over in food blog land!



Advent Calendar Day 25: Four Carols and an Oratorio

Merry Christmas!  I always find it impossible to choose just one beautiful piece of music for Christmas Day, and this year, I’m not even going to try!  Instead, you are getting four carols and an oratorio – and it’s all I can do not to add more, because there are SO MANY carols that I love.  Really, SO VERY MANY…

I love all the things that are going on in this arrangement of In Dulci Jubilo by David Willcocks – fugal bits, little floaty descants, you name it.  It comes together just beautifully, and I love the wistfulness of the ending.

You can’t have Christmas without a big descant, and Hark the Herald Angels does have, objectively, the very best of all the descants (even if it’s a bit of a pig to sing if you are only a part-time soprano like me). Also, who doesn’t love a good trumpet fanfare at Christmas?  (The choir who is trying to sing descants against it without ruining their voices, that’s who…) (but seriously, it’s pretty glorious).

The Holly and the Ivy has always been a favourite carol of mine, and didn’t fit into my playlist this year, so here it is, in a particularly lavish arrangement by Henry Walford Davies, and conducted by John Rutter.

You will not often find me approving of a Rutter Christmas carol, but I make an exception for this lovely version of Joy to the World.  I think Rutter is at his best when arranging existing carols, and when given someone lets him have trumpets, and here he has both of these things, with excellent results.

Last of all, something which isn’t a carol but is yet another Christmas Oratorio, this one by Camille Saint Saëns.  I’ve shared this before, because I love it, especially the Alleluia and the Consurge.  It’s very pastoral and sweet, and is quite short by oratorio standards – 40 minutes, so just about right to wind down to on Christmas night.

And that brings us to the end of our musical journey through Advent!  I hope you’ve enjoyed the music I’ve shared, and that you have a joyful and stress-free Christmas and a healthy and happy 2019.

Advent Calendar Day 24: Quem Vidistis Pastores – Poulenc

Alright, I am going to tear myself reluctantly out of the baroque era and leap forward into the middle of the 20th century, where we find the French composer, Francis Poulenc bringing a more mysterious and spooky flair to the whole shepherds-abiding-in-the-fields situation.

I mean, we’ve just had two settings of ‘Behold, I bring you glad tidings’, neither of which started with the all-important ‘Fear not!’ part.  Listening to this, one gets the impression that Poulenc thought that the fear part of this was quite important – or at least worth recognising.

Rather than quoting the gospel directly, Poulenc has chosen to make this piece about a conversation between the shepherds and someone who met them shortly after everything happened.  The lyrics in English are:

Whom did you see, shepherds; speak, tell us: who has appeared on earth?  The newborn child we saw, and choirs of angels praising the Lord.  Tell of what you saw, and announce Christ’s birth.

Advent Calendar Day 23: Behold I Bring you Glad Tidings – Purcell

So this one is completely and shamefully serendipitous.  I actually don’t know what I typed into Google that produced a Christmas Oratorio by Purcell, and I also don’t know how on earth I missed the fact that Purcell wrote such an Oratorio.

Anyway, I have found it now, and it really is classic Purcell, from the magnificently lavish bass solo (with those fabulous low notes) to the little minuets for the trio of alto, tenor and bass, to the big chorus just when you were wondering where the sopranos were (they were biding their time and saving their fortissimo for the chorus).  I love the little reflective bits punctuated by excitable choir, and the hyperactive halleluias at the end are a complete delight.

There is so much to love about this, and I really can’t give you a lot of analysis because I am still discovering it myself and just delighting in its perfect Purcell-ness.

Advent Calendar Day 22: Jauchzet! Frohlocket! – JS Bach

From quiet joy to drums and drama!  And yes, I’m just taking you on a tour of my favourite composers now.  But if that isn’t something you like, what on earth are you doing here?  This piece is a total contrast to yesterday’s anthem – where Orlando Gibbons has angels praising God and singing, Bach has a company of angels who are very firmly telling you that it is time to rejoice now.  Gibbons’ angels may be pastoral, but Bach’s angels sound a bit more like the kind who bring good news in the morning, before heading off to fight Lucifer and his demons in the afternoon.

This is the opening chorus to the first part of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, which gets sung sung on Christmas morning and Bach clearly wanted to make sure the congregation was wide awake and paying attention.  I love the drama and excitement of the drums at the start (not least because they make me think of small children getting up at 4am to open their presents and then running around the house playing with them.  Who gave the small children drums?  Probably their bad influence Auntie Catherine…) (I have not given my niece a drum for Christmas.  I am the worst Auntie.  But probably not the worst sister.), and I just love the way this sounds like such good fun to sing.

(I am still trying to work out when I have sung this, because I know just enough of the alto line to be sure that I have sung this music at some point, but I can’t think when – and it can’t have been for a big concert, because I don’t know the line well enough for that…)

The lyrics in English are:

Shout for joy, exult, rise up, glorify the day, praise what today the highest has done! Abandon hesitation, banish lamentation,
begin to sing with rejoicing and exaltation! Serve the highest with glorious choirs, let us honour the name of our ruler!

So really, the loud excitement is appropriate.  And this particular performance is by the choir of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where Bach worked for most of his career, and where he is now buried – one would imagine that they know how to sing Bach as he should be sung!

(And if not, they had better beware, because I would think that this performance just about could wake the dead, and he’s *right there*, with fresh flowers still on his grave and everything, so…)


Advent Calendar Day 21: Behold, I bring you glad tidings – Gibbons

Only five days left until Christmas morning, so I think we are about ready for some glad tidings of great joy!  And, as you may have gathered, few things bring me more musical joy than a verse anthem by Orlando Gibbons.

This is a rather beautiful Advent piece, based on the words of the angels to the shepherds, and it does feel like an angelic choir composed of many voices, all singing to each other and themselves as well as the shepherds – there is something about listening to those duets and trios and quartets that makes me feel certain that this is exactly how angels sing.  (I mean, if they have all those many eyes and many wings – why wouldn’t they have many voices as well?)

I love the quiet joy in this, and the chorus of rising ‘Glory be to God on high’s at the end, when the whole company of angels appears.  It’s such a glorious, perfect piece.

Advent Calendar Day 20: The Lamb – Tavener

From medieval lyrics with a modern melody to a very modern lullaby, and from the 18th century to the 20th.  John Tavener apparently wrote this piece as a birthday present for his three year old nephew.  My niece is three, and I clearly missed an opportunity here.  (Then again, since she spent much of my mother’s most recent choir concert with a scowl on her face and her fingers stuck firmly in her ears, perhaps not…)

Tavener wrote this piece in 1982, and while it is absolutely nothing like JS Bach in sound, I feel that it is reminiscent of Bach’s work in its mathematical sensibilities.  Tavener gives you a two bar melody, then turns it upside-down for the alto line, then mixes it up to create a new two bar melody, and then gives you *that* melody backwards, and so forth.  It is an absolute nightmare to sing (especially if you only get the music a few hours before the performance…), but it does sound gorgeous when it comes together – I love the bits when it goes from atonal weirdness into these beautiful, haunting melodies and harmonies.

The lyrics are taken from William Blake’s poem, The Lamb, from his Songs of Innocence.

Advent Calendar Day 19: O Little One Sweet *and* Schlafe, mein Liebster – JS Bach

I knew I wanted some Bach in this bracket, but I couldn’t decide whether to go with O Little One Sweet, which is a standalone carol, or Schlafe, Mein Liebster, the lullaby from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.  But then I realised that it’s not actually possible to have too much Bach, and anyway, this is my Advent Calendar, so I can play by whatever rules I like.  So today you are getting two Bach lullabies for the price of one…

‘O Little One Sweet’, (O Jesulein Süß) is just a lovely carol with some scary harmonies in the alto line.  The scary harmonies are entirely Johann Sebastian’s fault, I might add – I gather this piece started off as a perfectly sensible chorale called ‘Komm, heilger Geist’ (come holy ghost) in a hymnbook, and then Bach got hold of it, with beautiful (if tricky) results.  It’s very much good hymnbook theology, though, not a medieval reimagining of the manger scene – you can find the full lyrics and translation here, though the English versions usually only do two verses.

This is another old favourite of mine, performed impeccably here by the King’s singers.

Schlafe, mein Liebster is from the second part of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, which was originally sung on Boxing Day (the Oratorio is in six parts, which were originally performed on the days between Christmas and Epiphany – their performance dates are, the 25th, 26th and 27th of December, and the 1st, 2nd and 6th of January).  This piece comes just after the bit in Luke where we are told that the shepherds will find the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, and the lyrics translate to:

Sleep, my dearest, enjoy thy rest, Awaken after this so that all may thrive! Comfort the breast, feel the pleasure where our hearts are made glad.

(And thank you to Google Translate for suggesting that the phrase I was looking for was ‘chew the breast, feel the desire’.  Dearie me.)

The singer in this performance is Anne Sofie von Otter, and I love the warmth of her voice, and her delicacy in the coloratura sections.  Also, I do enjoy trying to read Bach’s manuscript – though I probably wouldn’t enjoy doing so if I had to perform from it.

Advent Calendar Day 18: Coventry Carol (Anon)

I think the most well-known of all the lullay-themed carols for a modern audience is the Coventry Carol.  The melody is, in fact, one of the first things I learned how to play on the recorder when I was at school in York as a six-year-old. On reflection, this is rather apt, as the Coventry Carol is taken from the Coventry Mystery Plays, and York has a long tradition of Mystery Plays, and still produces one every year.

Mystery plays were a form of religious theatre, popular in the Middle Ages.  They tended to be highly cooperative endeavours, with different guilds or fellowships writing and producing different scenes from the bible, often themed to their particular area of expertise – the shipbuilders guild would do Noah’s Ark, for example; the goldsmiths and jewelers would do the three Kings; and the butchers provided lots of pigs’ blood for the crucifixion.  A full sequence of mystery plays would tell the entire story of humanity, from creation to the final battle between God’s angels and the beast, and would often last 18-20 hours – they would be performed on the longest day of the year from a series of wagons or stalls in the middle of the village.

(Of course, as these stories were produced, by and large, by artisans and tradesmen who couldn’t read or speak the Latin of the church, some of these stories got a bit… muddled.  Sort of popular folk history of the Bible, leading to all sorts of extra bits and pieces that aren’t actually there.  Lucifer, for example, is in far more scenes than one might expect, and in the York plays, he is even the source of Pilate’s Wife’s Dream – he explains that this is a case of doing something good for the greater wickedness, since if Jesus is spared by Pilate, there can be no resurrection and thus no redemption for humanity…)

As you might have gathered from this lengthy digression, I’m pretty excited about Mystery Plays, and I was lucky enough to be in York a couple of years ago when they performed the plays in the Minster.  It was an astonishing experience – they still use the original scripts (though much abridged – this performance lasted a mere four hours), which gave a feeling of stepping back in time. The atmosphere was awe-inspiring, and the scenes ranged from beautiful, to deeply moving, and from hilarious to harrowing.

Which brings us back to today’s carol, which comes from the Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors of Coventry.  And their play was the story of Herod’s slaughter of all the infants of Bethlehem shortly after the birth of Jesus, and the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. This carol was sung by the women of Bethlehem, holding their infants, after the Holy Family has fled, so it’s pretty confronting.

The tune below dates from 1534, and the lyrics likewise.  If you learned the tune at school, this will have some surprises – Walford Davies arranged it for four parts in the early 20th century, and at the same time, he made it more regular and more like something a modern audience would expect to here.  The version below has the original timings, which change from 4/2 to 3/2 and back, and has a really crunchy discord in the verses (and also a G natural that nobody expects, especially not my work choir), which gives it more complexity than the more commonly sung version.

This is, of course, not at all about Advent, so if you’d like your authentic medieval music with more Advent and less child-slaying, allow me to recommend to your attention this recording of ‘Lullay, Lullow’ from the Ritson manuscript of 1475, performed by Emily Levy and Katharine Taylor, with Richard Vendome on psaltery.

Advent Calendar Day 18: Coventry Carol

This carol goes beyond Advent and right to the Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28th, but I think it’s worth including here.  I think I’ve already demonstrated that Advent isn’t all sweetness and light, and this is quite the opposite.


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