Advent Calender Day 1: Matin Responsory (Palestrina)

It’s December, which means it’s time for an Advent Calendar!  Since I’m still a church music girl at heart, and since all the very best carols are more about Advent than Christmas itself, we’re going to have an Advent Carol – or something like one – every day from now to Christmas.  Strictly no Rudolph allowed.  I hope you enjoy!

Some Palestrina to start the season.

This piece of music seems to me to be the perfect way to start Advent.  The opening lines “I look from afar…” and the feeling that the choristers are calling from a far distance at the beginning of the piece and moving closer with each section seems very appropriate for the beginning of the season.  Advent is, above all, a season of waiting and preparation, and this music reflects that feeling.

It’s quite difficult to find a recording of this piece, and last year I found this one from 1961.  It’s an old LP recording, full of crackling, and the sound quality isn’t very good, but I secretly love it best, because it adds to the sense of distance in space a sense of distance in time, too.  Also, I think the crackling sounds like flame, and I like that too.  It feels like something that is being sung late at night in a medieval church, by the light of candles, or by the light of the bonfire flame they light at Mt Carmel on Christmas Eve.

One of the great privileges of church music, I think, is the sense of linking hands and joining voices across time with people who have sung the same things at the same times and the for the same reasons for centuries – a shared liturgy across history (this is why I will never make a good happy-clappy, and it’s equally why I am so drawn to the Anglo-Catholic tradition).  To me this gives meaning to the idea of the communion of the saints across the ages.  And while Palestrina lived less than five centuries ago, that’s still long enough to get a sense of the archaic and the ancient from his songs.

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