In style, this piece for Advent is not a carol at all. It’s a verse anthem by the great Elizabethan and early Jacobean composer Orlando Gibbons, alternating tenor or alto soloists and choir. It was written sometime before 1620 for Archbishop Laud and his college, St John’s, Oxford – the college being dedicated to John the Baptist.
Gibbons sets verses from the gospel of John (John 1:19-23) from the Geneva Bible – a translation widely used at the time while the Authorised Version was still in its infancy.
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, and said plainly, I am not the Christ.
And they asked him, What art thou then? Art thou Elias? And he said, I am not. Art thou the prophet? And he answered, No.
Then said they unto him, What art thou? that we may give an answer unto them that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself? And he said, I am the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord.
The text is a simple, almost prosaic narrative as the Jewish priests seek to find out and challenge who John the Baptist really is and why he is out in the desert doing what he is doing. The setting is straightforward although beautiful and very effective, not without the odd moment of near comedy (“and he answered, ‘no’!!”), and it’s not until the climax of John’s declaration that he is “the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness” (taking his cue from the prophet Isaiah) that the the piece really takes flight and Gibbons shows his true genius. That moment really makes the piece for me – making it probably my favourite Advent anthem.
In this version it’s performed with tenor soloist and a consort of Viols rather than just organ.