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    “O Antiphons,” VI
    Arvo Pärt
    O König aller Völker

    The O antiphon for December 22nd reminds us that the coming of Christ into the world is an inescapably political event. It speaks of the coming King of nations as the source of unity, encouraging us to remember that an authentic quest for unity cannot marginalize or relativize the place of Christ as the unifier, as the one in whom all things hold together (Col. 1:17). Deep dissatisfaction with discord should not be understood in merely psychological or sociological terms. It is a recognition (however faint) of the disordering effects of sin and a longing (however inchoate) for redemption, which will have political consequences. O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum,O…

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    Dietrich Buxtehude:
    Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme

    On the third Sunday of Advent, our parish sang the hymn, “Wake, awake, for night is flying.” The remarkable text and tune behind this hymn have served as the starting point for a number of compositions that I’ve highlighted in the past week or so. Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantata Wachet auf, ruf uns die Stimme is the best known of these works. But a much smaller scale cantata by Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) is also worth repeated listenings. Buxtehude’s Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (BuxWV 100) is in four short movements: a brief introductory instrumental Sinfonia, with four violins and continuo; Verse 1 of the hymn sung by a soprano…

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    “O Antiphons,” V
    Arvo Pärt
    O Morgenstern

    The fifth of Arvo Pärt’s settings for the O Antiphons is O Morgenstern, “O Morning Light.” Newer translations of the Latin of this antiphon render it “O Radiant Dawn.” (Members of our parish will recall the choir’s singing of the setting of this antiphon by James MacMillan, which uses this translation.) O Oriens,O Morning Star,splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae:splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. Unlike MacMillan’s setting, which suggests a sudden flash of light, Pärt’s treatment of this invocation of the Light of the world shimmers, it…

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    “O Antiphons,” IV
    Arvo Pärt
    O Schlüssel Davids

    The fourth of the O Antiphons is O clavis David — O Key of David. The image of the Messiah as a key is suggested by a passage in Isaiah 22. Poet Malcolm Guite, who has written a series of sonnets inspired by these seven texts, has commented that “of all the mystic titles of Christ, this is the one that connects most closely with our ‘secular’ psychology. We speak of the need on the one hand for ‘closure’ and on the other for ‘unlocking’, for ‘opening’, for ‘liberation’.” O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel;O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;qui aperis, et nemo claudit;you…

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    Jean Titelouze:
    Conditor alme siderum

    Priest, composer, and organist Jean Titelouze (c. 1563–1633) is credited with being a (perhaps the) founder of the French organ school, an approach to composition which continued to influence composers into the 20th century (e.g., Louis Vierne, Maurice Duruflé, Marie-Claire Alain, Olivier Messiaen, and others). In 1588 Titelouze became organist at Rouen Cathedral, where he supervised the rebuilding of the organ. In the early 17th century, Rouen’s organ was regarded as the greatest in France (which was really saying something), establishing a standard both for instruments and the compositional possibilities they presented. In 1623, Titelouze published Hymnes de l’Eglise, a collection of musical explorations of a number of plainchant tunes…

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    “O Antiphons,” III
    Arvo Pärt
    O sproß aus Isais Wurzel

    While the second of Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat antiphons employed low voices to proclaim the power and authority of Yahweh, the third — O Sproß aus Isais Wurzel — uses dissonant upper voices to express the crisis precipitated among the nations by the prophesied Messiah. Here is the Latin of the original antiphon: O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum,O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;super quem continebunt reges os suum,before you kings will shut their mouths,quem Gentes deprecabuntur:to you the nations will make their prayer:veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.Come and deliver us, and delay no longer. The Messiah is addressed in this text…

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    Michael Praetorius:
    Wachet auf

    One of our parish’s favorite Advent hymns is “Wake, awake, for night is flying.” We sang it this past Sunday (Advent 3), and last week I shared a couple settings of the tune and text that explored its musical possibilities. Michael Praetorius (1571-1621, about whose music for Christmas I recently wrote elsewhere) composed an extended piece based on this melody. His grand setting of Wachet auf was part of a collection of music published in 1619 called Polyhymnia Caduceatrix et Panegyrica. the subtitle of which was “Festive Concert of Peace and Joy.” Polyhymnia contained 40 concerto-cantatas for voices and instruments written in the expansive Venetian style (if you have no…

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    “O Antiphons,” II
    Arvo Pärt
    O Adonai

    The “O antiphon” for December 18th is O Adonai. “Adonai” is a Hebrew word based on the word adon, which means “Lord.” “Adon” in turn comes from a root that means to make firm, to determine, to command, or to rule. “Adonai” is plural, so literally, the word means “lords,” which some have suggested may hint at a Trinitarian allusion. But in Hebrew, a plural can be used as an intensifier — “superlord,” the Lord with a uniquely concentrated repository of lordliness. “Adonai” is used about 450 times in the Old Testament to refer to Yahweh, but sometimes the word refers to human masters. O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel,O Adonai,…

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    Michael Praetorius:
    Conditor alme siderum

    Musicologist Walter Blankenburg has observed that Praetorius (1571-1621) was “the most versatile and wide-ranging German composer of his generation and one of the most prolific, especially of works based on Protestant hymns.” But Praetorius also wrote settings of pre-Reformation melodies, including the chant tune we know as Conditor alme siderum, and which we have been singing during Advent as our Sequence hymn, “Creator of the stars of night.” The hymn originally included six stanzas; here is the first stanza sung with Praetorius’s harmonization by Ensemble Nobiles, a group of singers who met while singing in the St. Thomas Boys Choir in Leipzig. This is the opening track of their Advent/Christmas/Epiphany…

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    “O Antiphons,” I
    Arvo Pärt
    O Weisheit

    It has long been common for Vespers or Evening Prayer services to include the singing, chanting, or reciting of the Magnificat, the Virgin Mary’s grateful song of joyful praise. And in many liturgies, the Magnificat is framed by the singing, chanting, or reciting of an antiphon, a short text that amplifies or complements the Psalm or canticle that it introduces and concludes. During the final week in Advent, beginning on December 17th and continuing for seven nights, the “O Antiphons” have been part of many liturgies. Each of these texts begins with the word “O,” and addresses the Messiah with a biblical name, and invokes him to come. The O…