Advent Calendar Day 11 – Adam Lay y Bounden (Boris Ord)

This next piece is a favourite of mine from way back when I used to do Christmas Carolling in shopping centres in the late 1990s. Never having heard of ‘felix culpa’ (happy fault), I was even more delighted by its completely upside-down logic than I was by the truly gorgeous tune.

Actually, even now that I have had the whole felix culpa thing explained to me, I still find this song irresistibly amusing. The gist of it is that if it hadn’t been for the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (yes, wesre back in the Garden of Eden again with this piece), we wouldn’t have Mary and Jesus, therefore ‘blessed be the time the apple taken was’. Which sounds to me suspiciously like saying sin leads to good things, yay sin, let’s have more of it! (Well, maybe not the last bit.)

More mature minds than mine explain this argument rather better and convince me, at least while I am reading them, that it’s a beautiful piece of theology. “Where sin abounded, grace did more abound” sounds pretty good. But when I read down a few lines further and find things like “For God allows evils to happen in order to bring a greater good therefrom”, I start feeling rather suspicious and muttering things about ends justifying means and whether God isn’t supposed to be better than Machiavelli. (This is possibly why I’ll never make a good theologian) And are the people to whom the evils happen will the same ones who gain the greater good? I’m not at all sure of this, especially since I know I’ve heard this quoted in the context of people dying young or having horrible and irrevocable things happen to them, which always struck me as remarkably unhelpful.

The text is, not surprisingly, medieval – it dates from around 1400, and other poems on the same page of the manuscript from which it derives include ‘I sing of a maiden’ (a famous Advent song that may or may not appear in this calendar later) and ‘I have a gentil cok’, which probably doesn’t mean what my inner twelve-year old thinks it means, but which nonetheless amuses me.

Boris Ord is actually a 20th century composer, but his setting of the piece has a rather archaic feel to it that I like very much. I love the way the melody and harmonies ascend through the first three sections and then spiral back down in the ‘Deo Gratias’ at the end. It makes me happy whenever I sing it or listen to it.

This recording is beautiful, but the tempo is extremely fast. I do think this piece deserves a slower treatment, but the quality of the singing here is so good that it makes up for it. And perhaps if they sing it fast enough, nobody will notice the weird medieval logic…

Edited in 2012: The recording was taken down from YouTube, so I’ve substituted another – it goes at a saner pace, but the voices are not quite as good.

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