In this weekly blog, I am supposedly tasked with bringing together our parish worship and music in some meaningful way, with the common thread being either our Anglican worship traditions or the lectionary readings.
Well, not this week.
This week I’m simply writing on a favorite anthem of our choirs, lovers of Baroque choral music, devotees of the English sacred music tradition, and altos, counter-tenors, and tenors worldwide.
And for many reasons, it happens to be a beloved personal favorite as well.
With the four observed Sundays of Advent, the readings for Advent I are about the coming of the Kingdom of Christ, Advent II and Advent III are about John the Baptist, and Advent IV is the Annunciation to Mary.
I have spoken before about liturgically “hitting the nail on the head” by programming anthems and hymns with verbatim texts from scripture. There is no better example than the Gibbons setting of “This is the Record of John.”
In this lectionary cycle (Year A) for Advent III this Sunday, we are reading about John the Baptist from Matthew 11:2-11. The text for this Gibbons setting is from John 1:19-23, which will be read on Advent III next year in Year B.
And this is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him,
Who art thou?
And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ.
And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elias?
And he saith, I am not. Art thou that prophet? And he answered, No.
Then said they unto him, Who art thou? that we may give an answer to them that sent us.
What sayest thou of thyself?
He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness,
Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias.
John 1:19-23 King James Version (KJV)
Not a perfect verbatim match of this Sunday's lectionary reading and anthem, but in the John the Baptist world, it works.
We could have waited to sing this gem for Advent next year. Practically speaking, I thought this year, while worshiping in our parish hall, where our portativ organ is temporarily housed, was the perfect opportunity for a authentic performance with the portativ.
“This is the Record of John” is beloved by choirs worldwide. Do a Google, Amazon, or YouTube search on the piece, and innumerable examples will come up.
Gibbons composed this setting for St. John’s College, Oxford, where it presumably received its first performance.
Composed in three distinct sections, a soloist first sings the verse, after which the choir echoes the text of this verse in fuller choral context. The anthem is traditionally accompanied by organ or a consort of viols.
One of my favorite moments in the anthem is the high point of the solo melody, which appropriate occurs with the words, “crieth in the wilderness.”
The text painting in this Gibbons setting is clever in every way: the musical answer to the question, “Art thou the prophet,” is an emphatic, accented “No!”
Of course, this “No!” is my absolute favorite moment.
I maintain that the lift before the sung word “No” is the prime example of what I like to call in music the “Anglican agogic accent" (an agogic accent in English cathedral acoustics). An agogic accent might be seriously defined as the “delayed onset of a note” or “an intentional pause before starting a note.”
These agogic accents are most easily executed in a lively acoustic, which we will have when we return to the nave. In the meantime, we will, indeed, do our best on the cement floor in our temporary worship space.
What fun! Come to church this Sunday morning and listen for the Parish Choir and tenor soloist’s Anglican agogic accents before the word, “No.”
Listen to a historic recording of the Choir of Guilford Cathedral sing “This is the Record of John” under the direction of Barry Rose here.
Photo Credit: Pieter Brueghel l’Ancien (1525-1569) “La Prédication de Saint Jean-Baptiste,” oil on panel, public domain.