A Little Advent Music

December 2, 2016 at 2:33 pm

After reading a hilariously snarky article about Christmas Carols, a friend asked me to write my own snarky post about Christmas Carols (which will come when the baby Jesus comes … so stay tuned …), as well as a post of Advent Music. So, here it is, a post for all your Advent listening needs.

Adam Lay Ybounden – Carson Cooman

Advent & Christmas services of Lessons & Carols almost always include a reading about the fall of Adam. Thank goodness there’s this handy medieval text that ties Genesis to Advent/Christmas. Most settings are bloody miserable, but Carson Cooman’s is fun and exciting – it’s by far the best one out there.

Wann kommst du, mein Heil – Johann Sebastian Bach

Bach’s aria from the cantata “Wachet auf” perfectly captures the weighty pain that a wounded world feels as it impatiently awaits Christ’s return. The two voices are the human soul (soprano) and Christ (bass) – “when are you coming?” “I come!” “I wait with burning oil.” It absolutely drips with deep, heartfelt piety.

Ave Virgo Virginum

As I prepared this list, I remembered how much I love medieval music. It’s a little removed from our current musical trends, so I don’t get to perform it often – some people just can’t wrap their brains around the different sound. But who would argue against this simple beauty?

Komm, Jesu, komm – Johann Sebastian Bach

(see my post on this one) Yes, another Bach piece. Be warned, there will be more. Baroque piety is good soil for planting Advent music. This is one of the finest pieces of choral music ever written.

Never Weather-Beaten Sail – Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry

(see my post on this one) Parry wrote this as a parting gift to the world. The text is of a weary person approaching his life’s end with joy and peace.

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence – Edward Bairstow

I constantly have to remind my young choristers that Advent isn’t all about preparing for Christ to be born. That already happened. Advent is about preparing for Christ’s second coming. And quite frankly, that’s a little scary. Like this piece.

Jesus Christ the Apple Tree – Elizabeth Poston

Sometimes, simple says it best. Poston’s carol uses “white note harmony”, and the text expresses the longing for Christ.

Magnificat a 33 – Giovanni Gabrieli

(see my post on this) When one choir isn’t enough, write for two. Two not enough? Three. Three not enough? Screw it. Writing a fricking Magnificat for 33 independent voices. Mary’s soul just got magnified 33 times.

O Heiland reiss die Himmel auf – Hugo Dister

I love Distler’s music, though I don’t think audiences “get it” yet. Distler was either murdered by the Nazis or was driven to suicide by the horrid actions of his fatherland. His best music is Advent-related, because I think he was begging God to send a savior to rid the world of the evil he was witnessing – O savior, rend the heavens wide … come down! When will we behold you? We are lost in darkness!

Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming – Hugo Distler

The softer side of Distler … this is the first of an 8-movement motet. Sadly, I couldn’t find any videos of the complete work – there is marvelous part where a soloist sings the song of Mary. Here, he manages to set this gorgeous melody in a fresh new way that isn’t saccharine, kitschy, or tacky.

Rorate Caeli – William Byrd

“Drop down, ye Heavens” – liturgical text for the last Sunday in Advent? And, the greatest renaissance English composer? YES! Say no more.

I Sing of a Maiden – Patrick Hadley

There are many, many settings of this text. Hadley’s might sound simple; don’t be fooled by a casual listen. Pay attention; it is sublime.

Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland – Balthazar Resinarius

This had to be on my list, because the composer’s name is truly epic. This hymn was originally a chant in latin, then was translated into German and adapted by Martin Luther. It is found in many hymnals today, but it has fallen out of favor because the musical style is just so far removed from current trends. When Resinarius wrote this polyphonic setting of Luther’s hymn, he did so as one of the very first Lutheran composers (thus putting himself at grave risk).

Alma Redemptori Mater – Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina

During the reformation, the Protestant church was too hasty in throwing out a lot of great stuff that was deemed “too Catholic” – specifically, I’m talking about Marian devotions like this one:

Magnificat – Johann Sebastian Bach

Yeah, Bach is back. The first two pieces in this blog post showed his serious, pious side; it’s only fair to show that J.S. had a light, fun side too. Here are the best arias of his Magnificat.

the happy alto:

the jolly bass:

and the angry tenor:

Ave Maria – Franz Biebl

Biebl was a one-hit wonder, but his hit was huge.

E’en so, Lord Jesus – Paul Manz

Manz was another one-hit wonder. This moving piece is sung by choirs all over the world.

Maria Walks Amid the Thorn – German

This is a completely made up folk song about Mary walking through a thorny wood, and Jesus, from within her womb, magically makes the roses bloom. This is one of my favorite carols of all time, and one of the main reasons I wish I was a German.

The Cherry Tree Carol – English

Not to be outdone by the Germans, the English made up their own non-biblical stories for their own carols. Summary: Joseph and Mary are walking. Mary says “I’m hungry, get me some fruit you lazy sod”, to which Joseph replies “get your own damn fruit, woman.” Problem is, Mary can’t reach the bough of the cherry tree. Thankfully, Jesus-in-utero uses his powers to make the tree limbs bend towards his mother, who picks a cherry and eats it – but not before saying, “Hey look, Joseph, you good-for-nothing jerkface, my child (who is not yours, by the way) just got me these delicious cherries.”

Nova, Nova, AVE fit ex EVA – English

More weirdness – this carol uses a strange wordplay,but once you get past that, it actually tells the biblical story of the annunciation … in medieval English, though. The wordplay? “AVE fit ex EVA” – literally, AVE has been made out of EVE – or, Mary, the spawn of the vile temptress Eve, will be the mother of God!

Virga Jesse Floruit – Anton Bruckner

Back to something a bit more traditional. Bruckner’s motets are important because he wrote them at a time when “real composers” didn’t write functional, liturgical music. It’s not a legendary piece by any stretch of the imagination, but it fills a gap in that it is romantic, accessible, solid, and beautiful.

Sing We to the Merry Company – English

Another medieval one, another Marian one. I love the harmonic “bite” of medieval music. It’s easy to forget that tonal systems, like any other human trend, come and go.

Wie schoen leuchtet der Morgenstern – Johann Sebastian Bach

(see my post on this here) I’m breaking the rules here, but I know what I’m doing, I swear! This cantata was written for the Feast of the Annunciation – March 25th, 9th months before Christmas. It’s meant to be a breath of fresh air in the middle of Lent. It uses the text “How Lovely Shines the Morning Star”, which is an Epiphany hymn. But it’s as close as the German protestants got to honoring Mary – and what a way to honor her.

And I Saw a New Heaven – Edgar Bainton

Similarly, this isn’t technically an Advent anthem. But I’d argue it’s appropriate for the season, as it is a setting of the book of Revelation: a vision of heaven, the end of time, and the New Jerusalem – the return of Christ. Especially touching is the setting of “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.”

There is no Rose of Such Virtue – English

This text is most famously set by Benjamin Britten, but I have a soft spot for this medieval version. Maybe it’s my way of getting back to the basics?

Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending

I purposefully didn’t include any traditional hymns here. This is the one exception, because it’s too damn good to pass up. Many hymns have terrible poetry; others are poetically beautiful but theologically trashy. Charles Wesley was one of the few hymnwriters who could compose true poetry while being theologically brilliant.