The Oxford Clerks

CD An Oxford Christmas – English liner notes

The : “An ” – English liner notes

Below you find the English liner Notes for the Oxford Clerks’ cd “An Oxford Christmas”. For prelistenings from the cd click here.

An Oxford Christmas
The season of Advent commands a narrative that explores the beliefs, expectations and celebrations of a myriad collection of characters. Apart from those who were present in the manger, other more symbolic forces play vital roles in the story- Gabriel, the Holy Spirit, scriptural fulfilment, the challenge of Light to the Dark of the world. The candles lit at Advent services represent the small, delicate flame in the vast darkness of Herod’s world that was the newborn Jesus. It is this complex distillation of such incomparable hugeness of intent and purpose into such a feeble thing – a baby – that gives the imagery and poetry of Advent its own particular feeling of restrained jubilation. The pieces on this disc have been chosen not just to recount the important parts of a physical journey but also of the spiritual trajectory of the coming of God’s Kingdom.
The first two tracks represent by their texts and music the mystical qualities of Isaiah’s prophetic revelation of one called ‘Immanuel’- or ‘God with us’. In Veni, Veni Emmanuel , the solemn seed of Advent is carefully and reverentially planted, with the anticipation of its growth and fruition ever-present in the chorus: “Rejoice, rejoice, Immanuel shall come to thee O Israel”. Captive Israel will be set free from Satan’s grip by the Rod of Jesse; death’s dark clouds will be dispersed by the Day-Spring; a heavenly home will be opened by the Key of David. This early Christian symbolism, which drew on both secular and scriptural sources for its poetic strength, is reimagined in the 15th-century text of Es kommt ein Schiff geladen, where the allegorical meaning of the ship’s journey and cargo can be read from different angles. From one, the womb of Mary is fully laden with God’s Son; from another, it is the soul of Man, propelled towards its fulfilment by the sail of Love and the mast of the Holy Spirit.
Only after this spiritual energy has been released does the reaction of the physical world take place, and this is retold by the next three pieces. Rise up, Shepherd, and Follow is the first of three four-part spirituals arranged by John Barnard and is an account of the Angel’s rousing encouragement to the shepherds as they sat in the cold night to go and visit the Saviour. The famous setting of Drei Könige by the 19th-century German composer Peter Cornelius reminds us, like the opening chant, of the symbolic heritage of Christ’s being: the Bridegroom, the King, the Morning Star, the Jesse Tree, the holder of Grace and Truth. Most importantly, it is the nourishment offered to our souls by Love that will lead to fulfilment, and the offering up of our hearts to God instead of gifts like those of the Magi. Go Tell it on the Mountain is the second of the spirituals and again tells of the Angel’s imperative call to action. The shepherds are asked, therefore, to be the first evangelists. Just as the soul of man needed the physical Incarnation of Christ to be transformed, so too did the Angel Host need man to reveal and spread the Word.
Now that the witnesses to Salvation have been brought to the manger, their reverence and adoration is reflected in two pieces about the stillness and silence surrounding the baby Jesus. In the traditional Austrian carol Still, Still, Still, the conclusion of the text parallels that of the overflowing Love in Drei Könige: “Groß, groß , groß/ Die Lieb’ ist übergroß”. The sleep that the Christ child needs is given greater importance because of the journey He has both completed (“Gott hat den Himmelsthron verlassen”) and has just commenced. Franz Grüber’s Stille Nacht depicts an atmosphere of happy calm and describes the birth of Jesus as the striking of the hour of Salvation. From the hilltop shouting of the shepherds, the earthly gifts of the Magi, and the jubilation of the Angels, we are drawn into this simple moment of joyful relief.
No greater relief could be felt than Mary, and the last three pieces in the specifically Advent programme are reflective compositions honouring the Holy Mother. Mary had a Baby, the last of Barnard’s spiritual arrangements, is awe-inspiring in its intent. Slow, reserved and undoubtedly serious, it confirms the magnitude of the Son’s presence in, and rulership of, the world: “King Jesus/ Mighty Prince of Peace”. Aside from these grand titles for Christ, Mary has over time been given more delicate symbolic reference, no more so than that of a rose. The text of Es ist ein Ros entsprugen (which, like Es kommt ein Schiff geladen, is set to music using the original 17th-century melody) uses the image of the rose being rooted to Tree of Jesse. This organic metaphor is used by Jesus during his earthly ministry as he assures His followers that they will be rooted to the New Vine that is Christ Himself. The last piece in the Advent journey, an anonymous 14th-century English setting (from Oxford) of a Marian Lyric, is in the typical three-part vocal makeup of the English Carol of that period. The poetic language is some of the most beautiful in all English sacred music and perfectly captures the mystery of Advent: “For in this rose conteyned was/ Heven and erthe in lytle space… Gloria in excelsis Deo”.
And now for the Christmas celebrations…

The Oxford Clerks
The Oxford Clerks are a close harmony group formed by six former choral scholars at New College and Magdalen College, Oxford University. As Choral Scholars, more technically called ‘Academical Clerks’, the members of the group were required to sing chapel services on a daily basis. It was in this context that the six met and it was through the two colleges that they subsequently discovered a love for close harmony music. There is a great tradition of close harmony singing at Oxford, and it is perhaps unsurprising that both of these colleges had their own close harmony groups, the ‘New Men’ and the ‘Waynflete Clerks’. The members of the Oxford Clerks sang with these ensembles before deciding to form a smaller, professional ensemble in April 2008.
Although much of the Oxford Clerk’s inspiration came from two of Oxford’s close harmony groups, a more significant source of inspiration came in the person of Bill Ives, Informator Choristarum at Magdalen College. A former King’s Singer, it was exposure to the music of the King’s Singers and to Bill’s expertise in the field of close harmony singing that established a desire for making the best quality close harmony music across a wide range of repertoire.
The group’s repertoire has expanded significantly since its inception and different settings and venues have required the group to sing anything from 13th Century Gregorian chant to 21st Century Pop, all in the distinctive, unaccompanied ‘close harmony’ style.
The group’s first album ‘Anything Goes’ featured music primarily composed by Cole Porter. This second album shows the Oxford Clerks at the heart of their musical upbringing, the product of both choral and close harmony music.

Tracklist “An Oxford Christmas”

• Veni, veni Emmanuel
• Es kommt ein Schiff, geladen
• Rise up, Shepherd
• Drei Kön’ge wandern
• Go, tell it on the mountain
• Still, still, still
• Stille Nacht
• Mary had a baby
• Es ist ein Ros entsprungen
• Ther is no rose of swych vertu
• Jingle Bells
• We wish you a merry Christmas

For prelistenings click here.

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