Compared with the carols and hymns of Christmas, the music of Advent is less well known. Yet it is among the loveliest – and most singable – of the Church’s year. As part of the restrained liturgy of this season, it makes its contribution to preparation for Christmas, the Festival of the Incarnation. Here are some of my suggestions.
The use of plainchant during the Advent season is appropriate to the simplicity and austerity of the season. It goes with the violet vestments and the withdrawal of the Gloria in excelsis at Mass. The chant settings of the Ordinary – Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei – which appear in the new Missal could well be learnt at this time, and then put away again to come out for Lent. The hymn Conditor alme siderum, known in English as Creator of the stars of night (English Hymnal 1) is among the finest, yet simplest and most easily sung, of plainchant hymns. Sing it gently and lightly, fast enough so that you can do two lines to a breath. If your organist is uncertain about how to accompany – do without accompaniment – let him/her join with the singers.
Organists sometimes feel that the congregation will only sing with a strong (loud) accompaniment. They are usually mistaken and end up drowning the attempts of the people. It may be difficult to persuade them of the wisdom of the Church’s direction that the organ should not be used in Advent and Lent. But the effect of silence before and after Mass is most impressive. It may well serve to reinforce the priest’s pleas that people arrive in good time and discourages the chatter and wandering around which have become such a disturbing feature of modern Catholic worship. In one church I knew of the organist responded to the Advent ban on voluntaries by learning the appropriate Bach chorale preludes for the season and then offering these in place of the Communion hymn. The priest was, I think, quite right to bend the rules, and the effect was stunning.
The chorale known as Wachet auf or Sleepers wake appears in English Hymnal 12 with the first line Wake, O wake with tidings thrilling. Clergy shy away from it as too ‘difficult’ to sing. Here one does need a good organist, capable of playing Bach’s wonderful harmonies. We should probably sing it faster than originally intended, for letting it drag destroys it. If the singers can manage the harmonies then a verse unaccompanied is a real treat – otherwise bold unison singing throughout.
O come, O come, Emmanuel is an Advent favourite. It belongs to the second half of Advent, being a form of the Great O antiphons, based on biblical titles given to the Lord Jesus, and sung before and after Magnificat (at Evening Prayer) between 17th and 24th December. The lectionary also uses these antiphons at the Masses of these days as the Gospel Acclamation. The hymn can be successfully adapted by fitting four Alleluias to the chorus instead of Rejoice, rejoice Emmanuel… and singing the appropriate verse each day before the Gospel.
From modern repertoire Graham Kendrick’s hymn O Lord, the clouds are gathering emphasises the themes of judgement, justice and righteousness, and adds a sombre note to this penitential season. Closer to Christmas Meekness and majesty, another Kendrick, brings home the wonder and humility of the Incarnation. If you are not familiar with them, go to YouTube. How great thou art – so familiar at funerals – might well be rescued for Advent, with its verse ‘When Christ shall come, with shouts of acclamation’. There is a lovely little song in the Liturgical Hymns Old and New, with the verse ‘Come Lord Jesus [3 times] Come again.’ It might well be used at a prayer group, or after Communion at a weekday Mass; or with the children getting them to make up verses e.g. ‘Born of Mary [x3] Come again’ or ‘God’s Messiah [x3] Come again.
If your musical resources are small, but you have a CD or MP3 player (perhaps built into the sound system of your church) then use some of the arias and recits from Handel’s Oratorio Messiah … glorious music, quintessentially English, and to my mind, inseparable from this time of year.