|Brierley after Holman Hunt
Advent Sunday is here once again.
For Christians, this is the first day in a season of preparation leading up to
the Nativity on 25 December. The liturgical theme of today is the Judgement to
come, its causes, its certainty, and the way of escape. Much of the day’s liturgy
reflects on the Coming of Christ, the End of the World and a personal need for divine
It is interesting that the
Anglican Church’s Prayer Book Gospel for the Day is Matthew 21.1-13.
This text, which is a description of Palm Sunday, provides a picture of Jesus
coming in meekness and humility and casting out the works of darkness.
One of the loveliest carols sometimes heard at this time is John Ireland’s short ‘Adam Lay Ybounden.’ The text was written by an anonymous author. It is included in a manuscript now in the British Library (Sloane 2593, ff.10v -11). It is dated to around 1400.
Theologically, these words are a
meditation on the fall of humankind, but with a twist. If Adam had refused the
apple offered to him by Eve (as explained in Genesis 3.6) then Mary would never
have given birth to Jesus and she would not subsequently to be the Queen of
Heaven. The opening verse reminds the
reader that Adam was to have been kept in bonds for 4000 years. I guess that simply
means that humanity is subject to sin. The third verse muses on the cosmic
consequences of Adam’s action, whilst the last stanza blesses our early ‘father’
for the action he did. For today, stripped of its allegorical language, this
carol is a meditation on the sinful nature of humanity which can be read in the
news each day, and the Christian’s notion of salvation through the Son of Mary,
Ireland wrote ‘Adam lay ybounden’ in 1956. The carol was for conceived for unaccompanied mixed chorus – soprano, alto, tenor and bass. It is not known when it was first performed. The score was published by E.H. Freeman & Co. Ltd., in 1956. (University Part Songs and Anthems No,115). Musically, the composer is looking back to his younger days. Anyone who knows Ireland’s music will be conscious of the self-referencing to his well-known The Holy Boy in this carol. The Holy Boy was originally written for piano in 1913, as the third of four Preludes. It immediately became popular and was subsequently arranged for a wide variety of instrumental and choral forces. Philip Lancaster (‘The Part Songs of John Ireland’ in ed. Foreman, Lewis, The John Ireland Companion, Boydell Press, 2011, p.296) suggests that despite ‘Adam lay ybounden’ ‘aping’ The Holy Boy it is ‘a setting that deserves attention, both for its beauty, its simple directness, and in its embodiment of Ireland’s style.’ Certainly, the modal flavour and the shape of the melodies are ‘immediately identifiable’ as being by the composer. Finally, Lancaster notes that ‘Ireland is hugely successful at portraying innocence, imbued with a unique melancholy.’
Fiona Richards, in her masterly
study of the composer (The Music of John Ireland, Ashgate 2000, p.62)
explained that in the last few years of Ireland’s life he ‘rediscovered his
interest in writing for the church.’ This resulted in several new works and
some revision of old ones. It does not imply that he resolved personal dilemmas
over High and Low Church or his interest in Paganism.
In 1957, John Ireland made a setting of Psalm 23, The Lord is my Shepherd. This was for solo voice. It remains unpublished. Two years later, he wrote a fine Meditation on John Keble’s Rogation Hymn for organ: this was to be his final composition.
Many settings of ‘Adam lay ybounden’ have been made, including examples by Boris Ord (1897-1961), Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) in his A Ceremony of Carols (1942), Peter Warlock (1894-1930) and the present example by John Ireland (1879-1962).
There have been several
recordings of John Ireland’s ‘Adam lay ybounden’ over the years. The earliest
would seem to be Worcester Cathedral Choir conducted by Donald Hunt. This was
released on the superb Abbey label. (LPB 803) in 1979. It was part of an album
devoted to Ireland’s choral music.
The most convenient recording
appears on the Naxos label. The CD (8.573014) was made by the Lincoln Cathedral
Choir conducted by Aric Prentice. This carol is grouped together as ‘Four
Unaccompanied Carols, also featuring ‘New Prince, New Pomp’ (1927), ‘The Holy
Boy’ (1913, arr.1941) and ‘A New Year Carol’ (1941). This remarkable disc also
includes a wide range of Ireland’s other church music. This version of this
carol has been uploaded to YouTube.