Music Notes | First Sunday of Advent

Eric Mellenbruch
Associate Director of Music
and Organist

For the season of Advent our services will include the singing of the Introit historically assigned to each occasion, as our 11:15 a.m. and 5 p.m. services have done in the recent past. These chants, like the other ‘proper’ (variable) chants of the liturgy, are many hundreds of years old and are rooted in the Psalms, though other Scriptures are also used.

The Introit accompanies the entrance procession of the Mass and originally consisted of an entire Psalm with an antiphon (refrain) probably sung after every verse or group of verses. (In an era when most Masses were celebrated by bishops or at least in large urban or monastic churches – when parish churches as we know them did not yet exist or were not the norm – these processions were quite grand!) Over time, in response to the more modest needs of smaller churches, the amount of psalmody was reduced and the antiphon became the main feature; today, in places where these chants are sung, Psalm verses may be selected according to the length required as well as, one hopes, the connections they may have with the given occasion.

Although these connections can sometimes be obscure – because the proper chants were not entirely reorganized to match the post-1960s lectionary (nor even earlier lectionary revisions) – on this First Sunday of Advent, Year B, the connections are quite clear, since the appointed Gospel is the Markan equivalent (13.24–31) of the passage from St Luke (21.25–33) historically assigned to this day. In it Our Lord describes the signs that will precede his final advent, and declares: ‘Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory.’ The Lucan version, now read in Year C, adds, ‘Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’ Both versions continue with the lesson of the fig tree, which Jesus ends by saying, ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.’

Thus our Introit antiphon, with text from Psalm 25.1–2a, begins, ‘To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul’, and ends, ‘For none who look to you shall be put to shame.’ Verses 3–4a of the Psalm are chosen to accompany it: ‘Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths; lead me in your truth and teach me.’ If we were to sing the whole Psalm, we would also encounter the words, ‘My eyes are ever looking to the Lord, for he shall pluck my feet out of the net.’ The whole is a beautiful prayer for forgiveness and deliverance, and an acknowledgement of God’s faithfulness, compassion, and love, and of the rightness of God’s way. In Advent, looking to and for the Lord, we prepare this way, seeking to meet Christ anew in our own hearts and in the world around us.

The oldest notated music for these chants dates from the early tenth century, though the music was taught orally and committed to memory for some time before that, and it was only later that the notation developed to specify exact pitch relationships rather than shapes of melodic phrases. Opinions vary as to the ‘original’ performance practice of the chant; some interpretations are quite slow and add ornamentation, while others are quite fast and treat much of the notated music as ornamentation in itself. Though we are used to hearing a rhythmically free and rather ‘clean’, not to say ‘ethereal’, interpretation of the chant, there is

good evidence that specific rhythmic values were intended and notated, and that the singing may have been rather more vigorous, both of which are characteristic of, say, Greek Orthodox chant today.

This week’s Introit, being the first chant for the first Sunday of the Church year, is the first entry in books of chant for the Mass, many of which feature elaborate illumination – sometimes occupying most or all of a page – of the first letter or phrase of the Latin text: ‘Ad te levavi’ (‘To you have I lifted’). The Latin chants were occasionally adapted to vernacular languages in the later Middle Ages; some German versions were made by Lutheran and Bohemian Protestants in the sixteenth century, while English adaptation got underway with the re-adoption of chant and other venerable ecclesiastical traditions among Anglicans in the nineteenth century. This work continues today.

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