Audivi vocem de caelo venientem: venite omnes virgines sapientissime;
oleum recondite in vasis vestris dum sponsus advenerit.
Media nocte clamor factus est: ecce sponsus venit.
I heard a voice coming from heaven: come all wisest virgins;
fill your vessels with oil, for the bridegroom is coming.
In the middle of the night there was a cry: behold the bridegroom comes.
Thomas Tallis’s “Audivi Vocem de Caelo” draws its text from Matthew 25:6-7. The text is deeply Advent-themed, describing the coming of the “bridegroom,” Jesus.
The symbol of the bridegroom appears several times in the new testament. Jesus is described as a “bridegroom” by John the Baptist, who heralds his coming. Jesus himself also uses the example of a bridegroom when asked why his disciples do not fast like the followers of John the Baptist or the Pharisees. He says, ” Can the friends of the bridegroom fast, as long as the bridegroom is with them? but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast.” [Mark 2:19]
Though clearly no one around him could have known it at the time, Jesus was referring to the time at which he would be taken from his followers and crucified. So the idea of the coming bridegroom is not only something that should be anticipated and celebrated, as in the Matthew text that inspired this piece, but also one that should hint at eventual loss and sadness. Christmas marks the coming of the Messiah, a joyful occasion. But the “bridegroom” is doomed to die from the minute he is born.
This idea manifests itself in Tallis’s music, which is certainly beautiful, yet with seemingly as many hints of sadness as joy. While each quartet section ends with a major chord, there is plenty of navigating through somber minor moments on the way there.
Tallis also does an excellent job of capturing the idea that many people are anticipating the coming of the bridegroom. The four parts are essentially singing the same thing, but with a round. The alto part starts spreading the message first, and one by one the other parts pick it up, just as one messenger would begin spreading the word about the coming of the bridegroom, only to have others catch on and spread it as well.
The quartet sections, then, are more anticipatory, with messengers spreading the “good news.” Meanwhile, the chant sections are more preparatory. The men, who would have been the church leaders, sing about the preparations needed for the coming of the bridegroom. Alternating between the chant and quartet sections gives us a good look at how commoners and clergy would have responded to the news.
We look forward to performing this piece at our fall concert on Saturday, December 12th at 7:00 PM at the Irish Cultural Heritage Center!
Listen to the song below: