Advent Commissions

Advent Carol Service 2019

The 2019 Advent Carol Service

The Advent Carol Services are highlights in the year of the Choir. The services have been broadcast by BBC Radio 3 since 1981. The College commissioned several Advent works before it became an annual series from 2008, a practice initiated by former Director of Music Andrew Nethsingha and made possible by an anonymous Johnian benefactor. Recordings of these works are either available on our albums or via our Advent Webcasts.

A list of our Advent commissions is below, together with notes from our album booklets as well as the recordings themselves.

2022 - Iain Farrington Nova! Nova!

Former St John's Organ Scholar Iain Farrington's work was premiered at the 2022 Advent Carol services. It will feature on the forthcoming album release New Millennium.

2021 - Helen Grime Telling

The premiere of this work took place at the 2021 Advent Carol services. The recording of the performance was also chosen for inclusion on BBC Radio 4's 'Pick of the Week' (5th December 2021). It will feature on the forthcoming album release Advent Live - Volume 3.

2020 – Cheryl Frances-Hoad Lo! The desert-depths are stirr’d

The premiere of this work was postponed owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. It was first performed on Friday 15th October 2021, and also featured in the 2021 Advent Carol Services. It will feature on the forthcoming album release, Advent Live - Volume 3.

2019 – Judith Bingham An introduction to Hark, the glad sound

Judith Bingham, like Gabriel Jackson, served for a period as Associate Composer to the BBC Singers. An Introduction to Hark, the glad sound was commissioned for the Choir of St John’s for the 2019 Advent Carol Service and, like Jackson’s Vox clara, it features a prominent role for solo soprano saxophone, taken here by St John’s undergraduate Ignacio Mañá Mesas. The saxophone soloist is directed to begin playing ‘offstage’, arriving ‘onstage’ in the middle of Bingham’s Introduction. A sense of coming, the central concept of Advent, is paralleled in the choral parts, which begin quietly but build up in preparation for the entry of the organ and, ultimately, the congregation. According to a handwritten note by its author Philip Doddridge, the stirring hymn-text dates from December 1735. Originally in seven stanzas and entitled ‘Christ’s Message’, it was first published after the poet’s death. (As a Nonconformist minister, Doddridge would have had no need for hymn-books, instead teaching his congregations the words by call and response.) The text is sung to Bristol, a hymn-tune whose melody and bass derive from Thomas Ravenscroft’s 1621 setting of Psalm 64. Curiously, in Ravenscroft’s original, found in The Whole Booke of Psalmes, the melody appears in the tenor rather than the treble.

Notes: © Dr Martin Ennis (May 2020) from Advent Live - Volume 2


2018 – Cecilia McDowall A prayer to St John the Baptist

Cecilia McDowall’s A Prayer to St John the Baptist was written for the Choir of St John’s and premiered at the 2018 Advent Carol Service. The work is based on a hymn, Ut queant laxis, that is traditionally ascribed to the eighth-century historian Paulus Diaconus and is usually sung on the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist. The words are built round a mnemonic. The first line starts with ‘ut’, the second with ‘re’ etc. Together, the opening syllables plus the initials of ‘Sancte Iohannes’ spell out the sequence ut – re – mi – fa – sol – la – si, the letter-names assigned in medieval theory to the scale. (In the associated chant, attributed to Guido d’Arezzo, each phrase starts one note higher, reinforcing the hymn’s educative role.) McDowall interweaves the ancient text with words by Thomas Merton, a twentieth-century Trappist monk who at one time studied at Clare College, Cambridge. The music begins and ends on the note A, which is sustained throughout the piece, mostly in the bass of the organ. Around the held A the organist’s right hand spins a lively dance – sometimes fluent, sometimes syncopated. According to the composer, this represents Merton’s baptismal ‘rivers of water’. The piece is based for the most part on octatonic scales; the combination of this, the tonality of A major, treble-dominated textures and an incantatory effect springing from repetition creates distant echoes of Messaien’s Trois Petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine.

Notes: © Dr Martin Ennis (May 2020) from Advent Live - Volume 2

2017 – Benjamin Comeau The Last and Greatest Herald

Ben Comeau’s The Last and Greatest Herald was commissioned by the Master and Fellows of St John’s College, Cambridge for the Advent Carol Services in 2017. Comeau is a former Cambridge student, now a pianist, organist, composer and jazz musician based in London. The text of this anthem is the sonnet Saint John Baptist by the seventeenth-century Scottish poet William Drummond, which dramatically portrays John’s position as the forerunner of Christ, as the last to announce his coming.

The setting is incredibly varied in its approach to the text, beginning with a unison declamation “approximating natural speech rhythm”, introducing the herald John. Dissonance highlights the savage brood, which is then contrasted with the stillness and innocence of a treble solo - John views savage nature as more harmless than mankind. A section follows describing John’s self-exile - penance on behalf of man - eating locusts and with parched body, hollow eyes, set with sizzling mysterious organ chords and disjointed vocal writing.

From here John bursts forth, calling upon man to repent and turn away from sin, treated here in the music with a passionate and chromatic invocation from each voice part. The final couplet of the sonnet is set with distant solo treble echoes of the call to repent, with chiming vocal accompaniment depicting the voices rung around the caves.

Notes: James Anderson-Besant (2018)

2016 – James Burton Tomorrow Shall be my Dancing Day

James Burton was a Choral Scholar at St John’s College. A distinguished composer and arranger, he is probably best known as a conductor, and currently serves as Conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and Choral Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Burton’s setting of Tomorrow shall be my dancing day, a traditional text almost certainly medieval in origin, derives much of its character from the use of irregular metres. The mood is generally ebullient, but in the central section ‘dancing’ rhythms combine with rich harmonies to foreground darker colours in the text.

Notes: © Dr Martin Ennis (2018) from Advent Live - Volume 1


2015 – Tim Watts The Birth of Speech

For The Birth of Speech, Tim Watts, a current Fellow of St John’s, turned to the poetry of Hartley Coleridge, eldest son of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The text contains many musical allusions: as Watts put it, the poem is ‘entirely built from questions about sound’. Watts responds to these questions with characteristic imaginative power, deploying a highly distinctive array of sonic resources – a choir whose trebles whisper, only to break into song towards the end; two violins, played here by undergraduates Julia Hwang and Stephanie Childress; and an organ part that sometimes supports the voices, sometimes contributes lines of its own. While the music is tightly wrought, with numerous canonic or quasi-canonic passages, the overall effect is highly sensuous.

Notes: © Dr Martin Ennis (2018) from Advent Live - Volume 1


2014 – Michael Finnissy John the Baptist

Michael Finnissy composed John the Baptist for St John’s Choir in 2014, and it went on to win a British Composers’ Award. The text is predominantly from the Gospel of St Matthew, the Middle Eastern folk music inflections refer to the location of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan river by St John. The setting’s soft, rapt central chorale forms a visionary moment, interspersed by more lively sections, written in the style of the songs of sixteenth-century Spanish pilgrims from the Jewish diaspora - ‘raucous, happy pilgrims’ as the composer put it! The organ interludes are direct transcriptions from Moroccan Berber recordings.

Notes: © Charlotte Gardner (2016) from Christmas with St John's


2013 – Gabriel Jackson Vox clara ecce intonat

Gabriel Jackson’s Vox clara ecce intonat was commissioned for the Choir of St John’s and first performed at the 2013 Advent Carol Service with saxophonist Joel Garthwaite. Jackson, a former chorister of Canterbury Cathedral and one-time Associate Composer to the BBC Singers, identifies sixteenth-century sacred music as the most important influence on his style. However, he has also acknowledged the pivotal role played by the music of Michael Tippett (‘the greatest English composer since Purcell’) and the genres of soul and R&B in the development of his compositional voice, highlighting in R&B ‘the spaciousness, the ecstatic, bright sounds’ and the ‘incredible care in the way the chords are voiced’. Many of these qualities are evident in Vox clara: the choral parts move mostly in homophony, while an elaborate part for soprano saxophone soars above. The instrument’s arabesques, with their occasional hints of birdsong, surely reflect the composer’s interest in flight, a preoccupation in many of his works. The alto solo of the contrasting middle section, though slower, is also rapt in character. Jackson’s text is taken from a sixth-century Latin hymn associated with Advent, best known in Edward Caswall’s nineteenth-century translation as Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding.

Notes: © Dr Martin Ennis (May 2020) from Advent Live - Volume 2


2012 – James Long Vigilate

James Long’s Vigilate was commissioned by St John’s College in 2012. The text combines passages from Mark 13 and three books of Revelation. Mark’s words were set most famously by William Byrd, and when heard in the context of Advent, Byrd’s repeated cries of ‘vigilate’ [keep watch] are usually understood as referring to Christ’s incarnation. By including verses from Revelation, Long shiftsthe focus to the Second Coming. The text is macaronic, with Latin and English words interspersed, and as in Byrd’s Vigilate, thereare strong madrigalian influences – most memorably, chromatic writhing on the word ‘wail’ and a remarkable stuttering effect for ‘gallicantu’ [cock-crow].

Notes: © Dr Martin Ennis (2018) from Advent Live - Volume 1


2011 – Jonathan Harvey The Annunciation

Harvey’s numinous work, The Annunciation (2011), was written as part of the Quincentenary celebrations of St John’s College. Each day we rehearsed The Annunciation and I e-mailed a sound recording to the composer and then we spoke on the phone. It was an intensely moving dialogue. Harvey explained how he could no longer hold a pencil or play the piano and that he thought these notes would be the last he would ever compose. Mercifully a little more music followed. I later read the following words of the composer: Pain and suffering experienced in life increase the artist’s determination to create an ideal world through his music. A year further on The Annunciation, which seems to inhabit an ideal world, was nominated for a British Composer Award. The day after the awards ceremony the composer passed away after his long experience of Motor Neurone Disease. We sang this work at his memorial service.

Notes: Andrew Nethsingha from DEOThis album would later win a BBC Music Magazine Award in 2017.


2010 – Roxanna Panufnik The Call

Roxanna Panufnik's The Call revisits the seventeenth-century metaphysical poets. It is a setting of George Herbert's celebrated poem, itself a paraphrase of John 14. The anthem was commissioned by St John's College for their 2010 Advent Carol Service. The customary organ accompaniment is replaced here by harp, and it is worth recalling that Panufnik took harp as second study while at the Royal Academy of Music. Panufnik's taste is remarkably eclectic, but the music is always marked by a strong sense of colour, a quality much in evidence in this subtle setting, not least in the use of humming and vocal slides.

Notes: © Dr Martin Ennis (2015) from The Call


2009 – Giles Swayne Adam lay ibounden

Once described by The Times as ‘the most accomplished choral composer in Britain’, Giles Swayne, as befits a student of Olivier Messiaen and Harrison Birtwistle, has been an innovator in many genres. His Cry combined voices and electronics; its companion-piece Havoc features a ‘continuo group’ of celesta, marimba, Baroque harp and theorbo. Although Swayne clearly delights in experimentation, he has always been determined to communicate with his audiences. Messiaen, he once argued, was ‘one of the few post-war composers who […] succeeded in moulding a living musical identity out of the grey language of post-serial atonality’. In his setting of the traditional text, ‘Adam lay ybounden’, Swayne reveals a compositional voice that is both innovative and urgent. The work is scored for two choirs, a solo cello that often broods in its lowest registers, a bass soloist and a solo treble who makes a cameo appearance towards the end. In fact, this was not the first piece by Swayne to pair voices and cello: the reworked version of Stabat mater is similarly scored, and The silent land is set for cello and forty-part choir. In Adam lay ibounden the voices change approach frequently, sometimes singing lyrically, sometimes in a whisper, sometimes percussively – evoking perhaps the West African music that was so influential on Swayne’s development; at times, they seem to hover on the verge of chaos. Adam lay ibounden was commissioned by Andrew Nethsingha and first performed at the 2009 Advent Service at St John’s College.

Notes: © Dr Martin Ennis (November 2018) from Locus Iste


2008 - John McCabe The last and greatest Herald

John McCabe was an unusually versatile musician, but is remembered principally for a dual career as composer and pianist. As a keyboard player he was particularly noted for championing Haydn; as a composer he worked across many genres, but showed particular affinities with the symphony and the concerto, of which he left over twenty examples. Most of his choral music dates from the earlier part of his career, but The last and greatest Herald was a late work written as a commission for the 2008 Advent service at St John’s. The text, by the poet William Drummond, dubbed the ‘Scottish Petrarch’, takes the form of a sonnet. However, McCabe largely disregards the poet’s division into octet and sestet and, taking his lead from the use of the word ‘repent’ in both parts of the poem, creates the impression of a loose ternary form. The fanfare passages, which reflect John’s role as herald of Christ’s coming, are performed here on the organ’s celebrated Trompeta Real, a reed stop that requires especially high wind pressure.

Notes: © Dr Martin Ennis (May 2020) from Advent Live - Volume 2

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