Recording reviews

Recommended recording: Advent at St. Paul’s

In a 1952 essay called “The World’s Last Night,” C. S. Lewis critiqued one of the great modern myths, a belief he called “developmentalism.”

We have been taught to think of the world as something that grows slowly toward perfection, something that “progresses” or “evolves.” Christian Apocalyptic offers us no such hope. It does not even foretell (which would be more tolerable to our habits of thought) a gradual decay. It foretells a sudden, violent end imposed from without; an extinguisher popped onto the candle, a brick flung at the gramophone, a curtain rung down on the play — “Halt!”

Lewis went on to urge Christians to give more attention to the doctrine of the Second Coming. “It is the medicine our condition especially needs.” We affirm this doctrine in the Creed and in many of our hymns. In the Te Deum laudamus, we sing “We believe that thou shalt come to be our Judge.”

A secularized society has no room for Advent or its commanding drama. It is hard to commodify or sentimentalize the Second Coming of our Lord in the way the Feast of Christmas has been re-tuned. Through the alchemy of commercialism, the reality of Gift in the miracle of the Nativity has been transmuted into a preoccupation with Purchase. It is telling that our newest and most celebrated holiday — Black Friday — takes its name from the color used by bookkeepers and accountants to signify profits. Accordingly, soon after Halloween (if that late), Santa, Rudolph, and Frosty show up in store displays, while snowflakes and bells are invoked in the ambient music that feeds the shopping frenzy. But because many Christians are not familiar with the riches of music for Advent within the Church’s treasury, it is tempting for us to follow the culture around us and rush too quickly into Christmas. We often don’t make time for Advent.

Some of the music of Advent puts us in a “pre-Christian” position, imagining the birth of Christ just over the horizon. And some of it situates us where we are now, awaiting his coming again. In both registers, the kingly rule of Messiah can be heard. Much of the music on the 1997 recording, Advent at St. Paul’s, resounds with this regal theme. The first track on the recording, Laudes Regiae, is a medieval processional that commences with the proclamation: “Christ conquers, Christ reigns, Christ rules.” It continues by imploring Christ to listen and to come:

Listen, Christ, O king of the peoples,
their desired one, and cornerstone . . .
Our help. Our strength.
Our invincible power.
Our impenetrable wall, light, path and our life.
Listen, Christ, Emmanuel, our king and law-giver,
the expectation of the peoples and their saviour.

The work concludes, with the recognition that peace and joy are the outcome of the rule of Christ:

Joyfully! Joyfully! Joyfully!
May the peace of Christ come!
May the kingdom of Christ come!
Thanks be to God. Amen.

The choristers at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London sing this work at the beginning of the Advent liturgy, which is described by William McVicker:

This liturgy begins in semi-darkness as the candle-lit clergy and choir move in a tripartite procession from the west end of the cathedral. This recording documents some of the music which might be sung at St Paul’s at an Advent Carol Service, tracing the Old Testament prophecies of the coming of Christ as the Church waits with new hope and expectancy for the coming of its Saviour.

It has been said that music is an art form that uses sound to organize time. The best music takes time to achieve its form, and the best listeners take time to apprehend a musical work’s form and thus its meaning. Like the individual works collected in this album, the entire collection has a shape that won’t be appreciated if you listen to one track now, another later, still another never. As in a liturgy, the album advances from an opening procession to a concluding and triumphant climax. The drama implied echoes the drama on which we reflect during Advent.

ADVENT AT ST. PAUL’S • St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir; Andrew Lucas, organ; John Scott, director • HYPERION RECORDS

The works included on this recording are clustered in two eras within Anglican musical history: the late-15th-to-early-16th centuries and the 20th century. The earlier period is represented by works from Thomas Weelkes, William Byrd, Robert Parsons, and Orlando Gibbons. The anthem by Weelkes is Hosanna to the Son of David, a text from St. Matthew 21 usually associated with Palm Sunday, but also the Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Advent, since it is about the coming of a King. Byrd’s contribution is Laetentur coeli, “Let the heavens rejoice,” is a brisk, confident five-part anthem. Parsons five-part setting of Ave Maria has been described as the most perfect Marian motet, which accounts for its frequent inclusion on recordings. Gibbons’s This is the record of John is a favorite anthem for the third Sunday in Advent, on which the Gospel of St. John presents the account of John the Baptist explaining that he is not the Messiah, a dialogue that concludes: “I am the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord.”

Also from that early period are two pieces that our choir has sung. The first is Jacob Handl’s setting of Ecce concipies, “Behold, you will conceive,” the words from Gabriel to the Virgin Mary at the time of the Annunciation. The second is the anonymous 16th-century anthem Rejoice in the Lord alway, a buoyant work based on St. Paul’s injunction in Philippians 4. That text is the traditional Introit on the third Sunday in Advent. The Latin for “Rejoice” is Gaudete, and so that Sunday has been known as Gaudete Sunday.

The more modern works include Benjamin Britten’s A Hymn of St. Columba, a setting of an Advent text by the 6th-century Irish abbot. Britten’s music has a slightly ominous feel about it, fitting for the awesome anticipation described in the text. The first stanza declares:

King of kings and of lords most high,
Comes his day of judgement nigh:
Day of wrath and vengeance stark,
Day of shadows and cloudy dark,
King of kings and of lords most high.

“Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Also from the 20th century on this album is Richard Lloyd’s much loved Drop down ye heavens and a little-known anthem by John Rutter, Hymn to the Creator of Light. Rutter’s piece lacks the sweetness too often present in his work; it begins with an energetic exchange between two choirs and ends with a lovely incorporation of the chorale Schmücke dich by Johann Crüger — a tune which we sing frequently as “Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness.” One of the edgier and more haunting pieces included here is a 1989 composition by Philip Wilby for boys voices, Echo Carol, in which the boys sing the plainchant melody that we will sing this year as our sequence hymn, “Creator of the stars of night.”

The recording closes with a stirring setting for organ and choir by Andrew Carter (b. 1939) of O come, O come Emmanuel, followed by Carter’s Organ Toccata on Veni Emmanuel, played by John Scott, the director of music at St. Paul’s when this recording was made. The composition and Scott’s performance — exploiting the grand acoustics of St. Paul’s — are reminders that the organ is called the “king of instruments” for good reason, and a fitting conclusion to this recording’s iteration of Advent’s reminder of the royal interruption we all await.




Hyperion Records has assembled a sampler
of music from this album in the video below.