Today is our annual Advent Carol Service, and to me, Advent begins with The Record of John. As soon as Geoff plays the first bar of this in rehearsal, I feel that Christmas is coming, and feel, quite simply, happy.
I have a great love for this piece of music, and not just because it’s my solo. (Though I do really, really love the solo, too.) Gibbons is one of my favourite composers, especially for liturgical work. He wrote plenty of secular stuff, too, of course, but his religious works have more heart, somehow. He’s an absolute joy to sing – while he tends to give the alto the solos, all the parts have melodies to love, and they are all shaped in a way that makes them very singable. (Though his accompaniments in the solo sections do seem designed to confuse the soloist as much as possible.) And I do love the verse anthem form that he uses, in which soloists or groups of soloists alternate with full choir, giving a lot of texture and colour to the music.
Wow, does that ever sound pretentious.
Seriously, though, Gibbons is a beautiful, beautiful composer, and I think his ability to set words so that they fall naturally into the inflections and rhythms of speech amounts to genius – the music naturally prompts the singer to emphasise words in meaningful ways, and I find that the effect of his word setting is that I can’t help believing every word while I am singing it.
But the truth is, there is one line in this piece that sends a shiver down my spine every time I sing it or hear it sung. Listen for the soloist in the third verse, when he gets to “And he said / I am the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness/ Make straight the way of the Lord.” I don’t know how to analyse what Gibbons is doing there, but something about how it comes together goes straight to the heart.
(And that is why you get The Record of John every single year on this Advent Calendar)