Musically making ready to receive the Lord

by Frances Novillo
Posted at 05:25am on 12th November 2016

Singing more than O come, o come Emmanuel this Advent

TO DO: Simplify music in Advent to contrast with decorative elaborate Christmas music

            Leave Christmas music until Christmas; sing Advent songs during Advent.

            Reflect Advent themes in your Mass settings as well as hymns.

More than any other season, Advent is characterised by just one song: O come, o come Emmanuel which has outgrown its origins as a plainchant setting of the ‘O’ Antiphons recited day by day from 17th – 24th December, and found a home as a hymn in most parishes’ Advent Mass repertoire.  Composers have relied on its distinctive melody to give new pieces an Advent flavour, notably Marty Haugen, For you, O Lord, my soul in stillness waits, and Richard Proulx’s Missa Emmanuel.  Other Advent Mass settings reflect the restraint implicit in this penitential season, so in addition to omitting the Gloria, they are shorter and less ornate, for example, Stephen Dean’s Short Mass for Advent and Lent.  Advent might be an appropriate time for your parish to revisit the Missal tones, since these are suitably simple and understated. 

Advent can be a busy time for church musicians, since it heads towards Christmas, so is likely to be full of carol singing and nativity plays around the parish, and rehearsals for demanding Christmas services.  It makes practical as well as liturgical sense, then, to keep Advent music simple.  A Common Psalm for Advent, which may replace any of the given Lectionary Psalms, is 24(25): To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; Scott Soper has written a pretty lyrical setting which may be accompanied by organ, piano or guitar, with optional choir harmonies during the response.  The more traditional chanted version found in the back of the New English Hymnal may suit your parish better.  Graham Kendrick has set the Psalm in a contemporary worship style, although this does not conform to the structure of a Responsorial Psalm so might more appropriately find a place at Mass as a hymn. 

Christmas carols have no place in Advent Masses, since the seasons of Advent and Christmas are distinct, and this year, even the final Sunday of Advent is a week away from Christmas.  Julie McCann has wisely observed (in Spiritual Garments) that adherents of other faiths have got used to celebrating their religious holidays at different times that celebrations occur in secular society, and Catholics can do likewise.  In our liturgical calendar, Christmas starts with Christmas Masses on 24th December, and from that point (arguably until Candlemas on 2nd February) Christmas carols may be sung at Mass.  Advent has its own repertoire.  Advent does not only anticipate Christmas, but also looks forward to the second coming of Christ, an occasion awaited both with holy fear (hence the emphasis on penitence, that we may be better prepared to welcome Jesus’ glorious return) and joyful hope.  Advent hymns balance these contrasting moods, for example, the popular Advent gospel song: Soon and very soon we are going to see the King.  Highlighting the Gospel warning that the hour of Christ’s return is unknown is CJM’s Awake, awake, hastened by a driving rhythm in the accompaniment.  Masses which incorporate more traditional music may prefer to include Sleepers, wake.  An excellent choice for a parish with talented guitarists is M D Ridge’s In the day of the Lord with its exciting variations in rhythm and pulse (a vocal descant and a trumpet part are available from OCP Music); John L Bell’s The day of the Lord shall come covers similar thematic ground set to a simpler folk melody.  These hymns echo the sentiment of enduring Advent classics such as Wesley’s Lo, he comes with clouds descending.  On Gaudete Sunday (11th December) the emphasis is on joy (already received, and still to come).  This is expressed in Graham Kendrick’s Rejoice, rejoice, and more gently through the Taizé chant In the Lord I’ll be ever thankful

Repeated short chants aid reflective prayer, and are useful to accompany liturgical actions of indeterminate length, such as the distribution of Communion, or individual Confessions during a parish reconciliation service, common during Advent.  Suitable chants include Stephen Dean’s Come, o come Lord Jesus, an ostinato chant over which verses are sung in a gospel style.  Better known is Word made flesh (Come, Lord Jesus, come again) found in most Catholic hymnals.  Bernadette Farrell’s Advent Litany includes the Aramaic word Maranatha found in many Advent songs and roughly translated as ‘come, Lord, come quickly’.  This also features in Christopher Walker’s Advent Response to Prayers in which the cantor sings: We pray to the Lord, to which the congregation responds: Come, Lord Jesus, maranatha!  Singing this response during Advent only signals audibly the nature of the season (just as changing the liturgical colour to purple is a visual cue); similarly you may choose to sing the first or second Memorial Acclamations, since these conclude with the phrase ‘until you come again’.  If you’d like to sing the Antiphons of the season, take a look at Martin Foster’s simple choral settings on bearmusic.info. 

Two significant figures featured in the Advent Gospels are John the Baptist, and Mary, Mother of our Lord.  Settings of the canticles associated with these great saints (the Magnificat and the Benedictus) should find a place in every parish’s repertoire.  There are many settings of the Magnificat to choose from; Owen Alstott’s is singable no matter what the parish’s musical resources.  Decani Music’s Veni Emmanuel, an Advent companion to the Laudate hymnal (also relevant if you use a different hymnal) includes two metrical settings of the Benedictus text to sing as congregational hymns at Mass.  Well-known hymns about John the Baptist include On Jordan’s bank and Hark,a herald voice; modern additions to the repertoire include Peter McGrail’s Bright and clear, and Christopher Walker’s rhythmic round: Prepare the way.

Choral music for Advent suitable for various levels of ability is available from the Royal School of Church Music.  Their Advent Sequence: Veni Emmanuel is a particularly useful collection of music for parishes with choirs.  Parish music in High Barnet ranges across the styles, taking a community music approach so people of all ages and abilities can participate together.  Saturday rehearsals from 5pm in the Parish Hall are open to observers from other parishes to compare and contrast with your own parish experience, to share ideas, and during Advent, to learn how to make musically ready for the coming of the Lord. 

Frances Novillo, FISM, ARSCM, MA is parish music co-ordinator in High Barnet and trains church musicians across the country.

Published as To Everything There is a Season on 12th November 2016 in The Tablet: The International Catholic News Weekly.  Reproduced with permission of the publisher.  https:///www.thetablet.co.uk

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