I, as so often, can sympathize with both sides. There is so much good sacred Christmas music that a Christmas Eve service and one or two Sundays in Christmastide really aren't enough to sing a reasonable number of them. Add to that the certainty that one must include the usual favorites on Christmas Eve for those who come only once or twice a year. Go to a concert that includes audience participation and you get the same old chestnuts. It's no wonder we are tempted to begin early.
On the other hand, not only are the longing and meditative aspects of Advent important for our full understanding of Incarnation, but speaking purely musically, there are many treasures which too often remain unsung. Here's my list of favorite songs for Advent, most of which would be appropriately sung in church. I've tried to arrange them roughly chronologically as to date of musical composition, just because. See sidebar for where to get albums or, in some cases, downloads of individual songs.
1. Conditor Alme Siderum (Creator of the Stars of Night) -- Gregorian Chant -- Our Lady of Perpetual Help Chant Choir
The text of this piece is said to date to the 7th century. Pope Urban VIII, in a wholesale rewriting of texts to conform with "classical Latin poetry" in 1632, changed all but one line of the original and it was retitled Creator Alme Siderum. (For those of you who, like me, had only two years of Latin, or less, conditor means creator; creator means creator and/or founder, hence the occasional translation "O blessed founder of the stars".) The tune is the same. However, at some point since 1632, the original text was restored and is the one usually translated now, as far as I can tell. I find Gregorian chant puts me in as meditative a state as it's possible for someone with terminal monkey-mind to reach, and of course, in Latin. The group singing this version is not a group of nuns, but a few women who are involved with the Community Music Center of Santa Cruz, California.
2. Veni, Veni Emmanuel (O Come, O Come, Emmanuel) -- Probably 15th century -- The King's Singers
So, is there anyone who went to church last Sunday and didn't sing or hear this? (Unitarians and Orthodox excepted, for different reasons.) I suspect it's the most-sung Advent hymn of all and with good reason. Although I've heard some pretty poor renditions, the tune remains one that induces a spirit of reverence. The words, based on the traditional "O Antiphons" which were sung in the week before Christmas, give us many ways to think about Jesus. According to The New Oxford Book of Carols, the "O Antiphons" date to at least the 8th century. This metrical rendering was in use as early as the 13th century, and was translated into English in the 19th century by J. M. Neale and T. Helmore. The origins of the tune which Neale published with it were mysteriously lost until its rediscovery in 1966 in a 15th-century French manuscript. There are many, many recordings of this hymn, often in English, but I prefer the King's Singers' Latin rendition.
3/ The Cherry Tree Carol -- Kentucky Traditional -- John Langstaff, baritone, Carol Duveneck, Appalachian dulcimer, and Susan Robbins, psaltery
Here's one you're not so likely to hear in church, based as it is on a tale from the apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew which later turned up (with a change from date palm to cherry tree) in the 15th century Coventry Play. Still, it seems appropriate to me in this season of waiting to have a song about a pregnant Mary who has food cravings! Many, many versions of this song have been collected both in the United Kingdom and in the United States, and The New Oxford Book of Carols (hereafter TNOBC) actually presents it as a sort of song cycle with three very different segments. The version presented here by the late John Langstaff, founder of the Christmas Revels, uses a tune colelcted in Kentucky. It also includes one of my favorite phrases, which some other versions leave out (TNOBC has it in the third segment):
4. Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence -- Picardy Carol, 17th century -- The Miserable Offenders
These may be the second-oldest set of lyrics in this group of songs, dating as they are said to do to the 4th century. (For the oldest, see the next entry.) The tune, known as Picardy from the French region where it is said to have originated, is probably 17th century. The hymn is often used as a communion hymn and is suggested for various other uses during the church year, but it is also well-suited to Advent as we await the time when
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the Presence
As with ceaseless voice they cry
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia, God most high!
The Miserable Offenders are two Episcopalian laywomen who sang together for a time and made a couple of recordings. Their music is perhaps not for everyone, but I like it immensely. On this piece they are accompanying themselves with a tongue drum and synthesizer.
5. Magnificat cum Alleluia -- Gregorian Chant -- Nóirín Ní Riain
Of course the Magnificat, Mary's song of praise at the Annunciation, is the oldest text in this group (Luke 1:46-55). The tune is also old, but the liner notes say only that it was found in Cantus Selecti published at Solesmes in 1949. The Irish singer Nóirín Ní Riain's voice lends an unearthly beauty to the chant.
Both this song and "Let All Mortal Flesh..." include multiple alleluias. Not being of a liturgical tradition, I thought I'd better make sure "alleluia" was not forbidden during Advent as it is during Lent (something I didn't know about until a few years ago). So I performed a Google(tm) search. Roman Catholics and Anglicans were clear that, as Advent is more a season of hope than of penitence, alleluia may be said or sung during it. (Not so with "Gloria in excelsis deo," at least as a response during the service, which is, quite properly, reserved until Christmas.) However, I did find one blog entry by a guy who said he was a Lutheran, and that Alleluia should not be sung during Advent. I returned to the entry just now and figured out he was probably either a Missouri or Wisconsin Synod Lutheran, as he referred to his worship book/hymnal as the LSB rather than the LBW or the "cranberry hymnal". Some people had commented and suggested that the prohibition on Alleluia during Advent had somehow crept in while no one was looking. I wonder if these Lutherans prohibit Bach's great Lutheran cantata "Wachet auf" or any of its translations in hymn form? Any Lutheran readers are invited to comment!
6. Zion hört die Wächter singen -- Chorale from Cantata "Wachet auf" BWV 140, J. S. Bach -- Francisco Araiza, tenor
7. People, Look East -- Besançon carol, 17th century -- Marty Haugen and friends
8. O Heiland, reiß die Himmel auf --German chorale melody, arranged by Johannes Brahms -- Wilhelmshavener Vokalensemble
This rather old piece of music is new to me since last Advent. It is included in a CD that Cordeliaknits' first seminary roommate, now back in Germany, sent me as a Christmas present last year. Each piece of music on it is performed twice, once on organ by Albert Behrends and once vocally by the Wilhelmshavener Vokalensemble. An interesting recording since, in addition to older music, it includes two hymns written by World War II - era German pastors, one of whom was a member of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Confessing Church, and the other -- was not. Reconciliation is still going on. The text (you'll need to scroll down to find it) "O Savior, rend the heavens" speaks not only of Jesus' breaking of the barrier between God and man, but also brings in the longing for spring and the return of light which is even more desirable in Germany than here in Maine at this time of year. (Stuttgart, where this friend lives when she's not at seminary in Tübingen, is rather far south in Germany; its latitude lies between those of Bismarck, ND and Calgary, Alberta.) The music reminded me that I should listen to some more Brahms after Christmas is over.
9. Sankta Lucia -- Neapolitan Traditional -- Anne-Sofie von Otter
Here is another song you aren't likely to hear in church, unless your church is called something like Augustana Lutheran, and even then, it will likely be at a special event. December 13, the Feast of St. Lucy aka Sankta Lucia, falls about midway through Advent. Most people probably have heard of the Swedish custom of having the eldest daughter dress in a white gown, with a lighted crown, and bring breakfast rolls to the rest of the family. Many Swedish-American churches and other groups have Luciadag ceremonies elsewhere than in homes, as well. There are several songs traditional to this activity, but probably the best-known is this one, which is set to a traditional Neapolitan tune of the same name (in Italian), first transcribed in the early 19th century. I picture a visiting Swede hearing it (the Italian words are more of a travelogue about a place called Santa Lucia) and realizing it was just the thing for Luciadag singing. Anne-Sofie von Otter is a Swedish mezzo-soprano. For a more humorous take on the song, see the Garrison Keillor album noted in the sidebar. His version makes the story into something resembling Babette's Feast.
10. Prepare the Way, O Zion/Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus -- Swedish Melody before 1560/Psalmodia Sacra, 1715, attr. to Christian Witt -- The Miserable Offenders
Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus was written by Charles Wesley (December 18 is the 300th anniversary of his birth). The Cyberhymnal and most recordings I could find set it to Hyfrydol. Hyfrydol is a lovely tune and one of my favorites, but I just don't see it as an Advent hymn and evidently The Miserable Offenders agreed. The tune Stuttgart, attributed to Christian Witt, seems much more suitable to me, and besides, it's what I'm used to, being in both the Pilgrim Hymnal and New Century Hymnal for this text.
11. Blomstre som en Rosengard -- J. P. E. Hartmann -- Musica Ficta
This one will not be familiar to most readers who are not related to me. I married into a family of Danish Grundtvigians, Lutherans who adhered to the theology and, even more, to the poetry of the Danish Bishop N. F. S. Grundtvig. This Advent hymn was one of my mother-in-law's favorites. Unless you have access to a copy of the Hymnal for Church and Home, published in 1938 by the two Danish-American Lutheran Synods then active (the "Happy Danes" and the "Holy Danes"), you may look for it in vain (although it is apparently still extant in Denmark where several groups have put it on their Christmas albums). The words were written by N. F. S. Grundtvig himself and show his love of nature imagery. The first two verses essentially paraphrase Isaiah 35:1-6; the last two relate that prophecy to Christ's coming. Cordeliaknits tells me that this is no longer theologically correct, but we continue to read this prophecy -- Third Sunday in Advent, this year -- so why not sing the song too? The music is by J. P. E. Hartmann, a Danish composer who seems, from some of the other things he wrote, to have had many of the same interests as Grundtvig in folklore. The English translation, of which I quote the first two verses below, is by Rev. S. D. Rodholm, as are many of the English translations of songs we have sung over the years at West Denmark Family Camp. He was the President of Grand View College during the years my father-in-law was a student there, and his daughter and granddaughter are family friends to this day.
All the desert places,
Blossom when the golden year
Shines on saddened faces.
Glory crowns proud Lebanon,
Carmel's height has splendor won,
Flowers bloom in Sharon.
Sight is given to the blind
And their eyes shall glisten,
Ev'ry mute his voice shall find,
All the deaf shall listen;
Like the hart the lame shall leap,
Zion nevermore shall weep,
Peace shall reign forever.
12. What Is the Crying at Jordan? -- Traditional Irish Tune, given the name St. Mark, Berkeley -- The Miserable Offenders
Can you tell I really, really like The Miserable Offenders? Of course, they also put several Advent songs on their Advent/Christmas album. In this one they use a Tibetan singing bowl as their only accompaniment. This relatively contemporary hymn (it's found in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982) seems to inspire strong feelings. Its words are frequently quoted in priestly columns in parish newsletters, and I've read comments from choir directors who either love it or hate it. I quite like to listen to the song, but I'm not sure about trying to sing it as an average congregant with below-average vocal skills. I must mention a bit of synchronicity. I had never heard of St. Mark's Church, Berkeley, California until a few weeks ago when OHP mentioned that our church organist, during his sabbatical, would be playing a recital at "St. Mark's Cathedral in Berkeley." Having visited Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, on my trip to Berkeley last spring, I doubted there would be another Episcopal cathedral so near. So I looked it up and discovered that, no, it isn't a cathedral, but its organ is as good as a cathedral organ. It's not far from where Cordeliaknits goes to seminary. Then, in researching this hymn, I learned (through an old newsletter from Cathy's church) about the reason the tune was called St. Mark's, Berkeley -- Carol Christopher Drake, the hymnwriter, was or is a member there. Such occurrences always amaze me a little.
13. Koppången -- Pereric Moraeus -- Anne-Sofie von Otter
This is the newest of the songs, written by a Swedish folk musician who sometimes performs with Benny Anderson of ABBA. He writes of passing a lighted church in a frozen Swedish valley, hearing the choir singing, and knowing that "those who have left us here had the same thoughts as I." In the beginning of the song, he seems to be outside the church, but by the last two verses he has joined the congregation and can sing and believe "a hymn of grace and glory," and "that's why I'm lighting a candle each Sunday in Advent."
We here in the States hear a lot about how Christian, church-going believers are an infinitesimally small percentage of the population in Scandinavia, Germany and the United Kingdom. Yet, I've "met" through RevGalBlogPals and elsewhere several clergy and laypeople from these places who don't seem to be despairing nor think their efforts are futile. If people can still write songs like Koppången, maybe there is hope for the church -- yes, even in Sweden.