Music Notes | Fourth Sunday of Advent

Eric Mellenbruch
Associate Director of Music
and Organist

In each year of the modern three-year lectionary, the Fourth Sunday of Advent features an account from the pre-birth narrative of Our Lord: the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to St Elizabeth; the dream of St Joseph explaining the circumstances of his fiancée’s unexpected pregnancy; and this year, the Annunciation to Our Lady herself. 

Our two organ voluntaries this Sunday reflect this Gospel. The prelude is an arrangement for organ of a vocal motet by Hans Leo Haßler setting Mary’s reply to the angel Gabriel, ‘Dixit Maria ad angelum’– ‘Mary said to the angel: Behold the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Haßler (1564–1612) was an important composer of the late Renaissance; the arranger, Heinrich Scheidemann (1595–1663), was the leading German organ composer of his generation. It was common in the 16th and early 17th centuries for organists to play arrangements of vocal works when a choir was not available (because one choir served several parishes, or perhaps in times of war, such as the Thirty Years’ War of the early 17th century, or of plague, such as the one that took Scheidemann’s life). The practice had largely died out by the time Scheidemann came to write a dozen such pieces, but his are among the finest examples of the genre. The postlude, by 2oth-century Belgian composer Paul de Maleingreau, is based closely upon the melody of the antiphon to the Song of Mary for Evening Prayer on the Feast of the Annunciation, the text being the angel’s greeting to Mary.

The Introit forms another link between this Sunday and the Feast of the Annunciation, being appointed for both occasions. The text comes from Isaiah 45.8: ‘Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the skies rain down the Righteous. O let the earth be opened, that a Savior might spring up.’ (The Psalm-verse chosen is 19.1, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork’.) It is rightly our prayer for justice and salvation, for the Just One who is Salvation – but in Isaiah these words are spoken by the LORD himself and followed by this declaration: ‘I the LORD have created it.’ That is, the salvation God intends and has commanded will, must, and does happen; what God has made is pregnant, filled to bursting, with righteousness, for (as the rest of Psalm 19 affirms) this is the way of God and the very fabric of creation.

‘The angel Gabriel from heaven came’ [265] was sung at Advent Lessons & Carols; please see the notes for 6 December. Our other hymn this week, ‘Come, thou long-expected Jesus’ [66], is the work of Charles Wesley, the greatest English-language hymnist. The hymn’s straightforward language perhaps disguises its carefully considered structure. The first stanza is built around three imperatives: come, release, let us find. The second, by contrast, consists largely of a list (and what a list!) of abstractions personified in Christ: strength, consolation, hope, desire, joy. A participle introduced in the one line of the first stanza not featuring an imperative – ‘born’ – now becomes the focus of the third stanza, appearing (in balance to its one previous appearance) in three out of four lines. The last line of this stanza, finally, introduces a return to a list of imperatives that continues into the last stanza: bring, rule, raise. All this is a fine vehicle for a wide-ranging view of Christ and his many advents: Who is Christ to us? to the world? What has he done, does he do, will he do? What do we most deeply yearn for, and how shall it be fulfilled? Many other writers could spill a good deal more ink and say no more about the coming of Christ than Wesley did in a hundred and twenty syllables.

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