Music Notes | Advent Lessons & Carols

Eric Mellenbruch
Associate Director of Music
and Organist

The modern tradition of services of Lessons and Carols dates from 1880, when an English bishop drew up such a service for use on Christmas Eve in his temporary cathedral church. The structure is inspired by the Office of Matins, which for major feasts is distinguished by a series of nine Lessons, each followed by a certain form of chant (Tenebrae, observed in Holy Week, is a form of Matins.)

Similar services sprung up around the Church of England, the most famous being the one now heard round the world from King’s College, Cambridge, which began in 1918. The Episcopal Church’s Book of Occasional Services contains Festivals of Lessons & Music for both Christmas and Advent focusing on Creation, the Fall, the prophetic witness to God’s plan for salvation, and the annunciation(s) and (at Christmas) the birth of Christ. At St David’s it has become the custom to enjoy Advent Lessons & Carols on the Second Sunday of Advent.

The well-known passage from Isaiah 40 – ‘Comfort[,] my people’; prepare the way of the Lord – is a quintessential Advent message, not least because the Gospels have St John the Baptist quote it and identify himself as the ‘voice of one crying in the wilderness’. The passage was put into German metrical paraphrase by Johann Olearius in the seventeenth century; this was translated into English by Catherine Winkworth in the nineteenth. The highly rhythmic tune now associated with that translation comes from the Genevan Calvinist tradition, where it originally set a metrical version of Psalm 42. 

The hymn ‘Veni, veni, Emmanuel’, written in Latin in 1710, is based upon a very much older series of antiphons sung with the Song of Mary at Evening Prayer in the days leading up to Christmas, summarizing the purpose of the season of waiting and preparation. Each of these, known as the ‘O Antiphons’, names an attribute or historical name of God: O Wisdom, O Adonai [Lord of Might], O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Dayspring, O Desire and King of Nations, O Emmanuel. The antiphons are rich in Scriptural resonance and symbolism focused on the identity of the Lord; the hymn based upon them focuses somewhat more upon the petitions: teach us the ways of Wisdom; free us from the power of the grave; open heaven to us and close the gates of death; join all people(s) together and bring peace. The beautiful and beloved tune now associated with this hymn-text dates from the fifteenth century.  For more on this hymn – one of St David’s Top Ten! – please see the music notes for 27 September.

This service, being still part of the Advent season, ends not with the Nativity but with the Annunciation. In response to this Lesson we sing a carol whose text and lilting tune come from the Basque people. Notable in the loose paraphrase by Sabine Baring-Gould (quite the best of his four texts in the Hymnal 1982) are the description of the angel Gabriel (‘his wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame’); the reference to the Song of Mary (‘My soul shall laud and magnify his holy Name’); and the refrain (‘Most highly favored lady’), which is first spoken by the angel, then in stanza 3 placed upon the lips of the singer as an acclamation here and now, and finally in stanza 4 given (promised, or commanded) to the whole Church. One aspect of this text, however, requires some balance: Mary may have been ‘lowly’ and perhaps even ‘meek’ (and if so, then she was surely thus blessed, as the Sermon on the Mount promises), but the tradition describes her role in the Incarnation not as a passive one, but as a quite active one requiring her assent, her vigilance, and indeed her very flesh. As the Mother of Our Lord she was uniquely placed to fulfill the commandment to ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength’. In all these ways she is our model as we seek to bear Christ in the time and the ways given to us.

In addition to these hymns, the Compline Choir provides motets setting parts of two Lessons by great Renaissance composers Christopher Tye and Orlando di Lasso, and Songfest reminds us to ‘prepare the way of the Lord’ in a rather different vein, as set in the musical Godspell

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