Press Play: “Pilgrim’s Hymn” by Stephen Paulus

Traditionally, a pilgrim is someone who is on a journey to a holy place. But I don’t think a person’s travels have to be religiously motivated in order for that person to qualify as a pilgrim.

We’re all pilgrims, of course, in the philosophical “life is a journey” kind of way. We’re all on journeys somewhere, it’s just that we’re all walking in different directions, at different speeds, with different motivations.

Portia Nelson, an American composer and actress, summed up her life’s journey pretty concisely in a poem that she described as “An Autobiography in Five Short Chapters.”

Chapter 1
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost… I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter 2
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes me a long time to get out.

Chapter 3
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in. It’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault. I get out immediately.

Chapter 4
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter 5
I walk down another street.

Not everyone’s sidewalks are as filled with holes as Nelson’s was, of course, but each pilgrim’s path has some kind of obstacles in it. So whether you’re looking back on obstacles you overcame in 2014, on wondering which street to walk down in 2015, let this thoughtful hymn by Stephen Paulus be the soundtrack to your New Year’s pondering.

Key moment: Paulus stays away from dissonance more than most modern composers, but he throws in the occasional hole in the sidewalk, like the chord at 0:47.

That makes me think of: “Going Home” by Paul Robeson. 

Andrew Moore is our blogger-in-residence, and author of the music blog Beautiful Song of the Week.”

Press Play: “Once In Royal David’s City”

If there’s one song that is guaranteed to bring tears to my mother’s eye, this is it.

Or, more specifically, if there’s one song that will bring tears to my mother’s eye before launching her into a nostalgic reminiscence of the days when her son was a chorister, this is it.

But in fairness to my beloved mum, it’s a pretty spectacular specimen of seasonal singing. In most Christmastime church services, it gets outshined by the more popular “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful”. But the most important track on any album is the first track, and there’s a reason that this carol is commonly used as an opener.

Key moment: The angelic solo at the beginning is the highlight for teary mums around the world, but I always liked the descant in the last verse. (Although I have to admit that I prefer the descant that they use in this video.)

That makes me think of: It’s as grand and dramatic as any national anthem I know of. It’s like the national anthem of Christmas.

Andrew Moore is our blogger-in-residence, and author of the music blog Beautiful Song of the Week.”

Press Play: “In The Bleak Midwinter” by Harold Darke

In terms of winter bleakness, few places can match the Russian village of Oymyakon. If you check their current weather by clicking here, chances are it’s a fair bit bleaker than the weather is wherever you are. As well as holding the record for the coldest permanently inhabited place in the world, it is also known for…well, nothing. As far as I can tell, the village’s 500 inhabitants have two pastimes: trying not to die, and seeing how fast it takes boiling water to freeze when you throw it outside.

That thought, and this classic carol, might help warm you up if you’re feeling a bit bleak today.

Key moment: The high G on “heart” at 4:05.

That makes me think of: One of my favourite winter songs- “Skating” by Vince Guaraldi.

Andrew Moore is our blogger-in-residence, and author of the music blog Beautiful Song of the Week.”

Press Play: “In Dulci Jubilo” by Robert Pearsall

This is one of those great Christmas carols that is not well-known enough to be played to death in every grocery store and car commercial, and yet familiar enough to make you want to pour yourself a liberal helping of egg nog.

Key moment:When the melody spins off in various descant-ish directions, starting at 1:55.

That makes me think of: The soothing and not-sickeningly-festive mood of “Christmas Song” by Mogwai.  

Andrew Moore is our blogger-in-residence, and author of the music blog Beautiful Song of the Week.”

Press Play: “A Spotless Rose” by Herbert Howells

December is the shortest month.

Okay, technically, February is shorter. It’s just that February seems to last forever. You struggle through the horrible weather, the unnecessary stress of Valentine’s Day, the curious lack of days off work, and then you glance at the calendar…and it’s still only February 17th.

December, on the other hand, hits the ground running. It races from milestone to milestone before ending with a literal bang on the 31st, leaving you dazed and hungover, wondering where the time has gone.

So let’s get your December off to a good start, courtesy of a Christmas carol by Herbert Howells, who lived through 90 Decembers. And, if possible, take his advice on how to sing this piece and apply it to your attitude as we begin this hectic, fast-paced month; try to get through it “with easeful movement.”

Key moment: The chord that the choir holds below the baritone solo at 1:51.

That makes me think of: No song better reflects the craziness, happiness, and brevity of December than “Song 2” by Blur.

Andrew Moore is our blogger-in-residence, and author of the music blog Beautiful Song of the Week.”

Press Play: “God Is Gone Up” by Gerald Finzi

I loved singing this one as a kid. There’s so much great stuff in it: the booming organ, the ritardando just before the choir enters, and you get to sing the word “seraphicwise”, which must be one of the most glorious words ever.

But the best part was the pure joy of shouting out the loud parts.

Key moment: The surprise chord on the word “glory” at 4:46.

That makes me think of: “Shout” by Tears for Fears.

Andrew Moore is our blogger-in-residence, and author of the music blog Beautiful Song of the Week.”

Press Play: “I Was Glad” by Hubert Parry

The coronation of King George VII took place in 1902. There hadn’t been a coronation in Britain since 1838, so it was a big occasion. As such, it needed something with big emotion behind it. Parry’s response was the coronation anthem, “I Was Glad”.

The word “glad” doesn’t quite cover the emotion that Parry injected into this one. With trumpets, a six-part choir, and enough fortissimos to make Handel blush, it feels like the title should be something bigger. Like maybe, “I Was Pumped”, or “I Was Super Excited”, or “I Was Worryingly Over-Enthusiastic”.

Maybe Parry went huge with this one because he didn’t get to compose as much as he might have liked to. His life pulled him in various directions; a professorship at Oxford, constant writing about music history, his father’s obsession with wanting him to pursue a career in insurance…all these things meant that few works were ever seen through to completion. But when they did, as here, they were big.

Key moment: On the last line, “plenteousness within thy palaces,” the sopranos wrap it up with an enormous b-flat. Plenteousness indeed.

That makes me think of: Listen to the last 20 seconds of Parry’s masterpiece. Then listen to this. If those two pieces of music aren’t long-lost twins, I’ll sing a b-flat at the next coronation.

Andrew Moore is our blogger-in-residence, and author of the music blog Beautiful Song of the Week.”