Choral singers have to pace themselves during Advent. For sopranos, it’s those descants you have to watch out for; and for us baritones, you’ve got to take it easy on the top Es in ‘Hark the herald’. Too much enthusiasm early on in the season – combined with a surfeit of mulled wine – and your voice may be stuffed before you’ve stuffed the turkey. As is the case generally at this time of year, we want it all too soon, and lots of it.
In this respect I envy those who are responsible for delivering, as they do throughout the year, the daily office of evensong: Cathedral choirs, for instance, who cannot let themselves go too early. And I look back with some nostalgia at my days as a chorister at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, which – like many cathedrals – included in its Advent evensong liturgy the Great Advent Antiphons, or ‘O’ Antiphons as they are commonly known. Intended to book-end the singing of the Magnificat at the Medieval office of Vespers, these chants have been welcomed into the Anglican liturgy and have inspired many contemporary re-workings.
The attraction is obvious. Each addresses Christ using a different divine epithet – ‘O branch of Jesse’, ‘O Key of David’, ‘O King of Kings’ – and they form a cycle of seven chants whose fixed melodic template creates a sense of continuity within the season. The tune, in a minor mode, is supple and gently doleful; and captures something of the mystery and anxious expectancy of Advent. The tune seems to invite polyphonic elaboration, and the great theorist Guido d’Arezzo in the 11th century used the tune to demonstrate how a singer might improvise simple counter-melodies to create two-part music.
The texts are best known as re-fashioned by John Mason Neale into the hymn ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’. (Incidentally, if you don’t know Andrew Carter’s arrangement of this hymn, you really should. It is an absolute belter!) But they appear in many other contexts. James Macmillan’s anthem ‘O radiant dawn’ – perhaps his most popular and accessible work – is a beautiful reworking of the antiphon ‘O Oriens’. Recently my own choir at St Catharine’s had the privilege of making the premiere recording of a cycle by Christopher Fox, which draws on the original tunes and employs translations of the texts made in the 15th century. On the same album you will find an immediately approachable setting, by Joanna l’Estrange, which invokes the ritualistic, repetitive nature of the chant cycle.
The ‘O’ Antiphons contain the kind of clever literary trick that the Medievals loved. The initials of the titles – Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai and Sapientia – spell out the motto ‘ERO CRAS’, meaning ‘Tomorrow I will be [with you]’. It’s a promise that, as choral musicians, we might care to remember. Christmas will come. There is no need to blow it all before it does.