Service of Poems and Music for Advent, Flax Bourton Parish Church, 30 November 2014
Below is information on this year’s service with some notes on the music.
Music 1: ‘Priidite, poklonimsya’ (from ‘Vespers’), Sergei Rachmaninov
Poem: ‘Give us Lord a bit o’ sun’, Anonymous
Music 2: ‘Movement iii: Furioso’ (from ‘Sonatina for Clarinet and Piano’), Malcolm Arnold
Poem: ‘Black Monday Lovesong’, A.S.J. Tessimond
Music 3: ‘Judah to Ocean’ (from ‘John’s book of alleged dances’), John Adams
Poem: ‘Still I Rise’, Maya Angelou
Music 4: ‘Love Yourself’, Candi Staton
Poem: ‘Talking Turkeys’, Benjamin Zephaniah
Music 5: ‘Equal Rights’, Mikey Dread
Poem: ‘Church Going’, Philip Larkin
Poem: ‘Christmas’, John Betjeman
Music 6: ‘A Nativity’, John Tavener
Poem: ‘Song of the Shirt’, Thomas Hood
Music 7: ‘The Prophet Isaiah’, Alan Bush
Poem: ‘Advent 1955’, John Betjeman
Music 8: ‘Sextet’ (excerpt), Chris Fitkin
Poem: ‘Black Rook in Rainy Weather’, Sylvia Plath
Poem: ‘Northumberland Sequence 4, Kathleen Raine
Music 9: ‘At First She Starts’, The Unthanks
Poem: ‘Advent’, Elizabeth Jennings
Music 10: ‘Severn Meadows’, Ivor Gurney
Music 11: ‘Voskres iz groba’ (from ‘Vespers’), Sergei Rachmaninov
Full Programme with notes
Priidite, poklonimsya (from Vespers)
Welcome and opening prayer
Creator God, we come to you in our waiting.
We wait with our fears,
our anxieties and frustrations,
our pains and regrets,
our shame and confusion.
God help us to wait in peace.
We wait with impatience:
We rush around, preparing for the festivities,
not leaving the space to prepare our hearts,
God, help us to wait in faith.
We wait in excitement:
We are ready to celebrate!
We know the story with its humbleness,
simplicity and wonder.
God, help us to nurture our joy.
We wait in thanksgiving:
We are free and able to celebrate.
We have others around us to share in the journey.
We are able to wonder in the marvel of your gift.
God, help us to receive your love.
Give us Lord a bit o’ sun
Movement iii: Furioso
(from Sonatina for Clarinet and Piano)
NOTES: There is an energy, slightly manic and loose from the page, in the ‘Furioso’ that seemed to chime well with this old prayer that can be found in a number of varying forms. There was something about light and sun and spluttering in the music that worked for me. I was going to use the glorious ‘Higher than the sun’ by Primal Scream (7” version) as a laid-back blast of light to cast us into meditative mood, but the drug references were too overt. I also thought that using dance music at such an early stage of the service might alienate some of the congregation. Anyway, the Arnold resonated well with the next poem and with the John Adams piece that follows.
O come, thou Wisdom from on high!
Who madest all in earth and sky,
creating man from dust and clay:
to us reveal salvation’s way.
Black Monday Lovesong
Judah to Ocean (from John’s book of alleged dances)
NOTES: ‘In love’s dances, in love’s dances, One retreats and one advances’. There was so much that could have fitted this poem well. ‘Blue Monday’ and ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ being perfect candidates, however, they didn’t give enough hope or restfulness for the idea of meditating on the poems. John Adams was another obvious choice, ‘The Chairman Dances’ being my first thought. It was too long hence the recourse to the ‘book of alleged dances’. Much of Adams’ music has this see-sawing, advancing/retreating rhythm with melting, flowing lines, a combination of precision and space, that I felt fitted the poem. Another dance, ‘Toots Nipple’ is shorter and even more concentrated, but I suspected the title would have detracted from the content in a service context.
O come, thou Lord of David’s Key!
The royal door fling wide and free;
safeguard for us the heavenward road,
and bar the way to death’s abode.
Still I Rise
NOTES: It was very hard to know how to follow the majesty, dignity and passion of May Angelou. All the Cassandra Wilson tracks I looked at were too long, Billie Holiday we had used before and so Candi Staton felt like a good person to work with. Candi Staton is a Soul and Gospel singer 20 years younger than May Angelou. I’d first come across her through the sampling of her material by dance musicians and it was only later that I realised that she is a Christian. ‘Love Yourself’ comes from the 1999 album ‘Outside In’, which displays a reverse influence of dance music, and as a song seemed to carry with it some of the same positive energy of ‘Still I Rise’. However, there is also a dialogue going on between the one being told to ‘love yourself’ and the singer who could be the other or the Other and who proclaims that she will love the subject always and wholly.
O come, O come, Adonai.
Who in thy glorious majesty
from Sinai’s mountain, clothed with awe,
gavest thy folk the ancient law.
NOTES: Reggae was the obvious choice to follow a Benjamin Zephaniah poem, especially since it is mentioned in the text. Mikey Dread sprang to mind partly because of his links with The Clash and partly because his is a harder, less immediately accessible form of the music. Much of Dread’s work would be more dub than ‘straight’ reggae. ‘Equal Rights’ is less dub orientated but it has this refrain about justice that chimes well with the poem – it is just a shame that Dread talks about human rights and not the rights of turkeys.
O come, O come, thou Dayspring bright!
Pour on our souls thy healing light;
dispel the long night’s lingering gloom,
and pierce the shadows of the tomb.
NOTES: ‘Church Going’ is a long poem about curious agnosticism, ‘Christmas’, by Betjeman, Larkin’s contemporary, is unashamedly full of curious and slightly careworn faith. I really wanted something terribly English to underscore the mild-mannered balance of both poets positions yet Tavener, an Englishman composing Orthodox liturgical music, jumped into this slot. ‘A Nativity’ seemed to elucidate the elusive mystery that Larkin and Betjeman were, from different stand points, both grasping for.
O come, O come, Emmanuel!
Redeem thy captive Israel,
that into exile drear is gone
far from the face of God’s dear Son.
Song of the Shirt
The Prophet Isaiah
NOTES: Thomas Hood’s long, sad poem has a sweat shop ring that sounds quite contemporary. Sewing clothes for a pittance is still a way of keeping the poor poor and the rich in material possessions. Communist composer Alan Bush, whose work was shunned by the British musical establishment, was keen to show that there could be a new heaven and a new earth where the poor would no longer have cause to weep as justice and fairness would be available to all. The words of the prophet in chapter 65 of Isaiah perfectly suited his needs. They also remind us that the anticipated Christ child is God’s agent for the ushering in of this just new era.
O come, thou Root of Jesse! draw
the quarry from the lion’s claw;
from those dread caverns of the grave,
from nether hell, thy people save.
NOTES: ‘Sextet’ looks backwards to the wonder of Christ, ‘the present that cannot be priced’, in Betjeman’s verse and forwards to the lean incandescence of Plath’s rook, an angel flaring suddenly in the wet, grey landscape. It is marimba filled music building layer upon layer of joy with a floating evanescence that evokes a blessed, fleeting glimpse of the Divine.
Black Rook in Rainy Weather
Northumberland Sequence 4
At First She Starts
NOTES: The Unthanks sisters are singers of Northumbrish stock who have made the ballad books of the North East their own. Their voices strike me as that of the cantor in Raine’s sequence. This song links back to Plath’s rook and Raine’s raven and eagle when it speaks of the subject waking to find that she is a bird. It has a similar edgy dissonance to both the poems, a mix of images that beat out new shapes and symbols and hint at a hope that is hard to catch but is felt like a shiver.
O come, Desire of nations! show
thy kingly reign on earth below;
thou Cornerstone, uniting all,
restore the ruin of our fall.
NOTES: The are intimations of war in Jennings poem and it is this very march to conflict that gives reason for the ‘mystery how God took time and entered history.’ In this centenary of the beginning of the First World War, when remembrance of war has been so close to our minds and other actions are still being fought, it felt right to end with Ivor Gurney, poet and composer, whose health was broken by his service at the Somme. The lyrics of ‘Severn Meadows’ are spare:
Only the wanderer
Knows England’s graces,
Or can anew see clear
And who loves Joy as he
That dwells in shadows?
Do not forget me quite,
O Severn Meadows.
but they link up with the stirring, wandering world in Jennings’ poem and they leave a wisp of hope in the remembrance just as Jennings gives us hope in the old story that is yet new each year.
Loving Lord God,
Help us to understand
that is in waiting on you
and not wandering from store to store
that we will find our way.
Guide us to realize
that it is in friendship with you
and not the frenzy of the Black Friday crowds
that we will be led to the manger.
Teach us that it is
in your steadfast love
and not the piles of stuff under the tree
that we will find what we have been searching for
all our lives.
God of Advent,
this year may we let you
lead us to Bethlehem.
We are looking for God in our world.
May we see what God wants us to see.
We are looking for God among all people.
May we see who God wants us to see.
We are looking for God in our lives.
May we be who God wants us to be.
And may the blessing of God almighty,
the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
be among you and remain with you always.
Voskres iz groba (from Vespers)
NOTES: Closing as we opened with the iconic depth of Rachmaninov’s ‘Vespers’, but this time with the setting from the liturgy of words concerning Christ bursting not from the womb but from the tomb – the hope of Advent fulfilled in the Resurrection.