Advent hymns shouldn’t be penitential

Not about psalms this time, but Advent hymns

I’m stepping outside my comfort zone to comment on some of the other music you might be considering using over the Advent season. (I think the only other time I’ve done this was in the blog on wedding music.)  This is because I realised when I was writing my Gentle Guide to the Christmas music that it didn’t really cover Advent, even though I have strong opinions about the hymns we have at this time of year.

Woman at desk, man standing in front
Volmar asking why I’m going off-topic
Advent is not another Lent

Too many people seem to see Advent as a mini-Lent, where the music should be penitential, but there are various clues around indicating that this should not be the case.  In the first place, we don’t lose the Alleluia during Advent.  This is very important!  In Lent it is not allowed to pass our lips from Ash Wednesday until the Easter Vigil, but during Advent, we sing the Alleluia verse every week.  We do not say or sing the Gloria during Advent, just as we don’t during Lent, but I think this is more to make us miss it and be happy to sing it on Christmas or Easter night (though it’s a nuisance for music directors because then the congregation always gives the impression of never having sung it before, which is really not what you want to happen with what is meant to be a shout of praise).

Advent is for getting ready

Advent is a time of preparation, but joyous and very focussed preparation.  I’ve talked before about it being like a mini-pregnancy.  Just as, in our own families, we don’t talk about the coming arrival until it’s obvious or even hard to miss (my mother-in-law’s rule for this was that you make sure you tell people before they tell you), you can’t expect the Church to keep celebrating the growth of the baby until the late stages when the end is in sight.  And anyway, we have to telescope the Lord’s whole life into our annual cycle (even if we have three different sets of readings), so we can’t dwell too long on any bit of it.  So we have the Annunciation in March, and then we don’t think about the baby as such, because we are celebrating and considering his adult life and work,  until Advent, when his arrival becomes our overwhelming consideration.

Practical preparations….

How do we prepare for the arrival of a baby?  We get everything ready, the clothes, the cradle, the towels, the linen.  We start thinking about how it is finally, really, going to happen.  We get our heads round the idea of this new person.  We make arrangements, for the other children, for visitors.  We plan ahead.

Of course, Mary couldn’t do this (though I bet she had a little collection of clothes tucked away somewhere in the donkey’s saddlebags).  She was on the move, unsure when things were going to happen, away from her neighbours and friends, away from Joseph’s home where they were still trying to get used to being married.  But I am sure that she wasn’t spending the time singing mournful songs and beating her breast (painful anyway when pregnant).  We know she trusted God to know what he was doing, so she wasn’t worried or fearful, but she must have been looking forward to meeting this baby who was even more special than all the others.

still knitting even after the baby is born … there’s never enough time to do everything
…and keeping cheerful

Obviously Advent does have some things in common with Lent.  It has purple vestments (except for Gaudete Sunday), and fasting during even six weeks was common at some earlier periods of the Church’s existence.  It’s still the practice of the Orthodox Church.  Even for non-religious people it makes sense to ease up on consumption before the great feast (in all senses) that is Christmas.  But it shouldn’t be mournful.  I think the gloomy aspect of Advent is probably rooted in identifying the arrival of the Lord as the Second Coming, but this can be overdone.  Yes, it’s a secondary meaning, but let’s not lose sight of the primary one.

everyone enjoying themselves; singing sets the mood
Choosing music to match

This is where the choice of hymns is so important.  For the Christmas baby, we get ready our hymns, our Advent carols, our special Alleluias, preparing them with love just like getting all the linen ready.   I am sorry there are so few direct links in the suggestions that follow, but it turned out to be impossible or too time-consuming to find decent recordings on-line.  This is partly because I have decided not to link to choirs that won’t allow women to sing, but also because there aren’t many YouTubes of straightforward choral hymn-singing.  And so many people sing them really ponderously.  But you shouldn’t have any trouble tracking them down, I’ve definitely stuck to mainstream here.

There aren’t very many Advent hymns in common use (it’s only four Sundays, after all).  The greatest of them all, O come, O come, Emmanuel, is in a minor key, because it is focussed on the long yearning for the Messiah.  It’s probably a French tune, fifteenth-century, and based on chant, so modal.  But please note the words of the chorus : Rejoice, rejoice!  This is not meant to be a dirge!

Two figures in a mediaeval frame
Let’s all sing a melodious (happy) song
Carols for before Christmas, and a bit of Latin

There are even a couple of proper carols that you can use specifically during Advent : Angelus ad virginem and Creator alme siderum, if your congregation is up to singing in Latin.  Plus of course the Salve Regina and any setting of the Magnificat that you like.  These are all fine as pre-Christmas music.

Specifically Advent carols and hymns : French..

Moving on into English, we can take a little European tour, grateful for the traditional pre-Christmas music across the Channel.  Outstanding here are Gabriel’s message (French melody again, more specifically Basque, but so well established in English) and O come, divine Messiah (French traditional, and a real toe-tapper;  Charpentier uses it).

..and German hymns are always a good idea

There are (of course) some great German hymns, different versions of Wachet auf, really good for Advent, and old German hymn tunes to familiar English words like Comfort, comfort, O my people (wonderful rhythm, really dancy), The advent of our King, Of the Father’s heart begottenCome thou long-expected JesusWhen the King shall come again (great tune), and so on, plus more modern ones like  The King shall come when morning dawns.

Modal and minor

If you like modal, there’s See how the Virgin waits for him, which is an old Jewish tune, and Let all mortal flesh keep silent, though I’d keep that one for later in Advent.  Hills of the North rejoice is another one that sounds very minor and then mutates, so I’m tucking it in here with the modals.

Follow the readings

You really more or less have to have On Jordan’s bank for the Second Sunday of Advent, given the readings, but you could also have something Holy Spirit-ish, because it’s all about Jesus’ baptism; or even Breathe on me, Breath of God, which always feels appropriate for baptisms and confirmations.

One or two lovely things to sing in Advent

I would like to put in a word for my favourite Advent hymn, because it feels like a carol : People look east, and I defy anyone to sing it at a decent speed and not feel cheered (you may also end up with an earworm, but it’s a good one).   I’d happily sing that more than once in Advent, and as it happens, that is another great old French tune.  You can also be creative in your choice of other carols.    There’s no reason why you shouldn’t sing It came upon the midnight clear towards the end of Advent and before Christmas.  It has such wonderful words, and it takes a wide view of the period that is Christmas, so it doesn’t feel like jumping the gun as so many carols would because of their stress on Christmas night specifically.  And it has glorious big angels.

mediaeval organ with two people
Volmar and me back on the same page

These are only suggestions, and of course you will have your own favourites.  But keep the music joyful, even if some of it is low-key, and don’t sing it slowly and lugubriously.   I was horrified to see one piece of advice for Advent hymns include the Dies irae, on the grounds that it’s about the Lord’s coming.  Yes but no, I feel.  Waiting for a baby is a joyful time.  We need to get ready, within as well as without, but the Lord himself said we shouldn’t be looking miserable even when fasting.  Lent fasting is penitential; Advent fasting is more because we’re so excited.  Love, the Lord, is on the way, people.  Let’s get ready.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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The Gentle Guide to my Christmas music

A great and mighty wonder….every year
crib scene in illuminated capital
Sing choirs of angels….and everyone else too

Christmas is another all-nighter for many choirs, like Easter but a slightly different shape.  Instead of the enormous Easter Vigil followed by a day Mass on the Sunday, at Christmas we have a sequence of four (shorter) Masses spread through the night and into the next day. Many, possibly even most, parishes kickstart the celebrations at Christmas with half an hour of carols before Midnight Mass (which doesn’t have to be at midnight any more). So that’s a lot of singing, at a time of year when many people already have sore throats and churches are cold.

Advent and the run-up to Christmas
Female charioteer with four in hand
Me keeping the Advent Alleluias together; the black horse is actually dark pink for Gaudete Sunday

By the time you get to Christmas, you’ve already sung four weeks’ worth of Advent music.  Advent is much shorter than Lent, and the emphasis is on positive waiting and anticipation rather than moving slowly forward through anticipation and dread to new hope, so it feels completely different, and I take my cue from traditional Christmas music to get the mood right.  Even people who don’t sing normally will sing carols, so simple tuneful music is what I am trying to offer, hoping to persuade them to carry on singing once they have started with a carol verse or two….

Christmas music rooted in carols
Volmar having a vord with a recalcitrant Advent Alleluia

A lot of carols (and folk music in general) are in 3/4, and it’s easy to use this time signature to encourage forward movement, so the Advent Alleluia is in 3/4 rather than the more usual 4/4. It’s got some bounce in the rhythm, but the tune is simple, and in the middle of where most people’s voices are comfortable.   This is important, and I do try to think about where people’s voices naturally fall, mainly so that they can’t use that as a cop-out for not singing.

Deck the church with Christmas Alleluias

As soon as we move into the Christmas music, we have the Christmas Alleluia instead of the Advent one.  If you haven’t tried it with the descant, please do, because it’s really easy, but it sounds full of joy and excitement.  People have been singing the Advent Alleluias for four weeks, so they will sit up and pay attention when you give them a new one to sing.  The Christmas Alleluia is meant to sound like a peal of bells, like the choruses in Angels we have heard on high and Ding dong merrily.

Christmas, -mas, -mas, -mas
1 : the Vigil Mass

There are four Masses available for singing on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  The first is in the evening of Christmas Eve.  It is often regarded as especially for children (and people who don’t want to be out too late in the cold).  Our parish uses it as the Christingle Mass.  It’s an interesting set of music to arrange, because it needs to be jubilant and celebratory while not jumping the gun, as Jesus isn’t born yet.  So that knocks out nearly all carols, which should wait until the next day, as there’s no procession to the crib or similar.  But by now the anticipation is at fever-pitch, we all know what’s going to happen, and the excitement catches in your throat, just like when labour starts and you’re thinking that you are finally going to meet this small person that no-one has been able to hold yet except you.

The psalm for the Vigil (88/89) is joyful but still measured, talking about the history that has led up to this point and the covenant which is being fulfilled.  It almost feels like checking the paperwork at the hospital.  It’s still a question of sorting things out before the baby arrives, making sure everything is ready.   The Alleluia keeps the emphasis of this Vigil Mass clear, putting the stress on its first word  ‘Tomorrow…’, but the excitement should be fizzing and the joy is only a step away.

I do not know why the Canadians have alternative Responses for all the Christmas psalms, but I think it must be because they are in the middle of a revision of their Lectionary, so I’ve just set them, and the choices are up to you.

2 : Midnight Mass

Midnight Mass itself is a marathon, starting (usually) with half an hour of carols.  Some of our most beloved carols are old, some are difficult to sing, several are pitched to make it easier to play the accompaniment than to reach the top notes, and many members of the choir may have colds.  I have tried not to give you too many high notes to worry about, because descants and Hark the herald take quite a toll on the soprano line.  But we need to express joy here, and the music is trying to make this easy to do.  The psalms helpfully equate joy with singing, so we have a head start.

mediaeval animals playing pump organ
If the people don’t sing, even the animals will have to take to the orgen

The Midnight Mass psalm has a Response drawn from elsewhere in the Bible, which doesn’t always work, but does here, as it’s our old friend Psalm 95/96, but with a very careful selction of verses.  The psalm starts by encouraging everyone to sing, and then extends the list of the everyone to include the sea, the land and even the trees to shout for joy because – and then the Response explains the reason : Today a saviour has been born to us; he is Christ the Lord.

Angel bring Christmas message to shepherds
Good news is even better when you sing it

One of the Canadian Responses fits exactly to the tune of the chorus in Adeste fideles, so I had to write another psalm setting so that you could have a 4/4 Response.  So there you have two quite different options, because the other version of the words is irresistibly 3/4 and like other carols.  Adeste is originally a Latin hymn, rather than a carol, so a bit more staid and less skippy, but the other versions should all rollick along.  This is great news, this is exciting!

To add to the fun, the strophes are different lengths, which means I can’t compress the UK and the OZ versions, so you have lots of pages.  At least there are usually lots of people around in the choir loft on Christmas night, so you should be able to find someone to turn over for you if you are playing the organ.  The US and CAN versions have been slightly regularised, so there are compacts of those, but I can’t fit the last Response on to the compact sheets, so make sure you check for Recorder trills or twiddles on the non-compact form for the last verse, because it’s a shame to leave them out.

3 :  Mass at Dawn

This Mass always seems slightly like a poor relation.  It’s for the people who couldn’t come to the previous Masses and who can’t be there for the later morning one (after the stockings and breakfast and putting the turkey on).  It’s a shorter psalm, the next one in the Psalter, as it happens (96/97), and the readings are short too, because this Mass is for the noble souls who have to be on duty in hospitals or fire stations or are helping other people at Christmas.   I don’t want you to miss out on the joy and the excitement, and I think this is a great psalm even if it only has two verses.   But the singers in the choir loft may be feeling a bit weary, so there’s no pyrotechnics and it doesn’t go very high; just a simple bouncy tune reminiscent of a Christmas carol.

Depending on your translation, you have either ‘islands’ or ‘coastlands’ rejoicing in this psalm.  I like to think of the islands picking up their frothy petticoats and twirling away to the dance in the music in honour of the event.

4 :  Mass during the Day

And here’s the last Mass of the day, after which choirs and celebrants are all off-duty and there’s only little things like getting the Christmas dinner to worry about.  This Mass tends to have the most relaxed atmosphere, because the baby has been born and the celebrations have already started.  We move on to the next psalm in the Psalter (97/98), which again tells us to sing and ring out our joy.

It’s interesting to compare this psalm with the one at Midnight Mass.  They are both invitations to sing to the Lord, but the tense has shifted in the day psalm.  Now we are specifically singing about what the Lord has (just) done.  It’s all solid immediate past tenses: he has done wondrous deeds, he has won victory, he has made known his salvation, he has revealed his justice, he has remembered his kindness and his faithfulness, and all the ends of the earth have seen it.  Everything has been sorted out.   This psalm is pure celebration, and keeps repeating its imperatives : in four verses, we are told to sing five times, and even encouraged to take up specific instruments, melodious but loud.  We need brass, for ‘trumpets and the sound of the horn’ are demanded, and quite right too.  Enjoy the moment.  There’s (another) wonderful U.A.Fanthorpe poem  BC:AD  about this exact moment.

Refreshing the familiar

All the psalms for Christmas are familiar ones, which recur throughout the year, because they are calls to praise.  The Response and the Alleluia verses are often the only part that is specifically Christmassy.  This is good because it helps us to remember that we are meant to be singing these joyful words all year round, but they should have a fresh immediacy at the Christmas masses.  It’s happening right now, this event which causes us to rejoice for all the rest of the year, this event which makes our hearts dance as we sing the Christmas music.  Remember that carols were dances as well as songs, and sing them that way.  Merry Christmas.

mediaeval dancers in a line
Christmas dancing, about 1300 AD. Note the little hop : that’s my counter-rhythm!

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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