Music, familiar and new, sets tone for Advent and Christmas

By Sharon Sheridan
Posted Dec 6, 2011

[Episcopal News Service] As inevitable as Advent wreaths and Christmas pageants, music fills Episcopal churches throughout the holiday season. Congregations embrace services of Lessons and Carols and performances of Handel’s “Messiah” as choir directors seek to provide a balance of the beloved and familiar with new works illuminating the miracle of the Incarnation.

Unlike in shopping malls – and some other denominations – the music of December is not Christmas carols but Advent hymns during the four weeks before the Nativity.

This was a new experience after growing up Methodist, recalled Marilyn Keiser, music professor emeritus of Indiana University and music director at Trinity Episcopal Church, Bloomington, Indiana.

“That was a change for me, or at least a learning experience,” she said. “We really wait to sing Christmas carols and Christmas music until Christmas Eve. But there are so many wonderful themes in Advent.”

The Advent hymns match the lectionary, with ones such as “On Jordan’s Banks the Baptist Cries” and “There’s a Voice in the Wilderness Crying” to accompany readings about John the Baptist and settings of the Magnificat and “The Angel Gabriel” to follow this year’s Advent 4 Gospel of the Annunciation, she said.

“The music of Advent is so rich,” she said. “I think it’s my favorite liturgical season.”

During Advent, “we have quieter music during Communion,” she said. “We sometimes have had the psalms sung, plainsong, in the back of the church – with handbells. Just things to kind of give a quieter feel to the service, more contemplative.

“I really appreciate that, with all the hubbub around the commercial aspects of Christmas. And I think that’s one of the really nice things about the music of Advent. Although much of it is still joyous – ‘Prepare the Way, O Zion’ and things like that – there also are more contemplative hymns: ‘Creator of the Stars of Night’; ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel.'”

The latter stems from the monastic tradition.

Monks and nuns chant the psalter in a set order during daily services in a rhythm that doesn’t change with the seasons. But the antiphons before and after the psalms and canticles do change, explained Brother Scott Borden, prior at Holy Cross Monastery, an Anglican Benedictine community in West Park, New York. “So at the beginning of Advent, we switch to a whole different set of antiphons, and they’re meant to call us into the Advent season in various ways.”

Probably the best known of these are the “O Antiphons” for the Magnificat in the days leading up to Christmas, he said. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is written using those antiphons.

“There are many, many settings of them. They’ve inspired composers over the years,” he said. “I think they’re set probably in every language where the Christian church is present. … They take seven names that Isaiah uses to refer to God: Emmanuel, Wisdom, Root of Jesse, Key of David … We’re looking at this incarnational event of Christmas, and this is what’s being incarnated. These are the names of God coming out of the Jewish tradition, where you couldn’t say the name of God.”

Jazz musician Isaac Everett once composed an instrumental arrangement of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” for concertina, oboe, guitar, flute, drum set and didjeridu. A similar version appears on his first album, “Rotation.” As minister of liturgical arts at The Crossing, an emerging church meeting at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston, he often composes music for amateur musicians in the congregation to play during worship.

“Even if you can only get three notes out, I’ll write something for you,” he said. “We’re honoring the gifts that are in this community … For me as a musician and composer, it’s one of the most rewarding ministries – helping people play music who either haven’t been given the space to do it or have kind of forgotten their love of it or don’t believe they have the ability to do it.”

Similarly, he sees congregational singing – with everyone participating as part of the gathered body of Christ – as particularly meaningful in Advent leading to the Incarnation at Christmas.

Worshipers sit close together in a circle at The Crossing to encourage congregational singing. Photo courtesy of Isaac Everett

“I think Advent is a much earthier season. It’s when divinity comes to earth,” Everett said. Getting everyone singing together in a circle, close enough for their voices to blend, is a “profound statement,” he said. “It’s a much more visible witness to what we believe the kingdom of God actually is and what it looks like, and we’re rehearsing it in our worship. … The kingdom is not a kingdom in which we all sit and listen to professional singers.”

The Crossing often uses secular music for Advent, such as “Waiting in Vain” by Bob Marley, “Waiting for the Miracle” by Leonard Cohen and “When a Man Comes Around” by Johnny Cash, as well as tunes such as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Because it’s a penitential season, they often begin the service with a musical confession such as this one from his album, “Transmission,” Everett said.

Christmas brings the familiar carols. “Those songs are so great, and we get to sing them so rarely, and everyone knows them,” he said. While Advent is a time to “get creative and think outside the box liturgically, Christmas comes around and we’re exchanging presents and singing carols, and we’re really in the box” – but that’s also very comforting, he said.

For many Episcopalians, services of Advent or Christmas festivals of lessons and music, found in the Episcopal Book of Occasional Services, provide an opportunity to sing and listen to carols both new and familiar.

“The tradition of [Christmas] Lessons and Carols is sort of engrained in the Anglican choral tradition,” said John Scott, director of music at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Fifth Avenue, in New York.

The choir of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Fifth Avenue, New York, in procession at the end of a service.

E.W. Benson, who became archbishop of Canterbury, created the first service of nine alternating Scripture readings and carols for use in the wooden shed serving as his cathedral in Truro, England, for Christmas Eve 1880. Other churches adapted the format, and King’s College, Cambridge, began holding its Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in 1918. Millions of people around the world listen to the annual BBC broadcast of the service, which always begins with the hymn “Once in Royal David’s City” and includes a new commissioned carol.

“It tells the whole story of our redemption, if you like, from the fall of Adam to the birth of Christ,” Scott said. “Around that, I think, it’s possible to build a very imaginative sequence of carols and hymns.”

People enjoy the chance to sing well-known carols, he said. “Into that sort of framework, the musical director has the opportunity to interweave carols of a different sort of nature each year that can respond to the readings that can reflect and also comment on them. … It has great opportunity for creative thought.”

The St. Thomas choir of men and boys sings a full Lessons and Carols service twice the Sunday before Christmas, plus will offer shorter carol services Dec. 17 and 21 and one Christmas Eve when the rector blesses the crèche and delivers his Christmas message for children. And on Dec. 15, the boys from the choir – students at St. Thomas’ choir school – will sing Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols” along with John Rutter’s “Dancing Day.”

While it doesn’t call it a carol service, St. Thomas also does four lessons with accompanying music preceding choral Eucharist to begin Advent, beginning by singing Palestrina’s “Matins Responsory” from the church’s great staircase. “In no way are we trying to anticipate Christmas,” Scott said, describing it as “ringing in the new ecclesiastical year.”

This year’s music for the Advent 1 procession included a musical setting of the Benedictus, “Drop Down, Ye Heavens” by Judith Weir, Anton Bruckner’s “Ave Maria” and the hymn “Come Thou Redeemer of the Earth.” (On-demand audio links of various performances at St. Thomas can be found here.)

Beyond traditional hymns and carols, one of the musical works most associated with Christmas is the “Messiah.”

The St. Thomas choir will perform the “Messiah” on Dec. 6 and 8. “That’s an annual tradition where the church is packed,” Scott said.

Some churches host “Messiah” sing-alongs instead of performances, with audience members invited to sing all the choruses.

St. James’ Episcopal Church in Lothian, Maryland, recently held its 25th annual community sing-along of Part One of “Messiah” plus the “Hallelujah Chorus.”

Singers pack St. James’ Church, Lothian, for the 25th “Messiah” Sing-Along on Nov. 27. Michael Ryan, church music director, conducted the performance, which featured a chamber ensemble plus organ and trumpets for the “Hallelujah Chorus.” Photo/Val Hymes

“In the past five or six years, we’ve had sponsors at the church that cover the costs of the musicians, and we’ve used it as a fundraiser for the Salvation Army,” said Music Director Michael Ryan. “I don’t think we’ve ever had less than 100 singers … and then some people just come to listen. In our little 18th-century building, it sounds like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir when we get going.”

“After the performance is over, we feed everybody,” he said. “It’s quite a nice community event.”

Other options are available for those looking to perform a less-familiar holiday work.

For its intergenerational Christmas pageant, Trinity, Bloomington, has performed “The Winter Star” by Malcolm Williamson. “It tells the story of the first Christmas, and it’s just beautiful,” Keiser said. The show lasts about 20 minutes, with a cast of 25 to 30 people portraying everyone from angels and shepherds to children in their beds.

The music was very accessible, Keiser said. It concludes with a procession to the manger and the singing of “Glory to God” as a six-part round.

Another contemporary work, “The Cantata of the Animals: Animalium Cantata,” was premiered in December 1996 by the Harmonium Choral Society, conducted by Anne Matlack, music director at Grace Episcopal Church in Madison, New Jersey. Matlack was looking to commission a new Christmas work and chose a libretto of poems about the animals at the manger written by her future husband, Jabez Van Cleef (they married the year the piece debuted). New York composer Elliot Levine set it to music.

“There is a strain of person that wants everything to be precisely the same every year at Christmas,” Van Cleef said. “There is another strain of person that gets mighty tired of the ‘Nutcracker’ and the ‘Messiah’ being the big stuff and the sort of traditional English carols with a little French thrown in being the rest of it, music-wise. We wanted to provide choruses with an alternative that was … up-to-date with the world that we now live in, without offending anybody, but that would be big enough to be programmed as the centerpiece in a Christmas musical event.”

The cantata “told the story of Christmas as it was viewed by animals, acting on the principle that the animals were there first, and that that meant something,” he said. “It’s one thing to say that animals are there, but it’s another thing to say, ‘Yes, that’s the right way. That’s the way God intended it to be.'”

Van Cleef said he wanted to convey Christianity’s message of social equalization, “so that even a spider has a soul.” He explores the theological question around people’s places in society by having the animals sing: “Are some born to lead, some follow? Is this law the one God gave?”

He also incorporated an environmental message, with the baby singing (“I figure he’s God, anyway, he should be able to sing a song”) that marks the “birth of a holistic consciousness, the ability to sort of see the whole thing at once working together.”

Musically, the nine-movement piece requires an SATB chorus, with multiple solos and duets, and accompaniment by cello, flute and English horn or oboe. It has been performed 20 to 30 times, including at Yale University and in Tokyo, Van Cleef said. “They had to translate the words into Japanese.”

Whatever the repertoire, music can provide a powerful draw to the church.

“Music is a very powerful and strong evangelistic tool,” Scott said.

And it’s meaningful for the musicians.

“Each year, pieces speak to me in a different sort of way,” Scott said. “A line of a hymn can sometimes leap out at you in a way that you never thought of it before.”

— Sharon Sheridan is an ENS correspondent.


Comments (2)

  1. Thomas Spacht says:

    Thanks for this. It would be helpful, however, to downplay the idea of Advent as a penitential season. It is instead a season of preparation and expectation. It is for this reason some denominations, including the Episcopal Church, encourage the use of the liturgical color blue and not violet, as in Lent. Further, the concept of Gaudete Sunday as the third Sunday of Advent does not agree with the Revised Common Lectionary now in use. Only in Year C is the “rejoice” reading used. Presently we are in Year B and although there is a kind of “rejoice” second reading it is not the one for Gaudete Sunday. In light of this many churches have adopted four blue candles for the Advent Wreath.

  2. Edward Kempers says:

    For years, I have been trying to locate a song I sang while I was in the men and boys’ choir at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Youngstown, Ohio. We sang it during the Christmas season.


    Hope you can help!


    Ed Kempers

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